Conservation & Research
October 7, 2021

Creating Community Resiliency Through Diverse Edible Gardens

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on a Nectarine tree at the Santa Barbara Community College Food Garden (Photo/Gabrielle Espiritu)

Across Santa Barbara, there is a network of gardens found within schools, youth centers, shared community green spaces, and private homes. These gardens, and the communities of people and organizations that tend them, are centers of innovation and collaboration. They encourage community and connection, transform dead spaces into vibrant outdoor classrooms and fight hunger throughout the county. As interest in gardening grows, our community gardens play an important role in fostering a relationship between plants and people. This makes them the perfect foundation for protecting and restoring biodiversity while demonstrating the power of native plants.

In 2021, The Garden partnered with Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) and local nonprofit Explore Ecology, who introduced the Santa Barbara Ecological and Edible (SBEE) Garden Project. The collaboration includes four other diverse nonprofit contributors including El Centro Community Center, United Boys & Girls Club, Mesa Harmony Garden, and the Youth Drought Project’s Community Food Forest. The project focuses on four pillars: ecology, collaboration, permaculture and food literacy.

Several of these gardens introduced “companion plantings” with native plants to entice insect pollinators and other beneficial insects. To better understand the relationship between plants and pollinators, we conducted research on insect pollinators in four of the project’s gardens and at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden. The practice of companion planting is an approach that positions different plants close to one another to enhance growth or protect it from pests. Would this relationship with native pollinators produce a better garden?

Working with Gabriella Espiritu, a college intern from SBCC, pollinator surveys were conducted to answer four basic questions:

1. Which insect pollinators are present?

2. How common or rare are they in relation to each other (relative abundance)?

3. What plants are they visiting?

4. Does the presence of native plants at each of these gardens affect the pollinators observed?

Reviewing the data collected so far, we have noticed a stark difference in the presence of native bees and other pollinators between The Garden’s pollinator garden and other gardens in our test group. Over half of the visits were from native bees at The Garden versus less than a quarter at SBCC and only 15% at La Mesa Harmony garden. Bottom line, native bee visitation was most prevalent in The Garden’s pollinator garden – a location that has the most native plants (by far) of the test group.

We spoke with Hugh Kelly, president of Mesa Harmony Garden and one of our valued Garden members, to learn more about the SBEE project through his lens as a certified Permaculture Designer and Master Gardener with the UC Cooperative Extension Service.

Q: One of the SBEE project pillars is permaculture. Could you explain to our readers what permaculture design is?

A: Mesa Harmony Garden is a community food forest and demonstration site with a grounding in permaculture design – an approach to designing landscapes that are rooted in systems thinking. The permaculture design principles help to take the complexity of social and ecological systems into account to develop long-term sustainability. One part of this approach is to consider the functionality of each element of the design in relation to the other elements. The benefits of fresh, locally grown food are becoming ever more apparent, and it doesn’t get any more local than if you grow it yourself. So, one valuable function a plant can perform is food production, but there are many others. For example, planting a low-lying Ceanothus griseus var. horizontalis ‘Yankee Point’ under the fruit trees fulfills multiple functions – as a groundcover, suppressing weeds, and providing shade to protect the soil and reduce evaporation rates, attracting beneficial insects, and fixing nitrogen in the soil.

Q: Why is sustainable urban landscaping and foodscaping important?

A: As the benefits of fresh, locally grown food become increasingly apparent, so too are the benefits of growing some of our own food. The amount of underutilized space in our urban landscapes represents a valuable resource going to waste – in backyards and in community spaces like the church-owned land that has now become Mesa Harmony Garden. Hundreds of volunteers and workshop attendees have joined us in our learning process as we create naturally healthy and abundant landscapes where no fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides are ever used. Not only are we avoiding all the industrial processes that create those inputs, we’re also avoiding the downstream pollution that they cause. By nurturing healthy soil, attracting beneficial insects, and fostering biodiversity, we are drawing down carbon, helping to feed ourselves and our neighbors, and bringing our community together around a common purpose.

Honey bee (Apis mellifera) on Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) at La Cumbre Middle School Food Garden (Photo/Etter)
Western Calligrapher fly (Toxomerus occidentalis) resting on a California lilac (Ceanothus sp.) at Mesa Harmony Community Garden. (Photo/Etter) 

Q: What are you most excited to see come out of the SBEE project?

A: We were very happy to join the SBEE project because of our commitment to community outreach and working in a culture of cooperation. As the old saying goes, if you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far go together. We realized that a good way for us to participate in SBEE would be to work with The Garden to redesign a section of the garden specifically as a home for native plants that attract pollinators and other beneficial insects. This will demonstrate some of the practical benefits that native plants can bring to the landscape, including low water use and increased biodiversity. If we can work with the Environmental Horticulture Department at SBCC to bring in students to create this garden, that will be another benefit from the SBEE collaboration.

SBCC plans to share its observation data through the iNaturalist social network of naturalists, community scientists, and biologists. Thanks to the SBEE Garden Project, our community will benefit from edible gardens that promote biodiversity, native habitats, local food production, and community resilience. The project partners, with assistance from select local agencies and organizations, will track and evaluate results from all of the project activities. We look forward to hearing updates on the gardens and learning more as the project grows.

Q: And lastly, we’d be remiss if we didn’t say thank you for supporting The Garden through your membership. What motivated you and your wife to become members of The Garden?

A: My wife and I joined the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden soon after we moved to Santa Barbara from the United Kingdom. That was more than a decade ago now. We were attracted by the grounds and interested in learning about the plants that grow in this region.

Q: What native plants do you personally like to incorporate into your own landscaping at home?

A: Particular favorites we’re growing in our own landscape include Ceanothus, Mimulus, Verbena ‘De la Mina’, and Heuchera ‘Wendy’. O

In August, Santa Barbara Beautiful, an organization of volunteers dedicated to beautifying our area, announced the SBEE Garden Project as one of the winners of the Golden Leaf Award. The award recognizes outstanding achievements in community beautification through collaboration.

A mason bee (Osmia sp.) visiting a Marigolds (Calendula sp.) flower at the La Cumbre Middle School Food Garden.(Photo/Gabrielle Espiritu)
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