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In Santa Monica, a community garden pioneer evolves

October 20, 2010 |  1:44 pm

Community-Main-Street-1

Community gardens dispatch No. 4: Main Street, Santa Monica

The first thing you notice when you walk through Santa Monica's wonderfully eccentric Main Street Community Garden are the fences. They divide most of the 69 plots. In 1976, when the garden began as a variation of hippie, back-to-the-country ethos, the land here had no fences, not even around the perimeter.

Community-Main-Street-2 But as homelessness increased, the garden was enclosed and gardeners started putting up fences -- wire, chain link, white picket, bamboo, lattice -- dividing one plot from another.

The fences, however, are coming down -- slowly -- and at the same time, the sense of community in the garden is growing stronger, said Randy Zeigler, a regular at Main Street for three decades.

"If somebody cares enough to take some of my food, more power to them," he said. "In my 30 years, I’ve never been ripped off by anybody to the point of feeling really hurt. In the community garden we share -- knowledge, especially."

Keep reading for more on the sense of community, the benefits of sharing space and Zeigler's lesson in growing good cilantro ...

This summer Zeigler was having problems getting his cilantro to flourish, even though he was following the seed-package directions and planting every 6 inches. Then he noticed a neighboring gardener whose cilantro was booming.

"He sowed them like carrot seeds, thickly, and then thinned them out," Zeigler said.

At Main Street, as in many community gardens, you're welcome to share advice but you're not allowed to enter another person's plot unless you've been given permission. That means no weeding of the false garlic, no watering in the middle of a Santa Ana wind storm, no propping up of a sunflower that has tipped over -- no matter how much you want to help.

Community-Main-Street-3 But when Susan McCorry noticed that the birds were going after ripening figs on a neighbor’s tree, she couldn't help but throw a net over it. She felt slightly anxious not knowing how the gesture would be taken. “Sometimes good intentions can backfire,” she said. (Fortunately the owner of the fig tree thanked her.)

McCorry has been at Main Street since 1999 and knows the back story of nearly every plot -- who has been sick, who travels a lot, who’s a new mother, who just lost a job or got a part in a film that will keep them away for a season. It's frustrating to see a plot that is planted and then forgotten, watered just enough to set fruit that then rots on the vine, attracting rodents. But that's the exception, not the rule, she said.

Not surprising, given that new gardeners typically wait five years for a plot to open. In 2004 the city tried to shorten the period by imposing term limits  and dividing 20-by-20-foot plots in half, doubling the number of available spaces. McCorry and others rose up in protest and persuaded officials to take a different approach.

"The solution was not to divide these gardens in half but to get more gardens in the city," she said. "We don't need fewer gardeners but more gardens."

The Main Street garden's rules were revised to help seniors continue gardening with the assistance of nonrelatives, to require year-round maintenance of plots and to prohibit certain plants, including kudzu, bamboo, palm, wild fennel and bougainvillea.

Now the city is seen as a trusted partner, allowing the gardeners at Main Street to focus on what's important: powdery mildew, false garlic and the people behind the plants.

Main Street welcomes the public to see the results as long as a community gardener is working inside. Tourists stroll through regularly, taking a break from window shopping. And despite the remaining fences, gardeners have grown to support one another in tough financial times, in sickness, in ways that go beyond watering a neighbor’s plot during a heat wave.

"One thing I’ve learned," McCorry said, "is that gardening makes you generous."

-- Jeff Spurrier

Spurrier's dispatches from community gardens are posted every Wednesday.

Photos, from top: Main Street Community Garden in Santa Monica; Margie Ashkar tends to her Main Street plot almost daily; Susan McCorry experiments with garlic grown in cinderblocks -- her miniature raised beds. Credit: Jeff Spurrier.

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