A garden grows in Colma cemetery – to feed the hungry

Congregation Emanu-El is growing vegetables in a spot not normally reserved for living things.

A one-acre garden sits smack in the middle of the synagogue-owned Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma, the final resting place since 1889 of some 22,000 souls.

Doused by late spring rains, a bumper crop of broccoli, squash, cabbage, lettuce, collards, tomatoes and maybe even corn is sprouting up.

"As far as I know, we're the only cemetery doing that," said Judy Edmonson, general manager of the 30-acre cemetery.

Tended by synagogue volunteers, the garden produces 2,000 pounds of fresh vegetables each year that are donated to the poor and hungry.

Last weekend, workers harvested their first 199 pounds of collard greens and lettuce.

The Pe'ah Garden was started in the spring of 1995 at the suggestion of Rabbi Stephen Pearce. Its gently sloping grounds are bounded by a mausoleum on one side and lie across the road from row upon row of headstones.

"It's sort of like the circle of life," says Kate Nangle, a congregant who started tending the garden in 1996. "We're growing food to feed people at the same time we're in a place where people spend their eternity."

There's a religious connection as well. Pe'ah (or "corner") refers to the injunction mentioned in the Bible and Talmud of leaving the edges of the fields uncut so that they may be harvested, anonymously, by the poor. The resulting custom dates back almost 4,000 years.

The plot sits on what is now surplus land at the cemetery, and was used in the past for flower production. Pearce said he was unaware of any halachic restrictions, noting that "I thought this was a very life-giving way to use land."

This year's garden holds the promise of plenty: Without the flowers, it's grown to perhaps twice the size of previous years.

The harvests are delivered regularly to the San Francisco Food Bank and starting this year workers hope to supply fresh vegetables to Emanu-El's recently opened food pantry. Launched in February, the Geary Boulevard storefront dispenses free groceries each Sunday to some 170 needy families.

Admittedly, Pe'ah's harvest accounts for a small part of the 7.3 million pounds of food distributed annually by the San Francisco Food Bank, but "they're the only regular source of fresh produce," said Sean Brooks, the food bank's director of programs.

"It's always great stuff."

On a recent inspection of the garden, Nangle, a 49-year-old former caterer who now works as a preschool teacher at San Francisco's Rosenberg Early Childhood Center, checked out the crop of green lettuce.

"These are looking good," she says as she bends to examine a head of curly leaf lettuce measuring just a few inches high. "We chose this particular type of lettuce because it's sturdy. It holds up well."

In the past, the volunteers experimented with gourmet lettuces but ultimately switched to a more common garden variety, so to speak. "When you're hungry, you're not looking for fancy lettuce," explains Nangle, who likes to garden as a hobby. "You're looking for basic food that's good to eat."

The Emanu-El gardeners have quizzed food bank officials about the best vegetables to grow for their clients.

"We keep it to basics," said Nangle. "We keep it to foods people will be able to prepare easily."

Colma's cool and windswept location is a factor as well. The gardeners have experimented — mostly unsuccessfully — with tomatoes. This year, they're testing a new variety, aptly named "San Francisco Fog."

Broccoli, lettuce, swiss chard and cabbage thrive in the light, sandy soil, according to Nangle. Though she's religious about delivering as much of the harvest to the food bank as possible, Nangle says she has sampled the lettuce. "It's wonderful," she pronounces.

Evan Lewis, the garden's first coordinator, still raves about the gigantic zucchini he once grew there. A 50-year-old schoolteacher and longtime congregant, Lewis was forced to quit working at Pe'ah when his back went out a few years ago.

"The cause was a great one," said Lewis, whose daughter, Hilary, worked in the garden last year as a bat mitzvah project. Describing the project as a religious endeavor, Lewis said there was "something very ritualistic about going out there and watching the plants grow."

In the beginning, though, "we had no idea what we were doing."

Lewis learned the procedures by driving around to farms and seeing how agriculture was done by the pros. "Each season brought new discoveries," he said.

Work for the garden's current team of three volunteers began around February, when they planted donated seeds into flats of planters and placed them in the cemetery's greenhouse. The season runs through the last crop in November.

This year, with a relatively small volunteer crew, the cemetery's grounds crew is pitching in mightily. They transplanted the seedlings into the soil in March and are doing plenty of weeding.

The mother-and-daughter team of Leona and Laura Salzman of Burlingame round out the current volunteers who work in the garden most Sundays.

"It just makes you feel good," said Leona Salzman, an "over 80"-year-old retired schoolteacher. "It's kind of a big thrill during the summer when we start harvesting and pile up boxes and boxes."

Noting that this year's garden is far bigger than usual, Salzman says, "I think we need a lot of help."

Starting this weekend, they'll get some from members of the congregation's young adults group.

"It's a very nice intergenerational project," said Rabbi Sydney Mintz, noting that in less rainy seasons, the garden has attracted b'nai mitzvah students as well.

For some, the garden work takes on a spiritual feel, particularly when it's time to harvest the crops.

"It's pretty exciting to see," says Nangle. "I'm really grateful I can participate in something that really helps our community."

Pearce predicts the plot won't be needed for the next 50 years. He, too, thinks the garden's worth is measured in more than the pounds of vegetables pulled from the soil.

"In our world, we are very separated from the sources of production," he said. "I think it's good for people to see this is what it means to be dependent on the forces of God and nature, just as poor people are dependent on us."