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L.A. River cane supports Elysian Valley garden

July 27, 2011 |  1:18 pm

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 40: Jardin del Rio, Los Angeles

Rio206 At a recent group meeting at Elysian Valley’s Jardin del Rio Community Garden, garden manager David de la Torre wound up his announcements with a request for members to leave the gates open at both ends (like the one above) when they’re tending their plots. The garden’s location allows a handy shortcut that cuts off blocks, to the market, school or church. From his perspective an open gate also invites the community to see the space as theirs, a local resource as well as a convenience. He’s given keys to neighboring non-gardening older residents so they can pass through anytime.

Rio254The Jardin del Rio garden has been in Elysian Valley seven years, 28 plots in a tidy neighborhood of mostly single-story, single-family homes, bordered by Elysian Park and the surrounding freeways. It is also bisected by the L.A. River, home to frogs which periodically have invaded the banks -- hence the more commonly used name, Frogtown. Thirty years ago the Frogtown street gang, numbering in the thousands, ruled here. Jardin del Rio is on what was once a public playground until the city abandoned it, letting it become a dirt drive-through and, inevitably, gang turf.

Now the kids from Dorris Place Elementary wander the plots on field trips, the local Neighborhood Watch meets under the gazebo. The Frogtown Artwalk is interested. And the garden gates have remained tag-free. “There are things that people respect and I think the garden is one,” says De la Torre, pictured at left.

Like the river cane trellises in the plots, built from stalks harvested from the river’s islands, the gardeners reflect the neighborhood -- Asian, Hispanic, African American, white. Most are local and older although a few downtown loft dwellers are there as well. If they’ll come this far to garden, they must be serious, De la Torre figures.

Rio129Along with the standard corn/tomatoes/squash summer blend, the plots are notably full of Asian greens: pastel green shiso (perilla leaf) along with its more flavorful variety, purple and scratchy on the tongue. Mid-garden, the Chongs, Woo Chul and Soon Ja (pictured at right), have a plot full of minari, a bitter Korean herb used as seasoning for kimchi, a salad garnish, or, most common, a daily cleansing drink, especially for tipplers. It’s a species of non-toxic water dropwort, oenanthe javanica, similar to watercress. It grows quickly in the spring and summer, and they harvest it heavily, a cut-and-come-again crop.

“You drink one cup [of juice] everyday,” says Lily Kim, their plot neighbor who also is growing it. “It’s not sweet but gives good health to the liver and cleans the blood.”

Anita Adcock has a plot full of squash that’s flowering but not setting fruit. She’s British and had never gardened before. She’s tried pollinating the plants with a small paint brush but now is relying on her pinky finger. “My father was an award-winning market gardener,” she says. “I could really use his advice now.”

Each plot in the garden is marked by numbered bird houses, handmade by Robert Garcia, a Vietnam vet and former truck driver, disabled by a crash that left him with 10 screws and two rods in his neck. He wandered into the garden one day thinking, “How hard can it be? Throw some seeds on the ground and water.”

“Well, there’s more to it than that I’ve learned,” he says, leaning on his cane and smiling. “I am here for two or three hours sometimes. It’s very therapeutic.”

Rio341 (The Korean pancakes above were made with fresh chives by gardener Jung Son Cho and served with cucumber from Lily Kim and tomato from Anita Adcock.)

Rio031The Jardin del Rio’s example is now replicating in the neighborhood. A second community garden has just cleared land at Blake and Ridge streets, about a mile away. Across the river in Glassell Park, the Drew Street Community Garden broke ground in April, on the site of a gang house that was bull-dozed in 2009.

(At left Bernice Leung grows squash and gourds on a trellis made by her neighbor with cane from the bed of the L.A. River.)

 -- Jeff Spurrier

Photos: Ann Summa

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