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At Wattles Farm, 30 years of work bears fruit

February 16, 2011 |  8:00 am

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Community Gardens Dispatch No. 19: Wattles Farm, Hollywood

As in most community gardens, Wattles Farm has a rule against trees in personal plots, lest the shade impede crops and raise tensions among neighboring gardeners. One exception here is the lemon tree in the space gardened by Gina Thomas, head of the tree committee. "It was here before I was," she says. "So it was grandfathered in."

It's fitting. Thanks to her decades-long effort, the variety of fruit-bearing shrubs and trees in Wattles' common areas is staggering: bananas, mangos, papayas, nectarines, apples, guavas  (including lemon, strawberry and pineapple guavas), key lime (grafted onto an orange tree by Thomas 30 years ago), dwarf tangerines, olive, figs, Oro Blanco grapefruit, Washington navel oranges, blood oranges, persimmons, pomegranates, Chinese pear, cherimoya, peach, apricot. The list of multicultural delights goes on and on.

1-wattles-coffee-cherries2 Italian by birth — she was born on the isle of Capri — Thomas learned about tropical fruits from David Silber, founder of the Papaya Tree Nursery, a Granada Hills specialist in tropical fruits. Now as head of the tree committee, she and a team of eight are responsible for feeding and pruning the tree and harvesting and distributing the fruit. The last part can be tricky. Harvesting the six coffee plants, for example, is a chore.

When the berries (shown at right) turn red, they have to be picked, then the pulp around the bean must be removed. The beans must be washed, then allowed to dry, and then the husk must be removed, Thomas says.

"It's very complicated. I did it once. I prefer to go and buy my coffee for $15 a pound," she says. "Everybody who harvests the coffee does it once and that's it — never again."

It can also be a task to persuade other farmers to try something new. Many of the gardeners at Wattles are from Eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union, mainly the Ukraine, Georgia and the part of Russia around Moscow. They grow copious amounts of tomatoes, cucumbers and dill in the summer, beets and greens in the winter, Thomas says. Until high winds toppled a tall ice-cream bean tree, the center of the garden was inundated with fallen bean pods filled with a sweet, juicy pulp, considered a tropical delicacy. "We had hundreds of them but we had to teach people how to eat them," Thomas says.

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As she walks through the garden, she points out the papayas. The Mexican papaya is the best, she says, followed by Hawaiian. She tried Brazilian, but she didn't think they tasted that good. Papayas grow so quickly, it's relatively easy to experiment.

"Just throw the seeds in the ground and feed them and they grow," says Thomas, at right in the picture above with an unidentified Wattles gardener. "In two years you can get papayas."

The community garden is positioned in what had been the lower fruit orchard of the Wattles estate, and the avocado-citrus blend is something Thomas wants to preserve. Some of the orange trees are more than 30 years old, and for production to stay high, new trees must be planted.

"I would like to have yuzu or citron," she says. "Something different."

-- Jeff Spurrier

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Oro Blanco grapefruit.

 

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Birdbath in the garden.

 

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Papaya tree.

 

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Some ornamental flowers among the fruit trees.

 

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A sign in the compost area hints at the multicultural nature of the community.

 

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A greenhouse on the four-acre grounds.

 

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Vladimir Shilminskiy, at right with tomato seedlings, and fellow gardener Vladimir Krimsky, inside the greenhouse.

 

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Garden talk around the communal table.

 

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A Wattles Farm sentry.

Corrected: Captions in an earlier version of this post misidentified the Oro Blanco grapefruit as Chinese pears and mistakenly referred to the papaya tree as a mango tree.

Photos: Ann Summa

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