Planting Change

A public teaching garden in San Francisco is transforming citizens into key players in the food and climate movements.

It’s almost 10 am on a Saturday morning in early September. The sun is just beginning to break through the chill of coastal fog as two dozen people from across the city eagerly shuffle in to find a seat on the wooden benches of our outdoor classroom. It’s the first day of Garden for the Environment’s Get Up! program and the garden is abuzz with activity.

young people workiing in a garden

Graduates of Garden for the Environment’s Get Up! program teach a composting class at the group’s public teaching garden in San Francisco. Photo by Adam Long.

Garden for the Environment (GFE) is San Francisco’s public teaching garden located just south of Golden Gate Park in the city’s Inner Sunset neighborhood. It occupies a previously vacant SF Public Utilities Commission property that a group of urban gardeners gained access to more than three decades ago. Over the course of three months every fall, it serves as the classroom for our annual Gardening and Composting Training Program (Get Up!), which transforms local citizens into key players in the Bay Area’s expanding gardening, social justice, and climate change movements. Founded in 1996, Get Up! has created a community of nearly 800 alumni who now edit environmental magazines, run local farms, advocate for sustainability in the restaurant industry, manage school garden programs, work in city government, and much more.

At GFE, we often say Get Up! is an inch deep and a mile wide, meaning that it touches on a wide range of urban gardening skills while always addressing the larger picture of the climate crisis. For example, students will assemble drip irrigation systems, but more importantly, will learn how and why conserving water here in Northern California is so important. They’ll choose which vegetable varieties to plant given the climate, keeping in mind one of our other favorite slogans: “right plant, right place.”

“In a city, it is so special and important to have a space where people can learn ... how to nurture a garden environment. A space like GFE fosters a connection to land and community, which often leads to a sense of responsibility in caring for the Earth — and that is valuable beyond words,” says Stephanie Pressler, a 2014 Get Up! graduate.

The students in the fall 2023 class are diverse in their backgrounds, ages, and levels of gardening experience. They come from communities all over San Francisco and the greater Bay Area, and include a preschool teacher, a tech engineer, an architect, a public policy expert, a dietician, a health coach, a bartender, and others who are in the middle of career transitions. Some already work as garden educators while others bashfully admit to having slain countless houseplants before daring to apply for the course.

Trina Lopez, program manager for GFE’s Adult Programs, is well prepared for the first day and perhaps even more eager than the new students. In her eighth year facilitating Get Up!, Lopez continues to hire a diverse cast of local garden experts and climate activists to teach for the program. These instructors will give lectures on topics such as the basics of garden design, composting, soil health, and pruning. They participate in panel discussions about the complex history of Bay Area land lineage and food justice, and lead the group in hands-on gardening practices in the program’s 19 class sessions.

“My goal is to keep it dynamic,” Lopez says. “Get Up! is changing with what is happening in the world. Being sure that the program stays relevant and showcases a true plurality of community voices is extremely important.”

Lopez also books field trips with local environmental organizations since networking, learning about existing environmental programs, and becoming part of the local gardening community are a huge part of Get Up! The field trips also offer students a chance to think about where they would like to complete their 40-hour service project, a requirement for graduates that can be fulfilled with GFE or another environmental organization in the Bay Area. Another part of the commitment students make to Get Up! is to co-teach an Urban Composting workshop in the year following the completion of the course, bringing their educator training full circle.

“Taking Get Up! is an act of doing,” Maggie Marks, GFE’s director, reminds us. “At a time with a lot of climate anxiety, the future can feel overwhelming and even hopeless. Get Up! is an antidote to this disempowerment — it is a deeply hopeful act.”

And the impact spreads far and wide. As they move through the program, participants build community with each other and their cohort, and with the local environmentalists and alumni they meet. Ultimately, they bring those connections back to their own communities. They become the change makers that are so needed at this time, the wind-carried seeds of change spreading throughout San Francisco and beyond.

Along with running Get Up!, GFE’s small staff stays busy maintaining its always open, gate-free demonstration garden and providing educational opportunities for people of all ages. We host volunteer hours twice a week, offer immersive field trips for local schools, and provide a wide variety of two-hour Saturday morning classes, as well as some three- and six-week programs, all designed with water conservation and regenerative gardening practices in mind.

Learn more about this Earth Island project at

Back in the garden, it’s 3 pm and most of the students have left for the day. Only the garden staff and a couple of students remain to help put away the supplies and reflect on how the big first day went. I get a chance to ask Javin de Mello-Folsom how he is feeling.

“I was exhilarated this morning and super excited to get started,” he says. De Mello-Folsom, an East Coast transplant, has been volunteering with us since the spring. He shared with us pretty early on that he was unhappy in his role as a private middle school teacher. He decided to leave his job this school year, making it the perfect time to enroll in our program. Many who enroll are similarly at pivotal moments in their lives. “I’m hoping to make some new friends and learn some gardening skills that I can bring home to teach my family and friends and hopefully have [Get Up!] be the potential door-opener to career opportunities down the road,” he adds. “I also want to feel more a part of my local community.”

It definitely opened doors and fostered community connections for GFE’s four current staff: We are all Get Up! graduates, and because of it, all of us have found our own new beginnings. The program propelled Lopez away from academia and into the garden. For Marks, she learned that her background in human rights was inextricably linked to our fight for climate justice. Hana Park, our education assistant, tells us the garden helped heal her after a particularly stressful job in her native Seoul, South Korea. And while I look back fondly at my days of managing after-school programs and the connections I’ve made with so many families, my current role and time in the garden fill me with thanks, wonder, and amazement every day.

By the time you are holding this magazine in your hands in December, the 2023 Get Up! cohort will be wrapping up the program. They will be choosing their community service sites for the spring, and then, just like that, they will disperse, sprouting up in the right place and time for them.

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