PHOTOGRAPHY BY CRYSTAL BIRNS
Composting evangelist transforms an eyesore into a neighborhood treasure
Located just steps from scenic West Cliff Drive, the view from Michelle Yahn’s front porch is phenomenal—wide ocean vistas punctuated by breaching whales and soaring pelicans. But when Yahn moved into her Santa Cruz home in 2008, the backyard was a different story. Behind the back fence, the public alleyway stretching from Modesto Avenue to Swanton Boulevard was piled with trash and choked with brambles, a magnet for illicit drinking and drug use.
Many people might have decided to lock the back gate, stay on the front porch and enjoy the view.
But Yahn is no front-porch sitter. She’s a guerilla gardener and composting evangelist, the kind of gal who sallies forth at dawn to pull weeds and plant flowers in neglected public areas. All those alleyway weeds could be composted, she thought, lots of that trash recycled. She threw open her back gate and assessed the situation.
“I found abandoned sawhorses, a couch, a jet ski overgrown with weeds,” she said. “There were vines everywhere and under the vines were layers and layers of trash. Chip bags and bottles, needles and hygiene products. It had to go.”
Armed with a shovel and a wheelbarrow, Yahn began excavating trash and pulling weeds, clearing first the section behind her own fence, and then battling her way down the 1,000-footlong alley.
First on her hit list were the foxtails that lodged in her dogs’ ears, then the crabgrass, the rat-filled ivy, the wickedly thorny Himalayan blackberries. “I hacked through ivy roots as thick as my arm,” Yahn said. “It’s a workout; I’ve never needed to join a gym.”
In the early years, she’d come across teenagers surreptitiously smoking and drinking in the alleyway. “I’d walk up and say, ‘Hi, I’m Michelle! How are you?’” she said, demonstrating her greeting with a bright smile and a big laugh. “They stopped coming.”
She’s a guerilla gardener and composting evangelist, the kind of gal who sallies forth at dawn to pull weeds and plant flowers in neglected public areas.
Not all of the alleyway discoveries were bad. Yahn’s bushwhacking uncovered an archaeology of previous gardening efforts, including 15-foot-tall yucca plants, bananas, citrus trees and a sturdy little peach, all found struggling beneath thickets of ivy and blackberry.
The fruit trees are now thriving and the sawhorses, sporting a pink floral paint job, are used for traffic control during neighborhood block parties. And thanks to years of grit and inspiration, the entire length of the alleyway has been transformed into a lovely linear garden.
“This is the opposite of an English garden,” said Yahn on a foggy May morning, as she unlatched her back gate to walk the alleyway with this visiting writer. Yahn, an actor and drama teacher, was kitted out for physical labor this day in dark pinstripe trousers, pink aviator shades and a pair of well-worn Australian work boots. A grey felt top hat, perched atop a mane of sun-streaked hair, added several inches to her petite frame. A sleeveless vest with a Grateful Dead emblem warded off the foggy breeze.
The Modesto Alley gardenway reflects a similar fun and eclectic style. The 15-foot-wide passage is bordered by tall wooden fences that provide reflected warmth while dampening the coastal winds. A narrow dirt pathway winds between shrubs, trees, flowerbeds and the occasional compost pile.
Nasturtium leaves the size of salad plates wave gently at hipheight, interspersed with a kaleidoscopic selection of plants.
There are mint and squash, marguerites and Jerusalem sage, Peruvian lilies and camellia, bottlebrush and pelargoniums. Swags of rose blossoms and blazing bougainvillea sway from backyard fences, while fast-growing tree dahlias shoot towards the sky.
“This dirt used to be dead dirt,” Yahn said, poking at the dark earth with the toe of her boot. “You’d hold it in your hand and it would just blow away. Like a sandcastle.”
Now, after years of composting, the soil feels springy underfoot, and drinks up rainfall like a sponge. Yahn’s good friend Lydia Neilsen, a permaculture landscaper and garden educator, comes once a week to contribute muscle power and expertise.
Most of the neighbors appreciate Yahn’s tireless work; some have unsealed their back gates and ventured out to plant the alleyway with vegetables and flowers of their own. One disgruntled neighbor objected to the composting element of the alley project, referring to Yahn as “the pile lady.”
The name makes Yahn giggle. “It’s a badge of honor,” she said. “And anyway, he moved.”
Years ago, while at a conference, Yahn had a chance conversation with an engaging fellow who turned out to be Yvon Chouinard, the founder and then-CEO of outdoor outfitter Patagonia.
“He said, work in your own neighborhood,” she recalled. “You can’t fight the mountaintop removal in West Virginia from your home in California. Work where you are. Activism is in your backyard.”
Yahn has embraced that approach, infusing environmental activism into her daily life of teaching, theater, parenting and neighborhood activities. At her wedding, Yahn gave guests a book on backyard composting. Now she offers reusable plates, jars, linens and silverware to party planners for free, preventing the needless use of disposable items. “I try to spread the word, make it simple enough for a third grader to understand. Don’t make trash. Compost. Use real stuff.”
Yahn intends to continue tending her gardens, but would love to reach a bigger audience with information about gardening, composting and harvesting rainwater. “Maybe a podcast? Online demonstrations? People want to grow food, and share food,” Yahn said. “I think there’s a lot of interest out there.”
Garden historian Mac Griswold famously called gardening “the slowest of the performing arts,” a sentiment Yahn emphatically agrees with. She gestured at the alleyway’s glorious springtime greenery, more than a decade’s work invested and still a work in progress. “I feel like I’m the director of this spectacular play.”
Maria Gaura is a lifelong writer, journalist and gardener. She lives in downtown Santa Cruz with her family, two elderly cats and an ambivalent garden that can’t decide if it wants to be a vegetable patch, a flower bed or a miniature orchard.