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At Micheltorena, a hybrid school-community garden rises where the Priuses used to park

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 23: Micheltorena, Los Angeles

The community garden at Micheltorena Elementary School broke ground just four months ago, replacing seven parking spaces with dwarf fruit trees and kid-friendly, low-profile raised beds. Visible through the 8-foot chain link fence that separates it from Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, to passersby the garden may seem to have arisen almost overnight, like a mushroom after the rain.

Micheltorena-L-1-H“It’s given a prettier face to our Sunset side,” says Susanna Furfari, the principal. “The neighborhood forgot about us and didn’t even notice the school was here anymore. It’s made us stand out again. This is an opportunity for the community to welcome us back.”

Turns out the school has a lot of friends it didn’t know it had. Local businesses, the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council, the Friends of Micheltorena parents group and volunteers have donated money or labor to get the garden operational for spring. It’s a hybrid, on school grounds and for classroom use but also open to the community. (That's Joseph Zavala at the top of the post.)

Now open Wednesdays and Saturdays, the garden (check out the site's "kids garden weblinks") is communal and has no private plots, no interior fences and, for now, no hard-and-fast rules. Deciding what will be planted is up to whomever is working on a planting day. The garden has more than 100 volunteers — some parents, some just neighbors.

“We decided early on that we were going to plant together, tend it together, and have harvest festivals together,” says Charles Wurmfeld, a volunteer and early organizer. Some plants are in the ground. The three sisters -- corn, squash and beans -- went in first, along with mint in sunken 4-inch pots to keep it from spreading.

Micheltorena-L-9-V-mud Mud Baron, right, until two months ago the green policy director for the Los Angeles Unified School District, arrives one recent Saturday at Micheltorena with his pickup truck full of plant plugs for a giveaway. When he was working for LAUSD, Baron was legendary for his ability to raise in-kind donations; hundreds of thousands of seedlings were donated for school gardens. But losing his job didn't mean he lost his passion. This time he has brought more than 10,000 seedlings from Organics, a grower for Whole Foods.

Most of the assembled crowd are teachers from all over L.A., eager to get ready-to-transplant tomatoes, peppers, herbs and ornamentals. The more organized folks have plastic bags and labels in hand.

Baron tells the group that they don’t need to be gentle with the plugs. As an example, he yanks out a handful. They’ve been in the truck since Wednesday, and although they look beaten up, they’ll survive. “I used to be all delicate and gentle and box this stuff up,” he says, tossing a tray onto the asphalt from the bed of the truck. “Now I'm the botanic version of the Beverly Hillbillies.”

Spotting Charles, he hands over two trays that had been saved for the host. “These are Sun Sugar and Sun Cherry tomatoes," Baron says. "This is the crack of the tomato world.”

Micheltorena-L-8-V-selectin Micheltorena-L-2-V-citrus Inez Zavala, a teacher at Enadia Way Elementary in West Hills, is arranging his selections while his son, Joseph, visits the worms in the worm bin. Zavala is working with a 4,300-square-foot plot at his school and is about to get two more spaces for habitat gardens. Joseph, he says, is an expert at finding bugs.

“He’s 4,” he says. “For two years he’s been hunting tomato worms in the garden for me. He knows all the bugs. Ever since my kids have been involved in the garden I can prepare any kind of food for them and they don’t resist it.”

Micheltorena-5-L-H-plugdeta Another elementary schoolteacher walks up to Baron holding a partially full tray of tomato seedlings in her hand — maybe 150 plants. Not wanting to appear greedy, she asks, “Can I take a tray for the third-graders?”

Baron waves away her concern. There is no such thing as taking too many if the plants are bound for a school, he says. If a teacher wants to take a whole tray so every kid can grow a tomato for Mother's Day, he says, that’s great.

He watches the crowd plucking seedlings from the trays with satisfaction.

“My general attitude that there should never be a teacher that has to beg for anything," he says.

Before he leaves, Baron announces that his new job is as a spokesman for the company Seeds of Change and that he’ll be back soon with another giveaway -- this time a couple of hundred thousand heirloom organic seed packets.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Dispatches from community gardens are posted on Wednesdays. For an easy way to follow headlines, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.

Volunteer Susan Hutchinson

Isabel Zavala holds up a worm.

Photos: Ann Summa


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Comments () | Archives (16)

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This is wonderful. When I pass schools in LA, all I remember seeing are undistinguished buildings, chain link fences and asphalt parking spots. This is wonderful. Oh, I already said that.

I personally think this is a waste of money. There are teachers and staff member being laid off and the parking structure is ridiculous to the residence for the past 6-7 years now. Cant you do something to better this instead of wasting money in something is not going to last?

Make better changes, not nonsence

The school garden was not paid for with any LAUSD money. It was all donations that did not take a penny from teachers. The garden has overwhelming support from the city council, the school community and the volunteers who work and maintain the garden. In response to the isolated critique posted here, I must say that its sad but amusing that there is always a curmudgeon hissing "Bah humbug!" No matter how benevolent the project.

Oh Mrs. Torres,

This was a group of your neighbors in Los Angeles spending their own time on a Saturday night trying to, gasp, make their schools just a little better. I know, I know, the kids don't deserve anything better than chain link and asphalt, but there are us contentious types that differ with the pre-Folsom aesthetic.

Waste? Well, say what you will, but the whole cost of the event was about $100 bucks out of our collective pockets (you were not charged Mrs. Torres the taxpayer). Fifty schools from Venice to Monrovia also attended and received plants for their silly gardens too. Lordy! Better than that, 75% of kids that participate in outdoor education programs like gardens do better with testing and the whole grade point thing, according to the CDE (what do they know?). I can't cite data, but I'd bet that kids that garden are more likely to spell, "nonsence," too.

I'm sure if LAUSD had it's hand in a parking structure it is u-g-l-y, but we can't control that. Apologies, regardless. The neighbors (Charles and Susan and Leonardo) WERE able to commit their time and make the school a little better with the garden. And that? Yes, stepping up and doing a little to fight the VERY EXPENSIVE childhood obesity epidemic by putting in a proven system for getting kids to eat broccoli isn't "nonsence," now is it?

Dear Elizabeth Torres. Here in Australia we do not find this kind of mind and body enriching behaviour as nonsense, in fact, it has become part of the school curriculum. Google Stepahnie Alexander Kitchen Garden Scheme. I assure you she is far from nonsensical. She is a award winning, multi gazillion copy cook book author who governments, families, school communities love dearly for giving our children the opportunity to learn about where their food comes from. They then prep and eat what they have grown. Schools are turning disused areas into vibrant lush food forests. Instead of sitting back and criticising, why not head down to the school and get your hands dirty. You just might learn something. Nonsensical? I don't think so. Enriching? You better believe it.

I fail to see how teaching children about where their food comes from and building community be nonsense: Our schools don't need more asphalt or parking structures.

I commend Mud Baron and others who volunteer their time and resources to show students that there's a lot that can be learned outside their school's doors, and I'm grateful that the staff of Micheltorena continue--and in some cases are expanding--their programs even under tremendous financial pressure.

Not only wasnt it paid for out of school funds but the school is getting all the amazing benefits associated with having a garden. While Mud Baron mentions some of the benefits, here is just a sampling including some links to research studies of what the students will get out of this: http://www.teichgardensystems.com/School-Garden-Research.html

I know it is a tough time for school budgets but even in difficult financial times you want things that provide the greatest benefits and gardens fall into that catagory I believe

A huge "thumbs-up" to all the volunteers that made the garden possible!

Gardens are important, not just to teach children about growing but to help them learn about eating more fruits and vegetables. These days we are all more disconnected from the earth. It's not a good thing for anyone and not a legacy to pass on to the next generation.

Nonsense?? I wonder what "better changes" Mrs. Torres has in mind? In my opinion a group of volunteers helping to build a school garden that will help teach children the benefits of eating healthy is about as good a change as one could hope for! School gardens play an important role Mrs Torres! See for yourself: http://www.teichgardensystems.com/School-Garden-Research.html

Kudos to Mud Baron for his help in making this garden a reality!

I was fortunate to participate in the lovely day at Micheltorena! My children, pictured in these photos, are evidence that children love to garden. I am an LAUSD teacher, and the garden is integral in teaching across the curriculum! When we can apply the California State Standards in meaningful ways, why wouldn't we do that?

The California School Garden Network has a mission to enhance academic achievement, a healthy lifestyle, environmental stewardship, and community and social development. A garden in every school means students discover fresh food, make healthier food choices, and become better nourished.Isn't that better than a asphalt lot? I can say as a teacher, I appreciate the benefits of a garde. Besides, motivated, healthful-minded students are better learners!

Thank you, Micheltorena.....Charlie....Mud.....You show the good that 'can be' when people are willing to make positive change!!!!

That's 'an' asphalt & 'garden' not garde. Just typing too quickly.......

I need to add a great big thank you to Leonardo Chalupowicz who has worked tirelessly on this school garden project and others. We are so very grateful for all he does for our public schools. This is a beautiful project where school and community have come together. Hooray to Principal Furfari and LAUSD Facilities Gerald Bryant and the community for realizing this wonderful space for our kids! These are the kids of projects that save our public schools.

Sweet! I covered this happening in a video news story last month: http://squaresyndrome.com/2011/02/green-schools-they-un-paved-paradise/

This is the best sign of spring - kids, outside, food, dirt and smiling faces and all donated by folks who care - absolutely a sign of changing what we know into what we grow. Thank goodness folks are giving the students and neighborhood life back outside the dead walls. Everyone who is doing this - GO YOU! Totally inspired here in Ohio. Thanks L.A. times for telling us - we wouldn't know otherwise - you rock, too.


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