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Category: Community Gardens

In North Hollywood, farm poop is garden gold

1North-Hollywood-Marrie 1North-Hollywood-Harris 1North-Hollywood-Cayley Community Gardens Dispatch No. 44: North Hollywood

“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.)

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Attack of the gargantuan gourds at Granada Hills garden

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 43: Granada Hills Salad Bowl

2-Granada-Zaman The bottle gourd hanging down from the trellis in Sayed Zaman’s plot in the Granada Hills Salad Bowl community garden is a fearsome fruit, yard-long pods that look like something from “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers." On the vine they are pendulous and heavy. Nearby, several dried gourds are stacked and Zaman shakes one, rattling the seeds inside.

“You prepare it like zucchini,” says Zaman, right. “But it tastes better. Zucchini doesn’t have a flavor. This is aromatic.”

The leaves and flowers also are edible, he adds. Plus hollow dried gourds have other uses -- as bottles, water scoops or, with the addition of strings, musical instruments. Not far away grows a variety of pumpkin (like Zaman, Bangladeshi in origin) and sweeter than its American cousin.

These treasures in his space were brought as seeds from home, and he harvests more seed all the time. For other plants, he turns to the Kitazawa Seed Co. A friend comes up to show a package of Kitazawa ngo gai seeds -- saw leaf, a cilantro-like herb that is stronger in flavor and used throughout Southeast Asia in soups, stews, sauces and marinades.

This garden started 51 years ago on Department of Water and Power land, right below the Odyssey restaurant. One of the first gardeners nicknamed the place “the salad bowl garden,” and the name stuck.

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Permaculture guides Pacoima community garden

Squash photo Kohlrabi Community Garden Dispatch No. 42: Project Youth Green, Pacoima

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).

Drip irrigation 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.”

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At Project Youth Green, garden fees rise with the corn stalks

Project Youth Green butterfly

Community Garden Dispatch No. 41: Project Youth Green, Pacoima

When Project Youth Green Community Garden broke ground three years ago on a 4-acre parcel within Roger Jessup Park in Pacoima, it was a different world. Founded by the nonprofilt Youth Speak Collective after-school program on land owned by the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, the garden paid nothing for rent, water or maintenance.

No longer. Details of a new contract with the city are not expected to be announced until September, but Project Youth Green -- like other community gardens on Recreation and Parks land -- is already feeling the effect of fee hikes. In June the group paid $500 for an annual lease. Now it's responsible for all trash removal, downed trees and repairs to pipes. Fortunately many of the gardeners are professional handymen, some hard hit by the downturn in construction.

Laura Robledo“When the economy went bad we had a lot of calls for plots,” says coordinator Laura Robledo, left, as she opens the door to a recycled shipping container that functions as the office, storage shed and library.

A volleyball court is nearby, as is a mural painted by Youth Speak Collective kids. It’s an ongoing project, designed by artist Kristy Sandoval as a way to entice youth into the garden. “It’s the bait on the hook,” Robledo says.

On the path up the hill, a butterfly garden and a bird garden are planted with California natives and shaded by mature eucalyptus and giant California live oak, a reminder of chaparral-covered foothills less than a half-mile away. A medicinal garden contains echinacea, chamomile, aloe and ruda. Robledo uses the ruda, soaked in alcohol, for ear drops. She makes a tea from the chamomile to soothe her eyes.

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L.A. River cane supports Elysian Valley garden

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


Fending off pests with weeds

A taste of Central America in East Hollywood

Community garden waiting lists

At El Sereno, making peace with neighbors

At People's Garden, growing crops for a food desert

Long Beach garden fends off pests with stealth weapon: Weeds

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.

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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.

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At Rosewood Community Garden, a wild taste of Central America in urban East Hollywood

Community Gardens Disptach No. 37: Rosewood
, East Hollywood

Walk through the Rosewood Community Garden and you'll see roots running all the way back to Central America, where most of the 25 plot-holders originated.

LR-Rosewood-Estrada More than a dozen varieties of chiles are grown here, including the tiny diente de perro (dog’s tooth) and the Santo Domingo from Honduras. Sugar cane, bird of paradise and banana plants tower over the nasturtium and marigold-lined pathways, and everywhere the creeping vines of chayote and passion fruit run rampant. There’s chilacayote, a white squash that looks like a watermelon and is used for smoothies and candies; nearby is kishtan, pictured above, an ivy-like vine whose leaves are a basis for a Guatemalan version of mole verde. Everybody here seems to grow ruda, the odiferous medicinal bush.

Once you've taken in all the plants, you notice the dolls, plushies and found objects scattered throughout the greenery, adding a sense of whimsy. A rabbit hutch stands near the entrance, but the only rabbit visible here is a 4-foot-high stuffed Bugs Bunny, leaning languidly in the common area. Mickey Mouse is perched on a fence post, while Santa stares out from behind the jasmine-covered chain link fence.
The toys are for the amusement of kids, says Nery Reyes, who helped establish the garden in 1999. He has a vibrant blackberry bush growing in the back common area, started from a cutting from the garden of Yvonne Savio, who runs the master gardener program for L.A.

An experimental compost pit that's about the size of a grave contains nothing but rotten fruit and rinds, the remnants from fruit cart vendors. Because Reyes doesn’t turn the compost, it won’t be ready for more than six months. Mango seedlings and pineapple crowns sprout amid flies, and some of the seedlings actually could be transplanted.

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Community garden waiting lists: in Culver City, the problem and one solution

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 36: Culver City

Just about every community garden has a waiting list. Thirty names are on the list here, and though that may not sound like many, the Culver City Community Garden has only 16 plots. Only four have changed hands in the last three years, said Darren Uhl, the city employee who handles the garden for the Parks, Recreation and Community Services department.

0-Culver-Vargas Cathi Vargas, left, an environmental coordinator for the city, had been on the list for three years. She had even forgotten that she had applied when a letter came in the mail saying that space had opened up. She arrived with little garden know-how. She scattered seeds willy-nilly and had no layout. She got lots of tomatoes her first year but had no clue why or how.

Then she met Sylvia Alvarado, a more seasoned gardener, and the two joined forces. Vargas offered to share her space until Alvarado’s name came up on the Culver City list.

“I’m number 12,” Alvarado said. “It could be forever.”

The two women gave their plot some new structure. Under Alvarado’s direction this spring, they planted the zucchini in rows, they trellised burgundy and yellow string beans on chicken wire and put in five varieties of cucumber. The soil is clay, and so they added gypsum along with compost and manure, learning the hard way that fresh manure burns plants and brings weeds.

Alvarado said that a few years ago she didn't know the difference between perennials and annuals. But then, as a parent volunteer, she built a garden at El Rincon Elementary School. “I was amazed when something actually grew and I could eat it,” she said.

Sharing the plot with Vargas is working out for now, but Alvarado says it’s hard to be left on the waiting list when some plots look as though they have been abandoned.

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At El Sereno Community Garden, planting seeds of change for urban L.A.

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 35: El Sereno, Los Angeles

When a late-night hit-and-run driver recently crashed into El Sereno Community Garden’s just-completed retaining wall, co-founder Marie Salas was on the case. She took pictures. She collected pieces of the car left behind. She canvassed the neighborhood, looking for witnesses. One woman said she had heard the crash and saw where the car was dropped off by a tow truck -- up the hill from the garden.

1-LR-Sereno-barragan At first, the car’s owner denied any responsibility. But Salas, who runs a home-based day care, knew how to deal with the "it-wasn't-me" response. She told the man that she was happy he hadn’t hurt himself or anyone else, and that she was not going to call the police. Then she walked him down to the garden and introduced him to Ruben Barragan, right, one of the oldest gardeners at El Sereno.

By the end, the driver was remorseful. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” he said.

The point of Salas’ anecdote: Although good earth and organic practices are important, the essential ingredients of successful community gardens are solid relationships.

“They are our neighbors and we all make mistakes, but I gave him a lecture first," Salas said. "When you live in a community where there may be a problem, you want those eyes. People take care of you.”

El Sereno Community Garden is on 2.5 acres of L.A. Department of Transportation land, along a busy section of Huntington Road South that had been slated for the 710 Freeway connection to Interstate 10. When that project was shelved, the vacant trash-filled lot was offered up as a garden and came with a city donation of $100,000, half of which went directly to the Conservation Corps, the youth group that builds the infrastructure for many community gardens.

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