In North Hollywood, farm poop is garden gold
“Our compost is a pivotal part of the garden because we make our own and use it all here,” said Marykate Harris, president of the North Hollywood Community Garden's executive committee. But recent changes at the Agricultural Center of North Hollywood High School, the community garden’s landlord, have made composting increasingly difficult.
Next door to the community garden, the school's much-lauded Agricultural Center is home to barnyard animals: rabbits, geese, chickens, goats, even a donkey and a pig. The manure they produced was integral to the compost pile. For years students would trundle piles of poop in wheelbarrows every week.
Students also grew and sold flowers at farmers markets, and proceeds helped to pay for animal feed. The L.A. Unified School District employee who oversaw that project was laid off, however, and the gate connecting the Agricultural Center and the community garden was padlocked. A growing mound of rabbit poop is visible through the chain link fence, tantalizingly out of reach.
“It’s right there, but we can’t get to it,” says Art Cayley, who oversees composting efforts, staring wistfully at the manure. “We have to wait until they’re here and beg someone to open the gate for us.” (Clockwise from top left, that's garden manager Marc Marrie, president Marykate Harris and compost king Art Cayley. Keep reading for more on the garden.)
Relations between the garden and the school soured when a gardener was caught trying to steal the fig crop in the school’s fruit orchard. Cayley cited one rumor that the garden may be plowed under and used as a barn site.
In the meantime, the gardeners -- about a third of whom are Russian immigrants from apartment buildings around Valley Village -- tend to tomatoes, beans and squash. The garden was started in 1999 by a Russian gardener who cleared a small space on the unused land to grow raspberries, right. Today, whenever stinging nettle pops up, it gets harvested for soup, not discarded in the compost as a weed.
“Our Russian gardeners are really good,” Harris said, pointing out the inventive trellises and shades made from recycled materials.
Equally impressive is the new shed, built by garden manager Mark Marrie, a commercials producer. It’s a gaffer’s dream with shelves, dedicated slots for keys to the irrigation system, rows of hooks for tools, and drawers for smaller items.
But everything starts with Cayley. He doesn’t have a title at the garden, but without his OK, you don’t get one of the 43 plots. At 78, he works full time but still manages to serve as the unofficial gardener in charge of the seven compost bins, built out of recycled pallets.
When would-be gardeners apply for one of the 10-by-10 plots, they must first take a hands-on composting lesson from Cayley. He shows them how to machete garden clippings into 6-inch pieces, then sift out the larger twigs, diseased plants and nut grass. Would-be gardeners also must learn how to position the PVC pipes that provide air to the bottom of the pile.
“It's a test to see if they will work hard enough to keep up their garden,” Cayley said. “I’ve never turned anyone down, but some people decide midway through the composting lesson that they really don't want a plot. You find out fairly quickly.”
-- Jeff Spurrier
The edibles at the North Hollywood garden include grapes.
Photos: Ann Summa
Spurrier and Summa are spending a year covering community gardens for The Times. Their dispatches are posted every Wednesday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook gardening page.