About a month ago, while packing my bags to leave Washington, D.C., my future Seattle roommate called to report a nice Craigslist find in Capitol Hill. It was a bungalow squeezed among the neighborhood's mansions, with a hidden entrance, hardwood floors, and—marking a first in my career as a renter—a garage.
One problem: When I got to town and tried to get my ride out of the rain and into that garage, I found that somebody, somehow, had managed to sneak a garden directly in front of it.
Our block, at 19th Avenue and East Roy Street, has alleyways crisscrossing through it, one of which leads to my carport. But not a foot from its entrance is a mound of wet dirt topped with a moth-eaten carpet. Compost, I guess, or maybe topsoil. I don't know—my typical interaction with dirt involves a vacuum cleaner.
Next to the mound is a wooden growing box. Next to that is a thicket of shoulder-height brown stalks dripping spiny pods, like cattails with maces. Next to that are three elevated planting areas, each propped up with bricks and featuring a crop of hardy winter plants: lettuce, heather, "magic orange." Beyond these planters, I could finally glimpse the pavement of the alleyway that used to lead to my garage.
It dawned on me that there were people creating a farm in my driveway, and though I hadn't seen a trace of them, they were evidently back there all the time . . . growing stuff. From an East Coast perspective, the establishment of an industrious agrarian society in a public right-of-way was vexing.
The District of Columbia has some of the worst traffic in the nation. I enjoyed being part of that traffic. Engine hum helps me think, and I figure I listen to enough NPR to make the practice environmentally sound. I was looking forward to cruising Capitol Hill in one of our household's two vehicles, as I'd come to think of the neighborhood as an extension of home, what with its ultradense population of people and cars.
But the garden suggested that I'd be spending much of my wheel time searching for parking instead. And without a vehicle in the garage, I was in danger of becoming one of those vaguely creepy guys who build collections of useless stuff in their carports. It's already happening: There are milk crates, Christmas lights, a bag of hardened cement, a vintage vinyl stool, and stacks of yellowing newspapers tied with twine. The other day, I caught myself thinking about sorting screws on its cement floor.
But in this Man vs. Nature conflict, the sprouts had the upper hand. The garden, it turns out, has squatter's rights.
When I called the city to inquire about land permits, Sandy Pernitz, a community garden coordinator in the Department of Neighborhoods, let me know that what was in my backyard is properly called a "P-Patch"—the "P" standing for pesky, I presume. There are more than 50 P-Patches in Seattle, manned by volunteer gardeners and managed by Pernitz's department. The city's oldest P-Patch, Wedgwood's Picardo Farm, dates from the early '70s and consumes 98,000 square feet.
"We are always trying to get new garden space on Capitol Hill because garden space is so scarce and demand is so high," says Pernitz, who lays out the stats on my P-Patch, dubbed Pelican Tea Garden.
All told, Pelican Tea occupies around 1,200 square feet, which means my garage is blocked by the city's puniest P-Patch. It's also pretty old, dating from the Civil Rights era when a group of artists from a nearby commune tilled its soil and put in stepping-stones decorated with gimcracks and pottery shards.
Later, green thumbs transformed Pelican Tea into its tiny yet potent form. Linda Moore, a 47-year-old yoga instructor and self-described anarchist, started building up the garden in the '90s. "We used brick and stone and stuff to make pathways," she says. "Whatever we could find, wherever we could find it." So obsessed was Moore that she used to eat breakfast in the garden.
Gardening on city property isn't unheard of in Seattle: Several P-Patches squat on land owned by the transportation, park, and public-utility departments. The city often overlooks these renegade plots because they're replacing blight. The Courtland P-Patch in South Seattle used to be a vacant lot populated with drug dealers, for instance.
The Pelican Tea property, however, wasn't riddled with crack. It was just in my alley, which happens to be little used because a Dumpster protrudes into it at the street entrance. In other words, it was perfect for clandestine growing. "We pretty much did guerrilla gardening for a couple years without anyone's consent," says Moore. "We knew it was city property, so it was pretty safe."
Moore and her crew kept the gardening relatively contained between two fences. When they left, in the late '90s, a more provincially ambitious group took over. These folks got the city to adopt the land as a P-Patch in 2001, which gave them a funding source and a dedicated water tap. They exiled a woman who cluttered up the garden with trash, cats, and a guinea pig. And they made vast infrastructure improvements.
"The trellis looks like an anti-infantry device that might be found on the beaches of Normandy!" wrote one gardener on the Pelican Tea Garden listserv. The same person also dreamed about tool acquisitions: "Chinese cleaver, cultivator, manure fork, hedge clippers, hoe, hori hori knife, hose, soaker hose, loppers, machete, mattock, nozzle, pruner, leaf rake. . . . " Wrote another gardener: "I developed carpal tunnel syndrome, thanks to my gardening zeal!"
I guess the subsequent annexing of my garage was inevitable. About a year ago, somebody delivered a huge load of compost. It went into the sunniest part of the alleyway—the space in front of the garage—to create the elevated planting beds.
"It's been a little bit of manifest destiny," says Eliza Truitt, a former associate publisher of Slate who now does wedding photography and helps maintain Pelican Tea. "Most people love it." But some people also love a covered carport.
Last week, I went out and measured the alley. There're only 2 inches of clearance at the entrance for our Subaru. As a person who will execute 200 wheel spins to parallel into a good parking space, I will take those 2 inches and fucking make them work. To reach the garage, however, I'd have to perform the equivalent of a Ford pickup commercial, jumping the brick planters and plowing through the mystery mound. Add to that all the cash I'd be paying to wash the mud and seedlings off the car, and it's an untenable strategy.
Asking the city to perform a paving job is also out of the question. "Unless people complained," says Transportation Department spokesperson Gregg Hirakawa, "we wouldn't have any inclination to do anything other than leave it as it is." As I am just one "person," that leaves me waiting for the next Dustbowl or, as Pernitz suggested, negotiating with the P-Patchers. "Maybe they'd build you a shed. It'd be a small and simple grant."
Staring at that garden through my back window, I can envision how it'll be lovely in the spring, with daffodils and tulips limning rows of tasty organic produce. But I can't help also envisioning deep tire tracks leading through the dirt to the garage.
"You're full of shit. I don't think it's going to happen," says Moore, suggesting that I do what she just did: sell the car and buy an umbrella. "They're much easier to park."