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When a community garden isn't so rosy

January 19, 2011 |  8:00 am

Franklin Hills
Community Gardens dispatch No. 15: Norman Harriton / Franklin Hills

Location is not everything. Just look at the Norman Harriton / Franklin Hills Community Garden, perched at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, west of the landmark Shakespeare Bridge in one of Los Angeles' lovely neighborhoods. The garden sits on land owned by the Lycee International de Los Angeles school, near the classrooms and soccer field of Lycee's Los Feliz campus. It has an eye-popping view of the city, spanning  the foothills of Silver Lake west to the hump of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

The view within the garden, however, is less evocative. Bougainvillea and grapevines do their best to camouflage a chain-link fence. Although the rules call for year-round maintenance, it's obvious that some plots haven't been visited since summer, possibly earlier.

For a city where gardeners may wait two years for a plot to open, the waiting list here is surprisingly short, though given the condition of the place, perhaps the bigger surprise is that there's any waiting list at all. Membership to the tiny garden -- 7,000 square feet divided into 26 plots, six reserved for Lycee gardening classes -- costs $50 a year. Plots with active gardeners are easy to spot: You actually can see the soil. Everywhere else you'll see a carpeting of pine needles or an equally thick layer of invasive Johnson grass.

Franklin Hills 3 The garden is named after its founder, the late Norman Harriton, a local resident who worked with the Franklin Hills Residents Assn. and the Lycee to tear up asphalt, cut down mature palms and put in watering stands. Some of the earliest supporters were local real estate agents who recognized that community gardens are great for property values. The result was a secret garden that few newcomers know exists. But Harriton passed away in 2004 and things have not been the same since.

Nowadays when garden coordinator Michele Flynn stops in to tend her plot, the one thing she notices is neglect. 

"There should be one main rule: Once you get a plot, you have to use it," she says, admitting that she's frustrated by the lax enforcement. "If you don't use it, you're out. You're supposed to garden all year, but most people don't."

There are no restrictions on watering timers — verboten at many community gardens — and during the downpours last month, timers in the garden were still operating as usual, irrigating plots in the rain, Flynn says.

Franklin Hills 2
For the garden to improve, she's counting on newcomers such as Jen Kao and husband Aleem Hossein, above, Los Feliz apartment dwellers who arrived in November after a two-year wait on the list. They got to take over an abandoned space, and in raised beds they planted winter favorites: bok choy, radishes, kale, onion, cauliflower and lots and lots of snow peas.

"I like eating, and gardening is an extension of eating," says Kao, a screenwriter. "If we overproduce, there are a lot of people we can give them to."

She's using her collard greens for curry — "first time," she says. She's anxious about her carrots. She had read that they come up quicker if you pour boiling water over the seeds before you cover them up, a form of scarification. So far, however, after a week of waiting, nothing has sprouted.

Still, she's not complaining, not at $50 a year.

"It's free land in Los Angeles. How often does that happen?" she says. "This is such a pleasant place to be outside."

Hossein, a filmmaker, says they usually visit in the afternoon, when the school is holding soccer practice. "It's fun to listen to soccer practice in French, outdoors, while gardening. It's so not-L.A., yet it's the quintessential L.A. experience."

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo credits: Jeff Spurrier

Our dispatches from community gardens are posted every Wednesday. Follow the scene by joining our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.

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