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

March 16, 2011 |  7:00 am

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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.

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Volunteer Susan Hutchinson


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Isabel Zavala holds up a worm.

Photos: Ann Summa

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