Goodbye, Common Ground

Submitted by Peter Ruddock

After 43 years, Common Ground Organic Garden Supply and Education Center has closed its doors. It is a sad story of a confluence of problems: increasing rents in Palo Alto, gardeners cutting back due to the drought, competition from chain stores and on-line retailers, and finally the property across the street, which used to include our friends at World Centric, becoming a construction zone, bringing noise and dust, and making it difficult to get to the store. In the end, it was just too much.

43 years. I haven’t known Common Ground nearly that long, despite having been a resident of the Peninsula for much of that time, for more than 30 of those years. You see, for most of that time I wasn’t a gardener. I’m sure that I heard rumors of the store, but I am equally sure that I never had reason to patronize it. An institution was born, had a long life, sold organic products to the public before they were mainstream, taught classes, held events, had a very loyal following. But there was nothing in it for me. Until about six years ago, when I decided to become a gardener, in order to grow some of my own food organically. After taking a class at the Palo Alto Adult School, I decided to check out that rumor and visited the store. I liked it, but I can’t say I was a regular customer, because gardener that I wanted to be, I lived in an apartment and had to garden in the few containers that would fit on my patio.

Two years later something changed. Slow Food USA ran a campaign called Dig-In, where each chapter was encouraged to start a new project on a given weekend. Slow Food South Bay, of which I was at the time Chapter Chair, chose to create a Food Swap, whereby gardeners and cooks would swap the produce of their yards and kitchens with each other, creating community and decreasing waste. It was recommended that I visit Common Ground to see if they wanted to be our host. That was when I first met Patricia Becker, who was in fact delighted to host such an event. More than that, she introduced me to her visitor, Herb Moore, and suggested that he might like to provide music for the event. He did like the idea.

And so an event was born – a series of events, to be more precise. After a rocky start, and a change of hands – Slow Food South Bay was not interested in running the events for the long term, but Transition Palo Alto was – the newly renamed Garden Share began to take hold. Nearly every month for the last four years, gardeners and other local food advocates have met in the parking lot of Common Ground, exchanging produce and other things, becoming friends, building community, often with music by Herb and his friends. More than that, the original Garden Share spawned new series, including Garden Shares at Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale and at the Portola Valley Town Hall. When it was suggested that a new event, an expansion of the Garden Share that would include sharing not only other goods, but also skills, be created, Common Ground was amenable to hosting that as well. And so over the last four years, some members of Transition Palo Alto and the public have met behind the Common Ground store many dozens of times. Over that period, Common Ground was a real partner, letting us borrow equipment, helping us promote, cheering on our efforts at grass-roots community building.

And now there is a hole. The Garden Shares and Sharing Expos will go on. Transition Palo Alto will find a new home for these events and a new partner. But we will miss Common Ground. Over the years it became more than a partner. It – its staff and volunteers, most especially Patricia, its newsletters and classes, the store and even, perhaps especially, the parking lot – became a friend. Common Ground will be missed.