Rockdale community gardeners look to raised beds for better crops
If you discovered tiny pearls covering the roots of last summer's poorly performing tomatoes, you probably had parasitic roundworms called nematodes. And what plagued your garden back then defines the task that you shouldn't avoid right now: It's time to heal the soil.
That's what Cardie Kremer Molina (pictured) realized last winter at the Eagle Rockdale Community Garden, or "Rockdale" to gardeners here in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles. After seeing the deformities of her scrawny tomato roots, Molina spent months trying to bring the soil back to health. Two months of solarizing the soil under plastic was followed by a cover crop of nitrogen-building rapeseed. After the plant matured, it was dug up and spread into the soil to decompose with compost, blood meal, bone meal, iron and chicken manure. By March, Molina was ready to try tomatoes again.
"It was a fabulous crop. I got lots of 2-pound Mortgage Lifters," she said, citing a storied variety developed in the 1930s by a man who used seedling sales to pay off his house.
The gardeners of Rockdale's 50 plots have two other common concerns: poison oak and anemic soil. The latter dictates that everything be planted in containers or in raised or terraced beds filled with soil trucked in by the city. The garden sits on a former spur of the light-rail line, and although the tracks are gone, the decades-old asphalt remains in many places, just a few inches under the topsoil. Below the asphalt is the rock of Eagle Rock.
"It's pick-and-shovel work to even go down 3 inches," said Mike Woodward, the garden's elected manager. "So we're raising the level of the ground instead of trying to dig it out."
Part of the effort includes 165 cubic yards of mulch that has been scattered on all the non-planted areas, giving the garden the feeling of a forest floor. Woodward is trying to make inexpensive, easily assembled raised beds out of jute tubes stuffed with straw. It takes about an hour of community labor to fill the tubes, normally used as a portable erosion-control tool. Here at Rockdale they have become low-rise DIY containers that won't erode like wood. They do eventually deflate, Woodward said, so you have to prop them up with plenty of mulch.
A similarly inventive approach comes from multimedia artist Frances Garretson, Molina's neighbor. She built four portable containers using chicken wire and layers of old wool sweaters, junk mail, dried sweet pea vine or used bicycle inner tubes, pictured at right.
The point of the experiment: to see which would last longest and keep plants happy.
"The junk mail and the inner tubes are holding up the best," she said, and, more important, all performed better than her nematode-filled plot of earth. She has yanked out most of the summer crop in favor of okra, eggplant, fava beans and collards.
In the plot next door, Molina has put in her first winter garden: collards, rapini, beets, onions, garlic, mizuna, parsleys, chard. "With this rain," she said, "it's been perfect."
-- Jeff Spurrier
Spurrier's dispatches from community gardens appear every Wednesday.
Photos: Ann Summa