Lucy Neely: Gardening in Alex Thomas Plaza

The Gardens Project
Garden photo by Janie Sheppard

Since I first arrived in Ukiah, the garden beds behind the benches in Alex Thomas Plaza have lay fallow and looked dreary. People try to grow cigarette butts in them, but they don’t seem to take. I know the City of Ukiah is super busy, so I figured that, as a resident of Ukiah, I would help them out and plant a garden there. This was a personal project, independent of my role at The Gardens Project. The Gardens Project is not associated with this garden project.

I wondered what would happen if the City of Ukiah caught me planting vegetables in an empty garden bed. But silly me! I didn’t consider the people that spend time in Alex Thomas Plaza and how they would jive with the garden.

At noon on Thursday March 31st, my friend and I double dug and prepped the bed. The lunch hour hot dog stand crowd was there and people gave a few curious glances. We returned around six o’clock with two trays of veggie starts and, lo and behold: there was a tribe of young people hanging around the freshly prepped garden bed! And many footsteps in the bed! This tribe of young people wear many a piercing, wild hair colors, either very tight or very baggy and very black or very colorful clothing, chain smoke cigarettes, and yell quite a bit. We introduced ourselves and chatted while we planted.

We finished planting around eight o’clock (there are lights in Alex Thomas Plaza. Night gardening is a go.). I stepped back from our work, looked around and realized there were twenty young people in various states of intoxication who were used to walking all over this garden bed. So I rushed out, cut some bamboo, came back and made a little fence. I talked with the tribe members as we worked. Several asked what we had planted. “Spinach, kale, chard, corn mache, lettuce, calendulas, peas…” We asked them if they would watch out for the garden and try not to step on it. They said they would and even offered to inflict physical harm on anyone who “messed with it.” I watched as intoxicated young people sweetly and considerately stopped themselves mid-step from walking their usual path, which I had turned into a garden.

I’ve gone back every day to water, and every day at least a few members of the tribe are there, if not a full-blown council. Some of them have grown marijuana, a couple have vegetable gardens at their homes, one worked a wheat farm in Kansas. I asked them what they would think if they could plant all the empty beds behind the benches and make it their garden. A boy with a square jaw, a baseball cap, and a pipe said, “Yeah. Thad be what’s up.” (I’ve learned ‘what’s up’ is a very positive thing to be) One large native man with blood shot eyes excitedly declared “ohhh, salad when we get the munchies!” At the idea of strawberries, a young woman wearing pajamas slapped hands with her friend and shouted, “that’s what’s up!” Others remarked how much they’d like to have tomatoes.

These kids are sweet. They are a family and they look out for each other. And now they look out for the garden and I guess in that way, me, too. When I show up, they’ll say, “we’ve totally been watching your garden’s back.” It’s obviously true, and I’m so grateful. They could have chosen to just be destructive – that’s easy to do – but they have respected and cared for the space, and all the plants are still alive a week later when I worried they wouldn’t make it even a day.

These young people talk about all sorts of adolescent issues: figuring out how to get laid, partying, being in and out of juvenile hall, the medications they are put on for their emotions, and what they can find to do next.

It’s glaringly obvious that they don’t have much to do; that these young people are part of a system that’s largely disintegrated meaningful work or obligations and left them with little alternative. Maybe a few of these young people would like to garden. In fact, from talking to them, I know they would, especially if they got paid. We’ve thrown around the idea of planting all the empty beds with tomatoes and, without hesitation, they’ve said they would want to work on the project. They want something to do. I don’t know how the rest of Ukiah would feel about it, but it seems like a good idea to me. If it’s anybody’s space, it’s these kids’ space, and they need something to do. If you have an opinion one way or another on whether these bored-out-of-their-minds young people and I should try and plant the empty garden beds behind the benches in Alex Thomas, please email that opinion to me at

I like this tribe that I’ve gotten to know and I’m happy that they unexpectedly popped into my life. But I do think they need something to do, where they can be young and confused and foolish, but at the same time create a healthier future for themselves.


Go Lucy!! This is a great article in so many ways. Thanks for all you’re doing in our community.

Lucy–I love your approach to the “tribe” located on the Alex Thomas Plaza. Just shows how a mission will inspire so many people.

I will smile every time I walk across the Plaza, thanks to you and the “Tribe.”

I’m an organic coffee farmer in South Kona on Big Island Hawaii and I’m truly convinced of the healing power of gardening. I surely hope your community gets behind you and perhaps “the gang” can sell some of the produce or start flats of seedlings to sell to the community or make a documentary for the net about the garden that they have adopted through your civic-minded generosity. I hope you’ll tell more of this story as it goes along. Thanks from afar for sharing the healing of forming a relationship with plants and the land with kids who need this perspective on how they might spend some time. There is so much to learn from growing one’s own food and such pride in eating it and sharing it with others. You have opened doors! Thanks Lucy

-“garden gnome tribe” – you rock, i mean, “you’re what’s up – loosey…”