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At Sepulveda Garden Center, fee hikes spur some to dig in and others to throw in the trowel

May 19, 2011 |  1:27 pm

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Community Gardens Dispatch No. 31: Sepulveda Garden Center, Encino

An increase in fees, the first major hike since this place was founded in 1966, has been roiling the Sepulveda Garden Center, the mother of all community gardens in Los Angeles.

Sepulveda is the oldest and the biggest, with more than 800 plots on nearly 20 acres of land. Gardeners have liked it for many reasons. It’s freeway close, the thrum of the traffic on the 101 softened by a wall of mature trees: sweet gum, eucalyptus and even a few redwoods.

It's also part public park, with grassy lawns, shade trees, benches, a meeting hall, a library and demonstration gardens with roses, cactus and native plants. These are maintained by some of the 11 gardening clubs and plant societies that use the Sepulveda Garden Center regularly, including the Southern California Garden Club, the Woodland Hills Floral Designers and the California Rare Tree Growers.

Sepulveda406 A separate area grows food for L.A. Zoo herbivores, most notably the koalas, and periodically the harvest comes full circle, returning to Sepulveda as Zoo Poo compost for gardeners to use.

“It vanishes quickly,” said Vel Lauterio, Sepulveda's new senior gardener, right.

She arrived in December, an employee of the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks, which controls the land. Back then the garden was rife with talk about the fee hike, the annual cost of each 10-by-20-foot lot rising to $120 from $25, a 480% increase.

Some gardeners had five plots, so the new fee -- made public in November and set to go into effect next month -- was a game-changer. Some gardeners protested. About 30 quit.

Lauterio noted that the new rate amounts to $10 a month for land, water, compost and use of tools. The increase is meant to offset budget cuts to Recreation and Parks, which does have to pay for water used at the garden. It’s Lauterio's job to start sending out notices of the new rate at the end of the month, but gardeners' uncertainty about the future already was visible during planting season. Many delayed planting for spring, and some beds are overgrown with weeds or have winter greens gone to flower.

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Sometimes it is hard to tell what’s abandoned and what’s intentional here. No plot numbers here, just a map in Lauterio’s office. All communication is done via snail mail. The height restrictions are casually ignored, along with rules against invasive plants and weeding. Fences and trellises are built out of whatever works, although white picket fences seem most popular.

Sepulveda433 Overall, the gardens are wonderfully idiosyncratic. Some are junkyard-cluttered; others are nothing but cut flowers or cactus, as perfect as a demonstration garden. You have to bend under a Hobbit-sized honeysuckle bower to enter one plot, a secret garden of succulents and flowers. At another plot, a 7-foot-high rosemary hedge hides any view of what lies within.

You will see towering sugar cane, witch scarecrows, mint and morning glory left to a frenzied abandon and artichokes everywhere, gone to flower in a sea of foxtails. Sepulveda Garden Center is a glorious mess of fantasy gardens — some realized, others less so. No wonder it has a 300-person waiting list.

Next week: New gardeners and theft

-- Jeff Spurrier

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Berry plants for edible hedges.

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Roses in May bloom.


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Birdhouse sculpture.

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An intruder on an artichoke leaf.

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Part park, part community garden.

Photos: Ann Summa

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Photography: The series in pictures

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