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Long Beach garden fends off pests with stealth weapon: Weeds

July 20, 2011 |  7:07 am

Growing2-marigold
COMMUNITY GARDENS DISPATCH NO. 39: Growing Experience, Long Beach

The thick hedge at the entrance to the Growing Experience community garden is Mexican marigold, above, a drought-tolerant bush whose scent has touches of lemon and mint. As its name might indicate, it has a yellow-orange flower. Perhaps more important, it has a capacity to repel pests. (Canyon gardeners, take note: Deer in particular dislike it.)

The hedge is a barrier behind which a variety of edibles are being allowed to go to seed for later propagation. Master gardener Manuel Cisneros oversees the half-abandoned community garden as well as the adjoining Growing Experience Urban Farm, discussed in detail in last week's dispatch. With only a couple of part-timers to help harvest and water the 6.5-acre site, Cisneros needs all the help he can get. That includes weeds.

Growing2-Ng "We let the weeds go to flower to attract the beneficial insects," says Jimmy Ng, right, project manager at the Growing Experience. "Before they go to seed we cut them down and leave them as mulch."

Some weeds have long taproots that will bring minerals to the surface, Ng says. Plus, some weeds just won't go away, so the philosophy at the Growing Experience is: You might as well work with them.

“The mistake people make is that their garden is perfectly weed-free,” says Cisneros, pointing to an overgrown garden plot. “If I remove all the weeds around those onions, I’ll have to water five times as much. The weeds give shade. It’s all about a balance.”

He has a similar attitude about the fruit beetles now starting to go after the ripening plums in the orchard.

“We will have thousands of them soon. They will attack one tree but leave the others alone,” Cisneros says with a shrug and a smile.

Growing2-weeds
In the beginning, the community garden part of the Growing Experience was a jewel, its 60 plots tended by residents of the nearby Carmelitos housing development. There was a waiting list for plots, and even today it's easy to understand why. Spectacular cycads donated by the Huntington Botanical Gardens line the walkways, and a towering palo verde tree provides shade for benches in a sitting area of the dry garden. Compost, tools, expert advice --  all are available for those tending the community garden plots.

Growing2-lettucetoseedGrowing2-fountainBut today you also will see why not all the weeds are wanted. Weeds sprout up in the basin of a drinking fountain. Celery and lettuces from the winter crops completely bolted, far right. The amphitheater in the rear, once used for group meetings or performances, is barely visible behind the weeds.

The community garden's decline is partly blamed on the success of the other part of the Growing Experience, an urban farm that runs youth programs and a popular community-supported agriculture program with more than 100 subscribers willing to buy produce grown on site. The elders who used to be at the community garden are instead tending two dozen new plots installed in the courtyards of senior housing across the street.

“Once they saw what they could do here, they started their own thing," Ng says.

Meanwhile, younger residents, many of them single parents, may have more pressing concerns than maintaining a garden, says Maria Badrakhan, director of the Housing Management Division, part of the Community Development Commission of Los Angeles County. “Many are just trying to make ends meet. You can only encourage and offer programs. You can’t force them to be interested.”

-- Jeff Spurrier

Growing2-squash-ants
Ants begin to swarm a squash flower.

Photos: Ann Summa

Writer Jeff Spurrier and photographer Ann Summa are spending a year in community gardens, exploring the people and the plantings for The Times. Their dispatches are posted here every Wednesday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.

 
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