Seeds of sustainability: La Jolla resident inspires neighbors to grow their own food

Jen Oliver's daughter Amelia, 5, helps pick the produce grown in their La Jolla backyard.

La Jolla resident Jen Oliver has been inspiring neighbors to grow their own food in backyard gardens, realizing it provides not only fruits and vegetables but a sense of accomplishment.

Oliver became a backyard gardener eight years ago after caring for a friend’s plant that produced a delicious tomato and a revelation: “It was so special — I’d taken care of it and it had given me this food.”

That led Oliver to want to grow more of her own food, which in turn grew into a business endeavor.

With several raised plant beds and a small greenhouse on her La Jolla Alta property, Oliver now owns Seeds in the City, which sells organic seedlings from locally sourced seeds via its website.

In addition to her online sales, Oliver shares her passion with neighbors and passers-by.

The past several weeks, during the coronavirus stay-at-home orders, Oliver’s 5-year-old daughter, Amelia, has been setting a table at the end of their driveway. “She grabs seedlings from the garden every morning and sells them to anyone who goes by,” Oliver said. “People feel inclined to stop and chat with her.”

Jen Oliver's daughter Amelia, 5, helps pick the produce grown in their La Jolla backyard.

At least three neighbors “have taken on a container garden or raised bed garden for the first time” as a result of such interactions, Oliver said.

Neighbor Agustin Calatroni said he’s “really excited” that his 13-year-old daughter, Sofia, has been inspired to grow a garden in their backyard.

“It’s something to do during the quarantine,” he said. “We got seeds from [Oliver], we planted them and built a garden.

“It’s a good opportunity to understand where the fruits and vegetables are coming from.”

Sofia Calatroni, 13, tends to her backyard garden in La Jolla. “I like to see how things grow and how they can develop over time,” she said.

Sofia said it’s her first garden. “I’ve been wanting to grow a garden for a long time, and when I saw [Oliver] selling the plants, I got the idea to start [one]. She provided me with the plants. I got the dirt and soil, and then I built a bed and planted the plants.”

Oliver said Sofia has thrown herself into her new hobby. “She’s been researching online; she’s getting really into it,” she said.

Sofia, who planted watermelons, tomatoes, strawberries, jalapeños and cantaloupes a few weeks ago, said her garden is “already growing a lot. I already have a small strawberry.”

Starting a backyard garden teaches people that growing food is accessible, Oliver said.

“When they’re going to the nursery to choose a tree, they can easily choose a fruit tree over an ornamental one. That little purchase might spark something inside them,” encouraging them to try growing more, she said.

Takumi Nishikawa said he was inspired to start his own container garden after speaking with Oliver while visiting his parents this spring on a break from UC Santa Cruz. Nishikawa, a third-year student of agriculture and ecology, said it’s important for people to learn to grow their own food, now “more so than ever. We’re losing that connection with the earth.”

Takumi Nishikawa has planted kale and peppers at his home in Santa Cruz and plans to take them to La Jolla to integrate into his parents’ garden.

Nishikawa planted kale and peppers at his current home and will take the growing plants to La Jolla in June to integrate into his parents’ garden, where they have planted fruits, vegetables and herbs.

“For me, having that resource in [Oliver] down the street is going to be so helpful for me,” he said.

People who are reluctant to garden often are converted after talking to Oliver, she said. “Every single time someone comes to me with a gardening issue, we’ve been able to figure it out.”

For those who argue that “vegetable gardens are ugly and [they] want flowers all year round, you can do it in a beautiful way, support pollinators and also get yourself food,” Oliver said.

Oliver likens the new backyard gardens to the victory gardens encouraged during World War II, when government asked people to grow their own food to ease the burden on food industries and boost morale.

“In this pandemic,” Oliver said, “a lot of people can’t leave their houses; they’re not able to get an online order in time. People are realizing they can grow some of their own food. People say, ‘Maybe I can do this.’”

In her neighborhood, Oliver said, people are putting out extra produce to share with neighbors. Boxes of lemons and oranges are sprinkled around. “People are realizing they can help others. It’s so exciting,” she said.

The process draws Sofia to gardening. “I like to see how things grow and how they can develop over time,” she said. “It’s important to grow our own because I can see how our food is made. I can see what progress has gone on.”

Oliver hopes to empower more people to cultivate their gardening prowess. “Gardening is an addiction. You start small and then it snowballs,” she said. “I know that people can do this.”

For more information and tips to start your garden, visit ◆