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Category: Community Gardens

People's Garden at Woodrow Wilson High School: Sowing seeds in a food desert

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 34: People's Garden, El Sereno neighborhood, Los Angeles

The People’s Garden at Woodrow Wilson High School sits at the lowest part of the sprawling campus, the sloping lot bound by a chain-link fence and a low wall on a quiet street. For years it was an informal back entrance to the school, a weed-covered place to ditch, smoke or fight.

Then last year, the nonprofit Asian Pacific American Legal Center worked with a Wilson class to study access to fresh produce in El Sereno compared with other communities. One conclusion: El Sereno needed another community garden.

Peoples-garden-pulling-turnip.299 “It’s a physical solution to a research topic about food deserts,” said Kevin Armenta, the teacher who has spearheaded the project.

Like the Micheltorena School and Community Garden, the People’s Garden represents a community-building tool. A conference on nutrition last month at Wilson kicked off with a dawn prayer circle in the garden led by Guillermo Hernandez, an elder from the Purepecha Nation, indigenous people from Mexico who represent just one element of El Sereno's cultural heritage.

Students and teachers do most of the physical labor -- planting, watering, weeding. They get guidance from volunteers with the Native Green Gardener Program, an effort to teach professional landscaping crews to use sustainable practices. But all final decisions at the People's Garden are made by a collective of students, teachers and community members. The focus is on growing plants that reflect  the communities of El Sereno. That means the "three sisters" of Mesoamerica (corns, beans and squash) and medicinal plants from China, among others. Nine raised beds for vegetables and flowers are scattered around the lot. Fruit trees are planned for the upper slope.

The seeds that students started in paper cups last winter are now in the ground, but some of the seedlings are struggling, mainly from lack of water. The closest spigot is 450 feet away, up the slope. Three hoses have to be connected and snaked through bushes and eucalyptus trees. In May, vandals hopped the low wall and burned holes in the hoses two weekends in a row. That left the garden without water for more than a week.

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Corporate sponsorship of a community garden? At Proyecto Pastoral, it's not a question

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 33: Proyecto Pastoral

Just 2 months old, the tiny Proyecto Pastoral garden in Boyle Heights is going through a growth spurt, like a grade-schooler who jumps two shoe sizes in one season. In the salsa bed, the tomatillos are already fruiting, and some of the cilantro is starting to flower. The first batch of strawberries already were harvested, eaten communally as a sweet lesson in healthy snacks.

Such a perfect picture gets a little more complicated, however, when one hears that the new community garden was funded largely through a corporate sponsorship -- and that the sponsor was Scotts Miracle-Gro.

Skeptics may say Scotts Miracle-Gro's planting a community garden is like a fast-food restaurant teaching a nutrition class. But the company is moving ahead with plans to build 1,000 public green spaces in the U.S., Canada and Europe by 2018 through its GRO1000 grant program. GRO1000 gardens have broken ground at the Homegirl Cafe in L.A., as well as sites in Chicago; Houston; New York; Tampa, Fla.; Ontario, Canada; and Lyon, France.

Here in L.A., the garden at the Proyecto Pastoral after-school community center serves 80 students, kindergarten through 12th grade. Most of the kids come from the nearby Pico-Aliso housing development, and their garden is set on a busy section of Mission Road, next to a printer, behind a chain-link fence.

In March a city public works crew tore up 700 square feet of asphalt in the community center’s parking area. Then a team from the Guadalupe Homeless Project, a nearby shelter, built the seven garden beds with organic soil. They excavated under the walkways as well, laying down sand, then garden soil, then a 6-inch-deep layer of mulch. Ornamentals were planted around the perimeter, and a “reading garden” went in under the tree by the front gate.

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Forget aphids and gophers; the worst pests at L.A. community garden are the thieves


Photo: Live, love, laugh ... and lock.

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 32: Sepulveda Garden Center, Encino

At age 45, this gracefully aging beauty is continually being reborn. Annual kitchen crops rise next to an heirloom-filled plot with plants that are decades old. This community garden is also a public park, and because the plots get extra attraction, some gardeners go all out. The inspired mixes with the whimsical, and the vibe is Monticello meets Woodstock. The full diorama of Southern California gardening -- hits and misses -- is on display.

Unfortunately, the displays are so tempting, they have spurred some to steal fruit, vegetables and plants. Veteran gardeners say some of the thieves are park-goers wandering though, and  others are fellow gardeners. The thieves are brazen, filling up bags and lying when confronted.

A-sepulveda455-Liz When Liz Langford, right, planted her first crop nearly 20 years ago, she says, the garden had none of the head-high fences that you see now and certainly no locks. She put in her fence last year after the thieves got too greedy, moving beyond the mere clipping of bulbous broccoli tops.

“People were coming in and stealing bulbs,” she says. “They were digging them up with shovels. When people pick flowers it’s irritating, but when they steal your bulbs …”

She has three plots and isn’t sure if she will keep them in the winter.

“This garden is an asset, just a little oasis," she says. Buying food at a store probably would be less expensive, given all that goes into plants, "but you’re out here and exercising and meeting people. I’ve always considered it my therapy."

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At Sepulveda Garden Center, fee hikes spur some to dig in and others to throw in the trowel

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 31: Sepulveda Garden Center, Encino

An increase in fees, the first major hike since this place was founded in 1966, has been roiling the Sepulveda Garden Center, the mother of all community gardens in Los Angeles.

Sepulveda is the oldest and the biggest, with more than 800 plots on nearly 20 acres of land. Gardeners have liked it for many reasons. It’s freeway close, the thrum of the traffic on the 101 softened by a wall of mature trees: sweet gum, eucalyptus and even a few redwoods.

It's also part public park, with grassy lawns, shade trees, benches, a meeting hall, a library and demonstration gardens with roses, cactus and native plants. These are maintained by some of the 11 gardening clubs and plant societies that use the Sepulveda Garden Center regularly, including the Southern California Garden Club, the Woodland Hills Floral Designers and the California Rare Tree Growers.

Sepulveda406 A separate area grows food for L.A. Zoo herbivores, most notably the koalas, and periodically the harvest comes full circle, returning to Sepulveda as Zoo Poo compost for gardeners to use.

“It vanishes quickly,” said Vel Lauterio, Sepulveda's new senior gardener, right.

She arrived in December, an employee of the L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks, which controls the land. Back then the garden was rife with talk about the fee hike, the annual cost of each 10-by-20-foot lot rising to $120 from $25, a 480% increase.

Some gardeners had five plots, so the new fee -- made public in November and set to go into effect next month -- was a game-changer. Some gardeners protested. About 30 quit.

Lauterio noted that the new rate amounts to $10 a month for land, water, compost and use of tools. The increase is meant to offset budget cuts to Recreation and Parks, which does have to pay for water used at the garden. It’s Lauterio's job to start sending out notices of the new rate at the end of the month, but gardeners' uncertainty about the future already was visible during planting season. Many delayed planting for spring, and some beds are overgrown with weeds or have winter greens gone to flower.

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Wanted: Dirt, plants and gardeners at Vermont Square

Community gardens dispatch No. 30: Vermont Square

Vermont Square is a place that deserves a big group hug from L.A. gardeners. Since founder Helen Johnson died a few years ago, twin gardens straddling the 4700 block of traffic-clogged Vermont Avenue south of USC have struggled.

Vermont-Square-rose L.A. community gardens often have a finite existence. Leases usually last just a few years, and gardeners seem to face the perpetual threat of an owner taking back the land and tearing up years-old artichoke and asparagus, fruit trees and natives.

This place should be different -- easier. Working with the Los Angeles Community Garden Council, of which she was one of the organizers, Johnson founded the community garden on an 8,000-square-foot property that once was a Red Car trolley right-of-way. With $80,000 from the S. Mark Taper Foundation, Johnson's group bought the land for $58,000 from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2002. It was the first community garden to be owned by the group tending it. More than 30 of Johnson's neighbors, all 55 or older, helped to build the plots, plant trees and maintain the gardens, situated a few blocks from where the 1992 riots raged.

“Helen recruited a lot of beautiful old ladies to be gardeners there,” said Glen Dake of the garden council. “When she passed away, there was a huge void.”

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At Long Beach Community Garden, the spirit of sharing is growing

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 29: Long Beach

Southern California's community gardens differ in size, location and demographic, but you'll find one recurring trait at them all: generosity. Gardeners love to share, and in the community gardens I've visited, that best of human qualities is regularly evident -- be it an exchange of hard-to-coax seedlings to just-harvested heirlooms.

Long-Beach-garden-foodbank-At Long Beach Community Garden, known for its stunningly high yields, all gardeners dedicate 10% of their harvest to one of five local charitable organizations. (Other community gardens also donate to food banks, but at Long Beach the giving seems to be on an entirely different level.) The biggest recipient is the Long Beach Rescue Mission, which provides three meals a day to 250 people.

“They’ll take everything we can give them,” says Tracy Frate, head of the garden's food bank committee. “Winter is our best season. We have 300 plots and so we get 300 different versions of things. We just went through a season when we got every type of cabbage known to man. We used it all.”

Within reason. That doesn’t mean baseball bat-sized zucchini or broccoli that has gone to flower, she says.  “Once you let a zucchini get past 10 inches, it's bitter and no good even for a soup.”

Her rule of thumb: If you would feed it to your family, then it can go on the food bank table. Otherwise, it’s compost. The same sensibility applies to leafy greens that have been wilting in the heat all day, harvested after the volunteer drivers have made their daily delivery.

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At Long Beach Community Garden, the rules come with rewards

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 28: Long Beach

CG-long-beach-windmill-blue-white At first glance, the Long Beach Community Garden would seem to be a gardener’s Fantasyland. The 8.5-acre site next to El Dorado Nature Center is flat and gets all-day sun and cooling on-shore breezes. Three hundred plots, each 20 by 30 feet, are laid out in a neat grid; 15 more plots for the more experienced gardeners are even bigger. A fleet of wheelbarrows and mounds of mulch and compost always seem available. A stable owner regularly drops off finely shredded, aged horse manure. The pathways are neat and weed-free, the common tools well maintained. The site has bathrooms, parking and a food bank distribution center, making it easy to donate.

A space so large and planted so intensively, however, presents an attractive target for animals and disease. An onslaught of foraging rabbits and ground squirrels appeared a few years ago. The invasion started a year after animal control employees trapped and killed coyotes that were feeding on local cats but also had kept the rodent population in check.

Rabbits mowed down lettuce crops last year, landscape designer Barbara Paul says. She now has a 2-foot-tall wire fence and plastic perimeter sheeting buried 18 inches into the ground. Once rare here, similar fences are now common; many gardeners also use row-covering hoops as seedling protection against rats and mice. Rabbit traps have been set out, and the catch sent to a raptor rescue facility.

Last summer, the garden faced the cucumber mosaic virus, which is particularly difficult to eradicate and strikes about 1,200 varieties of plants, including chard, beans and peppers. Garden officials brought in a UC Riverside virologist who identified the problem and advised removing all personal composters. Gardeners were told to take all diseased plants, along with 6 inches of soil beneath and around them, and put it all into the trash, not the composters.

As at many gardens, no tomato material of any kind can be composted. Tools are to be wiped down with a bleach-soaked cloth after every use.

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Wrigley Village Community Garden a convergence of growing and commerce [Updated]

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 27: Wrigley Village, Long Beach

The 2400 block of Pacific Avenue in Long Beach is not the kind of place you expect to find a community garden. It’s a block lined with businesses servicing the working class neighborhood, in sight of the towers of downtown Long Beach but low-rise, low income and low-rent in tone.

In the middle of the block, the Wrigley Village Community Garden sits on a compact 150’x50’ lot that for years had been a hangout for transients and drug transactions. When the space was prepared for the garden by the city’s Neighborhood Leadership Program 18 months ago, the detritus removed included abandoned sofas and lots of used hypodermic needles.


Adriana Martinez, a master gardener who lives nearby and helped in the garden’s birth, says that the juxtaposition of a community garden in a business corridor was part of the appeal. “It’s on a major thoroughfare, between a barber shop and a silkscreen printer. It’s so different.”

(An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the person who started Long Beach Organics as Charlie Cross. The correct name is Charlie Moore.)

Wrigley Village differs in other ways. All the 24 100-square-foot plots are either low framed or raised beds, but there any uniformity ends. The paths between plots twist and wind and the overall sensibility is appealingly idiosyncratic, verging on backyard funky. Some of the beds are framed in painted shelving recycled after the closing of Acres of Books, the landmark Long Beach bookstore. One plot is primarily cactus while another is entirely California natives, neither sporting the edibles commonly seen in community gardens.(That's Patrick Harris, who grows chard and peppers, pictured at the top of this post.)

The succulents scattered throughout come from local Scott Bunnell, a legendary guerilla gardener who for more than 20 years has been beautifying Long Beach dead zones, especially inside median strips and along rail tracks. The plantings here, however, are authorized.

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Reclaimed water helps Monterey Road community garden grow


Photo: Adam Henry waters his plot. Credit: Ann Summa

Watering at the Monterey Road Eco-Community Garden (East) in Glendale is slightly more complicated than at most gardens, requiring the use of a key kept locked away in a shed. It is the first community garden in the state to be entirely reliant upon reclaimed water and although triple-filtered, the H2O is still not considered potable, safe for drinking. The key makes sure that nobody but the gardeners -- all “water certified” by Glendale Water and Power -- can open the spigot. And unlike in the rest of Glendale, there are no watering restrictions here for when to water. The garden’s monthly water bill is about $15 a month, leaving membership fees for other needs.


 “We’re told [the water] has a high nitrogen content,” says Hannah Mixamova, the gardeners’ chairwoman. “Some plants just explode while others, the nitrogen producers, hate it. I’ve had problems with my edamame.”

It’s a small price to pay for almost-free water. Her lavender, the first thing she put in back in July 2009, blooms continually. “I tell everyone to cut as much as they want because the more you cut it, the more it comes back. People wash their hands with it.”

Nearly 2 years old, the garden has 20 4-by-24 plots, all in identical raised beds divided in the middle by a graceful arching trellis, following the design of Glendale landscape architect Guillaume Lemoine. A companion garden a block away, Monterey Road Eco-Community Garden (West), is now under construction.

Photo: A nozzle plugs into recycled runoff water from underground street gutters. Credit: Ann Summa

Both gardens represent a collaboration between the city of Glendale and the nonprofit Coalition for a Green Glendale, a group started by Alek Bartrosouf and some of his friends -- all in their early 20s and non-plot holders here. He grew up in Glendale and returned home after graduating from UC Santa Cruz, wanting to do something for the community that would promote sustainable living. He teamed up with high school friend Ana Khachatrian (then at USC) and Garen Nadir (now studying environmental law at Loyola). The city approached the group about developing an odd-shaped, 11,000-square-foot plot of land adjacent to the onramp onto the 134 Freeway west at Cordoba Street. It had been vacant for 50 years, used only for parking city vehicles.

Where trucks parked there is now a bike rack, a dozen compost bins and a drought-tolerant California natives demonstration display -- a stylistic suggestion to the homeowners in the residential neighborhood where every street is tree shaded and every house has a front lawn.


Photo: Ann Summa

The majority of the gardeners here are condo or apartment dwellers and have no similar real estate available to them. They come from around the world:  England, Peru, Trinidad, India, Armenia. And while there are dietary differences-- the Armenians grow lots of cilantro, parsley and dill, for example -- there are international commonalities. Almost everyone has lemongrass, donations from their Peruvian gardener, a multiple cancer survivor.

Adam Henry, a Nickelodeon director, is here on his lunch hour, watering his beets and carrots. “I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat a beet usually. But if I pull it out of the ground, I’ll eat it. Same with the carrots. And the peas? They’re like candy.”

He’s not the only foodie. One late afternoon when she was alone in the garden, Maximova was called over to the chain link fence by a group of guys sporting tattoos and headbands. They wanted to check out the garden. She was hesitant until they said “We’re chefs.”

“They came in and recognized all these plants they’d never seen in the ground. They asked about the workdays, wanting to help. We all eat food but to plant it, grow it, pick it -- most of us don’t get that experience,” she said.

Photo: Hannah Maximova, left, holds her son Linus and chats with Alek Bartrosouf and Garen Nadir, founders of the garden. Credit: Ann Summa

Bartrosouf, who is getting his master's degree in urban planning at UCLA, agrees: “Society is in such a fast-paced mode. We get frustrated if it takes more than 10 seconds for a computer to start. Something so simple as picking weeds can be extremely therapeutic. It’s manual labor and you feel good at the end.”

-- Jeff Spurrier

The cost of growing fresh food? Check the water bill

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 25: Stanford Avalon, Los Angeles

At the monthly meeting of the Stanford Avalon Community Garden, water use is at the top of the list for President Luis Gamboa. Below, in his white shirt and hat, he addresses the crowd of about 50 people, saying everyone must pay their monthly $15 fee regularly. If they don’t pay on time, there will be a fine, he warns.

Stanford-Avalon2-meeting “It’s very sad for us to do this, but if nobody wants to follow the rules, then nothing will exist,” he says. Al Renner, executive director of the L.A. Community Garden Council, watches from the sidelines, nodding at the message. The council is responsible for handling the accounts of Stanford Avalon along with 18 other community gardens. The typical water bills at Stanford Avalon have been about $1,000. Then a $6,000 bill appeared, bringing home the reality of just how much water was costing the group.

That bill turned out to be erroneous -- the result of incorrect meter readings in previous months -- but even so, Renner says, it's a challenge not only to pay the bills but also educate gardeners about irrigation strategies.

“We have a few who are doing drip irrigation like they should," he says. "Sometimes it sinks in and sometimes it doesn’t.”

2-Stanford-Avalon2-flooded In Stanford Avalon’s coarse soil, however, water always sinks in. Most of the gardeners flood their trenched rows regularly, partly because the water pressure is low. A few months ago the members voted to raise their fees by $2 to cover the water use. The increase resulted in a decline in usage.

Water is not the only item on the meeting agenda. The garden is about to extend south to 120th Street, bringing 30 more plots into the fold and shrinking the waiting list. With the planned expansion on Earth Day, neighborhood relations have gotten tense. A few weeks ago when some of the gardeners checked out the new land, a neighbor suspicious of the unfamiliar people called police.

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