Permaculture guides Pacoima community garden
Teodoro Mercado was an out-of-work handyman who found a new career in sustainable urban agriculture overseeing Project Youth Green, which we first blogged about last week. Mercado adheres to the principles of permaculture, which means watering with drip lines, below; companion planting (shallots to keep aphids away from the Swiss chard, borage next to the tomatoes to ward off pests and attract pollinators); and focused crop rotation (peas and beans to refix the nitrogen in the soil).
At the highest point of the garden sits a compost pile, adjacent to the Soil & Sod Depot, a topsoil company and an early supporter of the garden, as well as a Los Angeles County Fire Department Urban Search and Rescue helicopter landing facility. The compost is also a stone's throw from coyote trails leading down from the oak- and scrub-covered foothills.
Rabbits and gophers are a problem, so predators are welcome, said Mercado, nodding toward his gnawed-to-the-nub kohlrabi crop. Fortunately, the kohlrabi grows back quickly; the loss is acceptable.
"When the housing problem started, I ran out of work," Mercado said. "I didn’t know anything about this method of agriculture, organic. My relatives in Nayarit (Mexico) do it the conventional way -- fertilizers and all that chemical stuff. We are trying to use the land more efficiently and harvest as much as possible in a little area.”
The crops that he tends -- often with his kids, Elizabeth and Teodoro Jr., above -- are destined for the Project Youth Green table at the Sylmar Farmers Market, one way garden leaders hope it can become more financially self-sufficient. His biggest disappointment so far was the Chinese cabbage. "We planted in the winter and the spring, and it went to flower almost immediately," he said. "You have to harvest it right away."
He had better luck with a variety of bok choy that grew fast but didn't bolt (go to flower and seed). "We harvested the plants for two months," he said. "We are learning."
Locally grown, freshly harvested produce is in high demand, so Sylmar Farmers Market manager Liz Thompson jumped at the idea of a Project Youth Green table at the Saturday morning market.
"I was looking for farmers growing locally," she said, adding that the majority of the vendors at the market are from the area.
David Kietzman, the executive director and co-founder of Youth Speak Collective, the nonprofit that runs the garden, said the produce is sold in exchange for donations at the market. Early contracts with the garden's landlord, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, didn't mention the sale of fruits and vegetables grown on the site, but the most recent agreement -- still being finalized -- forbids it. Kietzman said his garden and others are petitioning against the ban. "All community gardens are different," he said, "with different ways of running things."
Our dispatches from community gardens appear every Wednesday. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook gardening page.
-- Jeff Spurrier
Photo credit: Ann Summa