Plot to Grow Art: Barley


Hordeum Vulgare

(Planting March – harvest June, 2014)

A small sign at the entrance of the Plot to Grow Art reads:

Beautiful barley with a nice view of the tall stalks on the North end.

In the 1860’s during the initial planning of Golden Gate Park, the windswept sandy soil of this area posed a unique challenge to park landscapers. After many failed planting attempts, it was noticed that barley spilled from the feed bags of horses was sprouting, temporarily stabilizing the dunes. Once established and combined with other plantings such as yellow lupine and sea bent grass, the shifting sands were transformed. Further layers of topsoil, manure and mulch were added over the years and by 1873, the park could sustain a wide range of vegetation. During that time, park stables were located next to Kezar Stadium. Is it possible this sprouted barley was first noticed here?

Barley has been chosen as the first crop to be planted at the Plot to Grow Art because of its historical connection to the area. This important crop first grew here by accident and it was because of barley that Golden Gate Park became possible.


The process:

This was the first official planting of the Plot to grow art. The site was previously lawn and then served as the spot for tractors and equipment during the construction phase. We had no idea how good the soil would be so this first crop allowed us to take a “snapshot” of the soil underneath using the first crop that helped essentially do the same for Golden Gate Park. We added additional soil and compost from the nearby CommUNITY Garden and then after a little blessing of the site, planted the area with the help of volunteers and then let the irrigated field, sunlight and barley do its work. Never knew watching grass grow could be so fascinating…

As the barley grew and began to seed it became very clear that the soil quality was wildly inconsistent providing visual testament to the conditions underneath. Some spots were really sparse and scruffy while others were abundant and lush.

A full stalk of barley next to an underdeveloped one.

The North end produced tall and healthy grain while the South end barley was short and produced few grains per plant. Look at the difference! The barley plants were also beginning to ripen unevenly as well. The seed was organic, and it was grown without any chemicals but it became clear that the soil deserved some serious love before a full harvest would be possible. Rather than harvesting the barley bit by bit as it ripened and increasing the chance of fallen grain mixing in with the soil with each attempt, we decided to cut the grain early and return it all to the Earth as a gift. We have future crops planned so it made sense to really build up the soil to make it easier for future plantings to thrive.

Adam Huggins volunteered his scything and farming skills to harvest this first crop.

The green grains were unripe and unlikely to germinate but would make excellent groundcover and organic material to protect the next planting: a California native annual, lupine. In keeping with the history of Golden Gate park in which lupine was added to the barley and sea bent grass, this next planting will feature a field of the purple-blue flowered nitrogen fixing plants and serve to build the soil up even further.

So on a windy cool Saturday in mid-June, after scything the grain, digging up the earth and piling the cut barley into a mound in the center, then adding compost to the entire field, our extraordinary artist and permaculture friend Adam Huggins and I (Sam Bower) planted presoaked and scoured lupine seed throughout the planting area. The day was a bit windy and cool and gorgeous and lots of neighbors and friends stopped by as we worked.

A bag of seed + water + sun + air + soil grew into an exhalation of green and back into a pile of hay.

Central area and small path left unplanted.

The lupine (specifically the annual Arroyo Lupine, Lupinus succulentus, Crop #2) seeding was a remarkable family effort, since Adam’s grandfather harvested the seed from a single plant, his father then hand sanded and soaked the seeds the night before (to ensure easier germination), and Adam and I finished the harvest and new planting. It’s a bit late for lupine planting in SF so we’ll have to see how they do. Fingers crossed!

Very satisfying, though, to see the whole process through and complete the effect by adding a gap for a walkpath and a future contemplation spot (we’ll probably set down a few temporary bricks down) in the center of the field. Before harvesting the barley, Adam and I meditated in the field and found the soft sound of the tall grains in the wind and the protected space incredibly beautiful. Future visitors should get the same chance to enjoy plantings comfortably from the inside!

Very grateful to SFRPD for the generous use of their tools, advice and supervision of the process. The current plan is to try planting barley again next year and bring it to a full harvest of grain which we will then distribute to neighbors.

Adam Huggins and Sam Bower after a beautiful day's work in the sun.

Lots of smiling visitors on Saturday suggesting we brew beer with it all when we get an actual crop and our answer: we’ll help it grow it and then you can make soup, tea, bread or homebrew or whatever you want with it. Very nice to feel part of the spirit of the original San Francisco Diggers coming through the idea of growing grain in the park. Would be nice to envision yearly picnics, clowning (with help from the nearby Circus Center?) and permaculture education at the Triangle in the years ahead. Public urban parks able to balance recreation as well as artful community foodscapes and wild food forests as well as biodiverse native plant and wildlife refuges would be nice but we have a long way to go for that. For now, temporary plantings in a little circular plot in the Kezar Triangle will have to do as seed thoughts for the future.  :)

  1. […] This spring, my dear friend Sam Bower planted a crop of barley in Golden Gate Park. This humble planting, which recalls the barley used to stabilize the shifting dunes that were to become the park, is the first exhibit in the park system’s first “art plot.” As the barley grew, Sam called me in to help him transition the project to its next phase. Sam has written a great piece on this – you can find it here. […]

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