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At Venice Community Garden, digging up solutions to toxic soil

March 9, 2011 |  7:42 am

Community Gardens Dispatch No. 22: Venice

Venice Community Garden is not quite a year old, but considering the difficulty of its birth, even with three master gardeners as midwives, the fact that it exists at all is noteworthy.

0-L-Venice-wide The garden began to take shape when Kip Wood noticed a “For Rent” sign on an empty lot on Mildred Avenue, down the street from his house. The rent was steep but not impossible. “He probably could have made more parking cars here,” Wood says of the owner. “It’s an empty lot. What else are you going to do with it?”

At an organizing meeting he teamed up with Norma Bonilla, then living in Marina del Rey and, like him, about to start the master gardener course at the time.

“The first thing we did was test the soil -- in five different places, going down about five inches” says Bonilla, pictured at top. “We got the results back and there were exorbitant amounts of arsenic, lead, cadmium, everything. The very worst at dangerous levels. Don't-come-in-here levels.”

They decided to take the topsoil out, removing mounds of debris, broken asphalt and glass, bringing the lot level with the street. The Los Angeles Conservation Corps came in and built 54 4-by-12-foot plots and the gardeners were all instructed to dig down a foot within each space and remove the dirt.

“That was the first time I used a wheelbarrow,” says Mary Barbour, a self-described city girl and one of the original Venice gardeners. Together they amassed a 100-ton pile of toxic soil in the center of the garden that needed to be removed. Then all the gardeners tested their soil one foot down -- just to be sure.

“When the first test came back with a high level of arsenic, we were devastated,” Bonilla says. Adds Wood: “We almost gave up at that point. We took about two weeks off. Our energy was out of the garden.”

But then would-be gardeners started e-mailing, urging the group not to give up.

0-L-Venice-portrait-3v0-L-Venice-portrait-v   0-L-Venice-portrait2-vSo they returned to the consultants, horticulturalists, chemists and agronomists, who helped devise a solution: The wooden bed walls were lined with 2-millimeter plastic sheeting, going down two feet. The bed was covered with gypsum, to break up the clay soil, then in rock, to aid drainage. A 50-50 mix of compost and organic soil went on top of that in most beds. Walkways were covered in eight inches of mulch. (Above, from left, that's young Conrad Wood, Jonah Austin and Conrad's father, Kip, who first noticed the lot. Below, Conrad holds a fava bean.)

In August they began planting, mainly shallow-rooting vegetables. If arsenic is affecting the plants, it will kill them before they start fruiting, Bonilla says. If gardeners are nervous, they're told to grow cherry tomatoes only.

From the street the bounty of the winter garden is obvious: towering kale, basketball-sized cabbages, epic artichoke plants. Wood, initially concerned that 4-by-12 plots were too small, says he and his family can’t keep up with the kale, peas, chard and root vegetables. Son Conrad has stopped being a picky eater, grazing like the adults as they walk through the garden.

New gardeners Sheyla Molho and Jonah Austin are gearing up for spring, getting ready to take out their very productive Brussels sprouts. Across the way Barbour is harvesting broccoli. Although she’s a dietitian, she had never seen it growing before. “When my first shoot came up," she said. "Oh my God! That’s broccoli!”

-- Jeff Spurrier

The view from the street.

Cocoa shells are used as mulch.

Mary Barbour waters her plot.

Salad greens are thriving.

More greens (and purples).

"I had been on the list at Main Street, Santa Monica, for two years,"  says Casey Krebs, above, a tree specialist and one of three master gardeners at the Venice Community Garden. She holds morel mushrooms.


Photos: Ann Summa

Our dispatches from community gardens are posted every Wednesday. For an easy way to follow this series and related coverage, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.


A communal garden, no fences

Bunnies provide the fertilizer

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Testing dirt in a lab