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New Huntington Ranch explores urban agriculture and the semi-wild 'food forest'

November 4, 2010 |  6:58 am


The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens is returning to its roots, with a 15-acre project that’s a far cry from its manicured reputation.

The Huntington Ranch will be a laboratory for studying and experimenting with sustainable urban agriculture.

The Ranch, perhaps surprisingly, was born in South Los Angeles. In 2006, when the South Central Farm closed amid controversy over the land, the growers saved banana, guava and dozens of other trees from being bulldozed. The Huntington agreed to store them temporarily.

"Once the trees were here, Jim Folsom [the botanical gardens' director] started percolating this idea," says Lisa Blackburn, spokeswoman for the Huntington.

DSC_0029"The point is demonstration, and the point is exploration. There are a lot of unanswered questions about growing food in the city," says Scott Kleinrock, project manager for the Ranch, right.

The Ranch won't be open for daily visitors, but it will be a site for programs and classes. Its premiere will be Nov. 12, when an academic workshop is scheduled. The next day, Nov. 13, the Ranch will hold public workshops on topics including growing produce and flowers and keeping chickens and bees. Registration is required for both days.

Kleinrock, who has been working on the project for almost two years, also is starting a blog, on which he plans to document his work -- gathering data, offering instruction for people who want to replicate what he's done and discussing other issues.

When Henry Huntington bought the property in 1903, it was called the San Marino Ranch and included hundreds of acres of citrus and other crops. Huntington planted what's believed to be the first commercial avocado grove in California on the land.

"Henry Huntington's interest in productive horticulture got left behind as the institution emphasis shifted to ornamentals and rare tropical plants," Folsom says. "With the Ranch project, we'll be picking up a piece of our past that has been long neglected."

Today, the Ranch includes eight acres from the original orange grove and 63 avocado trees (32 significant varieties), chosen by the California Avocado Society.

There's a 1,200-square-foot section of vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, garlic and more) planted in rows, and spots where gardens are laid out in ways that might work in front or back yards, including raised beds. A space for demonstrations and lectures eventually will have sinks and counters.

And though not many Angelenos have the space for such a thing, a "food forest" is perhaps the most unusual idea being explored at the Ranch.

"If you think about a whole forest system, it's really productive, but no one fertilizes it. There's a balance. It's self-regulating," Kleinrock says, though it doesn't always provide what people might like to eat. In this forest, he has tossed seeds for greens, planted fruit trees.

The food forest took planning -- thinking about what kinds of plants could grow in partial shade and without a lot of attention, considering how to make sure the soil gets rich, plotting how to create a self-sustaining ecosystem. Food forests grow in Asia and South America but less in Mediterranean climates, Kleinrock says.

On a stroll Wednesday, he found cherry tomatoes, guava, persimmons and all sorts of greens. And after a while, he says, it's not hard to know the land and know where the food is.

"What I'm trying to do here is explore how to create a system that is highly resilient, semi-wild and really productive," he says. "I'm a fan of growing vegetables like wildflowers."

DSC_0036Across the Ranch, dozens of kinds of food are growing: herbs, greens and other vegetables; fruit trees, including fig, apple, persimmon and stone fruit. In one hole there are four peach trees -- one early, two midseason and one late-producing type -- increasing the potential for months of pie.

"There are so many strategies if you are interesting in growing some of your food," says Kleinrock, who grew up in Van Nuys and became interested in growing food after studying design and landscape architecture.

For example, many people tear out their lawns and plant food, but what happens when the grower has a busy time at work or a sick relative who requires prolonged attention, and the garden goes untended and the neighbors grow angry. So he is looking at ways to grow food that requires less attention and creates happier neighbors. One way: Make sure it's clear the yard is being tended with paths, a fence or a border.

Gardeners can take away tips from just a quick visit: For keeping pests away, swaths of herbs work better than scattered plants. In 47 plastic tubs set in rows, Kleinrock is growing "a salad factory," a variety of baby greens -- something people can do with no yard at all.

The food harvested from the Ranch will go to staff, volunteers and perhaps a restaurant. Some of it will be donated.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo credit: Mary MacVean / Los Angeles Times