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Growing Experience in Long Beach: From trash dump to urban farm

Growing-radish Growing-banjoart Growing-carrots Community Gardens Dispatch No. 38: Growing Experience Urban Farm and Community Garden, Long Beach

The community garden at the Carmelitos housing development in north Long Beach is within a stone’s throw of train tracks on what used to be a tumbleweed-filled lot, notorious as a crime-ridden place to dump trash (or worse) and a magnet for gangs, locals say. In the 1990s, the 713-unit Carmelitos was more project than development, the kind of place where pizza delivery drivers and mail carriers went with perhaps more than a little hesitation.

Community policing was one tool employed by the Los Angeles County Housing Authority, the landlord, to deal with the crime. Equally important were improved services for residents (average income $12,500) that included job training and mental health counseling. Both were offered at the Growing Experience, a 6.5-acre parcel that stood as something of a peach among the thistles.

Growing-Ng Now the parcel is divided into two sections: a 2.5-acre community garden and a 4-acre urban farm that includes an orchard with 300 fruit trees, a coop with 20 chickens and the growing area for a CSA, a community supported agriculture program with more than 100 subscribers willing to buy and pickup boxes of fresh produce.

“We’re unique among CSAs in that we grow all of our food here,” says Jimmy Ng, right, the project manager and a landscape architect who has been with the Growing Experience since the beginning.

The facility boasts an unusual infrastructure: a professional-quality greenhouse, potting sheds, drinking fountains, a mini-tractor, industrial refrigeration and an amphitheater. Drought-tolerant landscaping and demonstration plots are extensive; exotic ornamental plants, donated by the Huntington Botanical Garden in San Marino, have reached maturity.

The Growing Experience has been garnering grants and accolades since its beginning, jump-started with $250,000 of federal money and horticultural direction from UC Cooperative Extension’s Common Ground program. The John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard named the Growing Experience one of the "most innovative government programs" in 1996. Next February, the TED conference will visit for an

on-site workshop.

A stroll through the gardens offers a physical timeline of social policy manifested in the dirt. Although the CSA is bringing in people from outside the community and helping erase the stigma associated with Carmelitos, the community garden has languished. Nearly half of the 60 plots have been abandoned.

Growing-Julio Initially the garden served partly as a landscaping school for low-income adults and operated as a plant nursery whose primary clients were state and local institutions needing palm trees for parking lots, for example.  Now Ng oversees a 20-month program at the Growing Experience Urban Farm for at-risk youth, who learn about weeding and harvesting along with writing a resume and dressing for an interview.

“Urban ag is the medium for learning life skills,” Ng says.

Julio Perez, 19, right, came out of the summer youth program. He quit a job at Ross and is working part time at the garden.

“It’s cool, way better”, he says as he ties up bunches of collard greens for the CSA boxes. Now his friends ask him to help in their gardens.

“It’s surprising that a lot of people don’t know how to grow and maintain things," he says. "They just get it from the store.”

In the fall Perez starts classes at Long Beach City College.

Next week: Good weeds? How the Growing Experience uses them to attract beneficial insects

-- Jeff Spurrier

Growing-bounty
The bounty of the Growing Experience.

 

Growing-daikon
A purple-tinged turnip and parsnips grown at the North Long Beach farm.

 

Growing-scarecrow
The Growing Experience's version of a scarecrow, by artist Rob Padilla.

 

Growing2-padilla
The artist Padilla, whose work at the Growing Experience also includes the painting at the top of the post.

Corrected: An earlier version of this post implied that the CSA boxes are delivered to customers' homes. The boxes are actually prepared for pickup at the farm.

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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