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Ivo Kirov, left, and August Wagele, right, build a fence around a vacant lot on Oakland Avenue near the Concord BART station on Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013 in Concord, Calif. Over a dozen volunteers from the neighborhood are working to transform the lot into a productive and attractive neighborhood garden. (Aric Crabb/Staff)

CONCORD -- In a literal expression of "grass roots," Oakland Avenue neighbors are pulling up weeds and improving first impressions of Concord. They joined together to transform an unsightly vacant lot facing the Concord BART station into a fresh food garden.

August Wagele and his neighbors started clearing debris and building fences for the Harvest Lot garden last Saturday, but the project officially kicks off at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 2.

The Harvest Lot mission is to produce healthy food for the hungry in this area, demonstrate sustainability and beautify their neighborhood.

"It is hard work, but it is great being out there in the fresh air," Wagele says. "It will be even better when there is produce to load up and hand out to people who will eat it."

Weeds, vagrants, trash, campfires and even "occupiers" with signs have littered the lot for years. Real estate agent for the investor-owned 50x150-foot lot tried to secure the property while police kept an eye on it, according to Realtor Chad Elkin of Chad Mitchell Associates.

Still, neighbors watched and worried about security.

"I was passing by on my way home last summer when I realized that the whole neighborhood was dragged down by blight and nuisances. I decided to do something about it," Wagele recalls. "I had been thinking about sustainability and the idea for transforming the eyesore property into a productive resource."

Wagele turned that thought into the nonprofit Harvest Lot and started recruiting neighbors and negotiating for permission to clean up the lot and plant food.

"I think the garden is a good idea because it will improve the neighborhood, and it could improve property values," Elkin says.

When volunteers Sheila Hill and Brent Nelson joined the Harvest Lot garden board of directors and a two-year lease on the property was signed, Wagele's enthusiasm soared. He went to work on a garden plan and Meet Up connection for communicating with volunteers and posting planting schedules.

"Sheila has extensive experience with the garden at Eagle Peak School in Walnut Creek and we have a Master Gardener coming in," he says.

Nelson says he is glad to be a part of the project.

"It's a great concept ... through education and providing free food, we can help educate people on the benefits and importance of making more health-conscious eating decisions."

Volunteers call it an agricultural restoration.

"Cathy Munneke, at the Concord Department of Economic and Community Development, told me about Concord's agricultural history. This undeveloped lot is a remnant of that history," Wagele says.

"If we can make this work, it can become a model for other neighborhoods," he says. "Vacant lots that are part of the neighborhood, it is a way to bond with the community. Neighbors will watch over it and be able to help others in our community."

The group plans to produce a manual to guide others who can use the Harvest Lot as a template for improving a vacant lot in their own neighborhood.

Harvest Lot produce is destined for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano County, the Monument Crisis Center, SHARE on Willow Pass Road, and other local food pantries.

"Hopefully, we will create a more healthy community, to benefit the community as a whole," Nelson says.

Wagele believes their project reflects a larger contemporary movement.

"I think our society has drifted so far away from our history that people want to connect with the earth. So many people have their own chickens, are growing their own food."

The growth of the organic food industry and the popularity of farmers markets, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are evidence of the trend, according to Wagele.

Other signs include efforts such as the Mt. Diablo Unified School District's Iron Chef competition emphasizing nutrition and flavor, Vicente Martinez High School's New Leaf program, Sustainable Danville's garden, and the recent Earth Island Institute application to lease Central Contra Costa Sanitary District land for a sustainable farm.

"Then there is the economy," Wagele says. "People may be thinking that life got a little too easy. Technology, fast food, microwave and dehydrated food; what about the link to rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes?"

Some have already stepped up to help the garden project. A horse owner brought a load of manure for composting, Ashby Lumber donated some of the wood for fences, and Home Depot gave Harvest Lot a 25 percent discount on other materials.

"We will be reaching out to local individuals, businesses and foundations for financial support and we will have a sponsor plaque at the front of the garden recognizing those in the community who help or contribute to the garden," Wagele says.

Contact Dana Guzzetti at dguzzetti@gmail.com or call 925-202-9292.

If you go
WHAT: Groundbreaking of Concord Harvest Lot garden
WHEN: 10 a.m. Saturday, March 2
WHERE: 1400 Oakland Ave., Concord
INFORMATION: http://www.meetup.com/Harvest-Lots-Concord-Community-Garden/ or www.harvestlots.org