On an otherwise quiet weekday morning, a group of Mandarin-speaking elders gather at a table near the South Main Street entrance of the Danny Woo Community Garden to dispute the fate of some missing plants. An argument that started in their WeChat group thread is now playing out in real time at lightning speed. It’s hard to follow for an English speaker, but it sounds as though one gardener is accusing another of stealing her plants for his own plot. The defendant, Yikui Yang, refutes the allegation with conviction, saying it’s all just a big misunderstanding.
The drama is playing out so swiftly that even KaeLi Deng, the garden manager and Mandarin interpreter for the day, is having a hard time keeping up. Everyone is amused, though it’s unclear whether a satisfactory resolution will ever be reached. This is life in the garden, laughed Deng.
“I’ve worked in the garden for almost 30 years because my mother lived in this building,” said gardener Jingping Liu, 70, gesturing behind her to International Terrace, a public affordable housing community. “I helped her, we worked together. She passed away so now it belongs to me, the garden. Sometimes we need seeds we cannot get here. When I visit China, I get some.”
Liu is one of 66 elders who maintain plots in the garden, which currently has a 20-person waiting list. The selection process, according to Deng, prioritizes low-income, and non-English speaking seniors who live in the Chinatown International District (CID).
Intergenerational resourcefulness and the immigrant mentality
Today, the garden plays an important role in the neighborhood’s circular economy — a model of production and consumption that involves sharing, reusing, repairing, and recycling existing materials. For many of the gardeners, this resourcefulness is nothing new. It’s just the immigrant mentality. For local young people like Joycelyn Chui, Lizzy Baskerville, and Jennifer Cheung, the garden and the elders’ natural resourcefulness provide an opportunity to reimagine what the future of the CID’s food waste management could look like.
In 2020, Chui and Baskerville discussed the possibility of piloting a program that would decentralize the neighborhood’s organics management system and propel hyperlocal composting. They realized that scraps from the CID’s 100+ eateries, which might otherwise be “out of sight, out of mind,” could be composted en masse and then repurposed for the garden.
Three years and 5,000 pounds of food scraps later, Restaurant 2 Garden (R2G) is officially operating.
“Our grandmas and our parents have been doing [circular economy practices]. It’s in their genes. It’s in their DNA, especially the immigrant population,” said Chui. “They come with not a lot of resources so they have to think on their feet, reuse as much as they can, and be resourceful. They have already been doing it, and the media is just now catching up.”
When 84-year-old gardener Yuying Chou found out someone had stolen four of her best flower pots last year, she immediately reinforced the protective barriers around her plot using found objects and materials she fished out of a dumpster, including an old mattress coil and bed frame. Chou said she likes living in the CID due to its convenience and especially enjoys her garden.
“I can go to the pharmacy, CISC, the hospital, and the grocery store easily,” said Chou. “I like living here, especially with the garden. I’ve spent about one third of my life in a garden so besides sleeping and learning, the rest of the time I’ve been in a garden. I feel happy here.”
This happiness and love of gardening, in part, is also why Chui gravitated to the CID when she moved to Seattle from Hong Kong to study aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington. Spending time in the neighborhood was grounding, she said, because the elders tending to their garden plots reminded her of family back home, specifically her grandmother who she credits for planting the seed that’s now grown into R2G. When she, her brother, and cousins assisted their grandmother in the kitchen as kids, they were instructed to save the scraps to “feed the soil” of their grandmother’s beloved rooftop garden in Hong Kong.
“I didn’t know that was composting, but we kind of just helped grandma do it because we had to,” Chui remembered. “She didn’t have any machinery, she would just cut up the food scraps with her knife or by hand. It was a lot more action. She would just do it and not overthink it.”
“I call it the ‘lifelong garden’”
“Most of the time I [compost] myself. We’ll go to the store and ask for leftover fish scraps, or I clean through the garbage at home for old or bad vegetables. Eggshells help keep the soil soft,” said Liu. “I didn’t know [R2G] had compost to use. I’m always working!”
Liu said she comes to the garden every morning between 6-7 a.m when the air is freshest and because she lives so close, it’s convenient. When Liu’s mother was still alive, she would tell her daughter to go to the community garden to walk up and down the hill for exercise.
Lichuan Wu, 82, refers to the garden as the “lifelong garden” since many of his fellow gardeners are older than 80, with one at 100 years old. Wu described that when his crops are finally harvested, he experiences happiness that he believes improves his immune system. Wu’s had his plot for the last 11 years. Before that, he worked as a teaching assistant for a local school where he’d accompany his students to the garden for outdoor classes.
“I supervised youth who received a plot to grow strawberries and other plants in order to learn how to observe and take care of them,” said Wu. “Even though the teachers and students kept changing, I was still here. They asked at the end if I wanted to keep the plot, so I did.”
Meanwhile, 72-year-old Yang comes to the garden every day to tend to his plot and practice Tai Chi. Though he hasn’t yet used the compost produced by the R2G initiative, he will once winter arrives. Now, he makes his own compost tea using fallen leaves, beans acquired from the local food bank, and food scraps.
His ratio of all that mixed with water is 1-to-10. Yang uses the ingredients from his garden to cook dishes like chive fried eggs or stuffed dumplings. Come harvest season, the fresh bounty is shared amongst his friends who love that it’s organic.
“[The garden] is like a heartbeat to us,” said Yang. “There aren’t a lot of senior activities in the neighborhood, so this place provides everyone with social and outdoor exercise opportunities that improve our mental and physical health.”
Wu uses a similar technique to Yang when concocting his compost tea, but with the addition of a special ingredient: urine. His plot is notably lined with half a dozen or so 1-gallon jugs of murky yellow liquid. His ratio, he shared, is 1-to-40 and it must be stewed for one month to achieve his desired levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Wu also makes homemade fertilizer by refrigerating banana peels until they’re brown, chopping them into small pieces, then combining them with water, brown sugar, and yeast, before setting the mixture out in the sun for a month.
It’s ideal fertilizer for the fruiting season, he said.
Hyperlocal organics management
“We wanted [R2G] to be in the CID because of the amount of restaurants you can go to in a walking distance… it’s amazing,” said Joycelyn Chui.
“We should be here and we should have a site here. If as a state or as a community we’re serious about doing organics management at a community level, then we should definitely be in the CID. The amount of food being consumed and potentially ending up in a compost bin is enormous.”
The neighborhood’s dense concentration of eateries and multifamily units makes the area ideal to experiment with a hyperlocal urban composting system, said Chui. Since February 2022, the group has collected nearly 5,000 pounds of food, from which 4,000 pounds of compost has been harvested and distributed to gardeners for free. On Saturdays, R2G volunteers transport food scraps from Itsumono and Panama Hotel Tea & Coffee to the garden. They then sort out what isn’t compostable, before using a fermentation pretreatment called bokashi.
The organization uses a combination of hot composting, combining organic materials in an insulated Earth Cube to be heated, and vermicomposting, a decomposition process from worm castings. R2G currently operates on an incline in the upper northwest corner of the community garden, but is looking to expand its operation to a larger processing site on flatter ground because moving the project’s heavy materials up and down steep terrain is laborious.
While some elders have yet to use the R2G compost, many already have.
“People like this stuff,” said Chui. “The demand is there, the supply is not. That’s one of the main reasons why we want to expand. We recognize that there is a lot more work to do.”
R2G is currently in negotiations with the Washington State Department of Transportation, which owns I-5 and its immediate surrounding property, to obtain an easement on a parcel of land next to the Chinese Southern Baptist Church on King Street. The process is slow, Chui said, but they’re hopeful. A larger, more central location for their operations would allow for bigger machinery and support the organization’s outreach and educational goals of making organics management more visual, interactive, and understandable to local residents.
“Once you put your banana peel or whatnot into the green bin, I can tell you it goes through composting or I can show you photos, but you can’t really see it yourself. You can’t touch it. You can’t smell it,” said Chui. “It’s powerful to have that imagery and space for people to learn about why organics management is important and to make it more accessible.”
Composting to build out social capital
Along with its adjoining Kobe Terrace, the Danny Woo Community Garden is the largest public greenspace in the CID at 2.5 acres, established in 1975 following the Kingdome demonstrations that activated a generation of community leaders. The garden’s creation, an effort spearheaded by “Uncle Bob’’ Santos, established a physical stronghold to counter ongoing and ever-encroaching development in the district, external pressures, and chronic systemic neglect.
“When the fight against the Kingdome was going on, activists were engaged in protest, but they also felt the need to do something positive for the community,” said Jeff Hou, Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Washington and director of its Urban Commons Lab. “Building a garden was a form of outreach, a force for positive change out of destruction.”
Normally the development of greenspaces like the Danny Woo Community Garden can have adverse effects on a historically suppressed area by speeding up so-called ‘green’ gentrification — when new parks and nicer open spaces contribute to the displacement of locals by increasing an area’s desirability and property value. In the CID, the impact of this process is tempered by the existing amount of affordable workforce housing, which activists and organizations have fought to build and protect since the 1970s. There needs to be an integrated strategy, said Hou.
R2G builds on this history in several important ways. Instead of spending money to hire contractors to move all the waste out of the neighborhood, a more formalized composting system would transform what was once considered waste into a productive resource that benefits the local community. The initiative, Hou said, is also centered around community building and creating connections between and amongst staff, volunteers, CID restaurants, and gardeners that likely wouldn’t come into contact otherwise.
This kind of built social capital is strong in the CID compared to other neighborhoods, said Hou, evidenced by the number of formal and informal organizations that operate there, along with how many people come to community events or join groups on social media.
“I’ve realized over the years that even for people who live outside the neighborhood, they still consider the CID the symbolic center of the community,” said Hou. “This is where they go to grocery shop or to meet their friends at a local restaurant. By population, even though the community itself is quite small, the actual community is really quite big.”
A flourishing community garden
Back outside Yang’s plot, the elders are using the extra facetime with Deng to make suggestions for garden improvements. One passing gardener follows up on a request he made in the WeChat thread, which is evidently very active, urging Deng to issue regulations that deter people from taking sunflowers from the public plots. Then it’s no longer a flower garden, he said. Duplicity and resourcefulness are starting to feel interchangeable now. Earlier, Deng revealed, she sent out a warning in the chat because wooden boards from an in-progress construction project are gone and there’s evidence of tampering. It’s a classic garden whodunnit, and everyone is a suspect.
An audio version of this story will air later this summer on KUOW as part of a collaboration between KUOW’s ‘Soundside’ and the ‘International Examiner.’ Quotes by gardeners were roughly translated into English with assistance from InterIm CDA’s Danny Woo Community Garden Manager, KaeLi Deng. Kamna Shastri contributed reporting.
This story was produced in partnership with our media sponsor Communities of Opportunity, a growing movement of partners who believe every community can be a healthy, thriving community.