Richmond resident turns barren public spaces into wildflower oases

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Every day for the last 15 years, retired Richmond chemist Gil Patchett has battled weeds, litter and illegal dumping on two public spaces near the elevated BART tracks and his home.

It’s all for a worthy cause: maintaining and expanding upon two lush wildflower projects that have provided a stunning and unexpected urban setting for walkers, runners and cyclists who use the Ohlone Greenway trail.

Patchett, 89, often goes twice daily to work on the two wildflower projects, which are located about seven blocks apart. The larger project is located near Key Boulevard and Conlon Avenue.

“I’m a bit of a Johnny Appleseed,” he said.

Patchett has been proving a point with the wide varieties of wildflowers he’s grown annually. 

“They bloom every year with natural rainfall only,” he said. “An ugly and barren area of poor soil and clay has slowly been converted into a fertile landscape. Costs were negligible and serve as an example for beautifying other parts of the cities and county.”

Patchett is proud of what he’s put in the soil, but even more proud of what he hasn’t left behind.

“I serve our Mother Earth by leaving a very small carbon footprint,” he said. “No fossil fuels are used, no mechanical equipment is used, all plants are composted naturally, and depend upon natural rainfall only.”

Patchett has lived at the same home on Dimm Street for more than four decades. You will know which home is his — the front yard is filled to the brim with colorful wildflowers.

Patchett graduated from UC Berkeley as a chemist and enjoyed a 35-year career in the agricultural department at a Richmond-based chemical company, where he developed microanalytical methods for pesticides in crops.

He retired at age 57 because he “didn’t want to be penned up during prime time.”

“I wanted to be outside,” he said.

Following retirement, he began landscaping neighbors’ yards for free, then traveled the world before returning home to work on his wildflower projects.

At 89, Patchett acknowledges that he’s slowing down and may not be able to continue the work for much longer. Thankfully, he found the perfect volunteer who he hopes can sustain the projects.

“I now have a dedicated helper, Shen Yue, to assist in maintaining a complex environment to achieve a beautiful ambiance for this busy commuter pathway,” he said.

Yue is a rare expert with a Masters degree in Landscape Design from Harvard University. She graciously volunteers to assist in the maintenance and growth of the wildflower projects, Patchett said.

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