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At Proyecto Jardín, gardening without fences

March 2, 2011 | 10:55 am

Community Gardens dispatch No. 21: El Proyecto Jardín, Boyle Heights

This project behind White Memorial Hospital is unusual among L.A. community gardens. It's both community and communal -- no private plots, no fences, no fees. The one-third acre is entirely common space with different families responsible for different sections, one taking care of the lettuce, for example, while another oversees the medicinal plants.

Proyecto-Jardin-overview Part community center, part park, Proyecto Jardín sits on land donated by the hospital and represents a community health tool, the goal envisioned by founder Dr. Robert Krochmal, a family practice physician who spent his residency at White Memorial specializing in integrated medicine.

Built in 1999, the garden is laid out based on four pillars of health: healthful eating, exercise, herbal medicine and community. It's sectioned off accordingly with edibles planted down front; the back is a covered solar-powered exercise area for classes in capoeira, aerobics and dance. A medicinal herb garden is harvested regularly by the neighborhood.

Proyecto-Jardin-Irene-Pena "The most popular are the ruda and the aloe," says Irene Peña, the garden's administrator.

Women also come for the leaves from a cluster of hoja santa that towers over the walkway. (That's Peña standing in front of the hoja santa, right.)

You'll see no corn now, but come summer the edibles area will be thick with it. Last year the garden got buckets of huitlacoche, the inky fungus that grows on ripening corn ears and is considered a delicacy throughout Mexico.

Nopal cactuses are scattered around the garden. Many of the paddles are too fat to be good eating, but some are dotted with the cotton-like fluff of the insect parasite from which the red cochineal dye, above, a cultural marker for the Aztec and Maya, is made. Like the huitlacoche, that also will be harvested.

The communal aspect of the space is highlighted by the quantity of art scattered throughout. (At the very top of the post, Peña is pointing to images of Rose Portillo and her crew of artists who worked on the artful walls and benches.) All of it produced by Eastside artists -- some well-known, such as Michael Amescua, who did the front gates, as well as some still in grade school. The main entrance mosaic was built by classes from the L.A.'s Best after-school program, run out of Bridge Elementary across the street, following a design of local artist Jose Manuel Hernandez.

"To this day I have high school students walking in saying they just came to look at the wall because 'I was working on this wall when I was a kid in kindergarten,' " Peña says.

Proyecto-Jardin-concrete Melding seamlessly with the artwork are raised beds built from the broken-up concrete foundation of two houses that were on the lot back in the 1990s. The recycling is part of the sustainability and permaculture ethos here. The caracol (snail) section of the garden is composed of four spiral-shaped planters that taper outward, like a shell, from the top for efficient water drainage.

Peter Arciniega, pictured below right pruning grapevines, lives in nearby Monterey Park and oversees scores of fruit trees -- apricot, Meyer lemon, peach, plum, jujube.

Proyecto-Jardin-Peter-Arciniega "This is zapote, from Oaxaca," he says, pointing out one of his favorites. "It gets a fruit in late summer that looks like a golden delicious apple but has a custard-like pudding inside. Really sweet."

He and his fellow gardeners saw the garden go through a fallow period last year, when the gates often were closed, weeds spouted and trees went without care. But all that is starting to change. The garden recently received a California Endowment grant. The small board of directors is pushing its five-year plan to make a sustainable space where local residents will find common ground as a result of closer observation of nature and the working of the land.

Not all will agree with the plan, Peña says. Not everyone plants the same way and not everyone wants to share. A few years ago a large family came by to inquire about gardening here, but when they learned about the communal approach and lack of private plots, they left and never came back.

"Human nature has certain tendencies," Peña says. "That's why some people are more comfortable with fences. This is a true test of the commons."

-- Jeff Spurrier

Our dispatches from community gardens appear here every Wednesday. For an easy way to follow the scene, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.

Fava beans rise from the soil at Proyecto Jardín.

A closer look at the mosaic pictured at the top of the post.

Photos: Ann Summa


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