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Mud Baron, an evangelical force in school gardens

April 19, 2012 | 12:14 pm

Mud Baron

It’s not easy to keep pace with the youth gardening evangelist Mud Baron — in the real world or the virtual one. To keep up, you need to relentlessly advocate for schoolyard gardens full of food and flowers. You need be a constant presence on Twitter. (He has more than 24,000 followers.) You need to schlep all over Southern California to collect seeds. And you need to be willing to make people mad, to push teenagers to get dirty and to nudge companies to make donations.

A bearded, baggy-pants wearing Unitarian, Baron might quote Cicero, Lou Reed, Jonathan Swift or Wynton Marsalis to make a point. But he’s also not above poop jokes born of the manure that feeds the gardens.

Essentially unemployed — or at least without a regular paycheck — he hustles at every opportunity. When he leaves a high school garden in Pasadena, he picks a plastic pail full of radishes as a gift for a café. Another day, after working in a garden in San Pedro, he brings a bartender a big bouquet that gets set in an ice bucket by the register.

Mud BaronBaron, rarely without his San Diego Padres cap on his head and his pruning shears in his pocket, is a rabble rousing master gardener with a floral arranger’s touch. Or, as he likes to say, he has tattoos of Martha Stewart and Cornel West on his behind. (We didn’t check, but his girlfriend says that’s not literally true.)

The idea is that no school garden should fail for lack of stuff — so he rustles up seeds, small seedlings called plugs, worm castings, compost, bulbs. Black plastic sheets discarded on a film set become liners for mulch. Last year, he says, he raised $5 million in in-kind donations.

He works a few days a week with students at John Muir High in Pasadena building a garden on 1.3 acres. He also spends time at a Los Angeles Unified School District science center in San Pedro, in one of about 300 district gardens. His students sell their flowers at the Hollywood Farmers Market. He got the cooking class at Santee Education Complex to cater for Occupy protesters before getting detained himself.

Baron, 42, sees his work in a broad context, calling school gardens “the engines of environmental empathy,” and he frequently praises the work of First Lady Michelle Obama (“the woman who wears $600 shoes and has a garden on her lawn”).

His mantra is simple: “Kids who grow broccoli eat broccoli.”

Mud Baron

His real name is Matthew Anthony Baron, one of two children of a Mercedes Benz dealer in Ohio. When he found that college didn’t suit him, he became an apprentice cabinetmaker while living on a farm run by the late peace activist Art Gish, a place Baron calls “a radical Christian intentional community.”

That was a major influence on his thinking, he says, as was his work later as an assistant to Sierra Club founder David Brower, who taught Baron to “be audacious and bold.”

In his down time, he watches the History and Military channels, coaches youth soccer and takes his 12-year-old son, a Japanophile, out for ramen.

He got his nickname long ago, for Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of conspiracy in President Lincoln’s assassination for treating John Wilkes Booth but eventually was pardoned for waging war against yellow fever in the Florida Keys. Baron says he and Booth are distantly related, and like the doctor he is fighting for what is right.

Julia Cotts, executive director of the Garden School Foundation, which runs a garden at the 24th Street Elementary School near downtown L.A., says Baron is willing “to just stick his neck out when it’s dangerous to do so. He has gotten bitten on the [behind] and it doesn’t seem to deter him.”

Ernest Miller, chef at the Farmer’s Kitchen at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market, adds: “He’s kind of a force of nature, a bit chaotic; in the end you don’t necessarily see the connections that are there until they grow. I sort of hate this metaphor, but he’s planting a lot of seeds.”

His focus on getting the plant donations has tremendously increased teachers’ ability to have gardens, says Yvonne Savio, manager of the UC Cooperative Extension master gardener program.

He can be “too much of a loose cannon,” she says. “But that’s what you have to do if you’re passionate.”

Steve List, the horticulture teacher at Sylmar High School, says critics think Baron is out for himself, but he “has no ulterior motive, and that’s so unusual today.”

Mud Baron
Sometimes Baron’s impatience with government process wins him few friends among the organizations working with LAUSD (“5,000 acres of asphalt — that’s how they interact with nature and that’s obscene,” he says). But his critics are reluctant to speak out publicly against a private citizen volunteering his time.

Incremental change is not his style.

“Mud says things that I certainly think but don’t say,” says Megan Hanson, a longtime advocate for better school food and founder of RootDown LA, which works to get kids to eat vegetables. “But anybody who wants a reason to tune him out, he gives them a reason.”

Baron was let go from LAUSD but saw no reason to stop building school gardens. Over the last year he’s organized an intensively planted garden in San Pedro, shaded by cypress trees and full of birds and butterflies.

One morning, he works with culinary students from Carson High, ignoring the tentative way they bend over to plant ranunculus bulbs or sunflower seeds, one hand holding up their jeans. He takes aside a boy using his cellphone, and without a reprimand, partners with him to pick flowers and herbs.

“Watching him work with kids is really, really inspiring,” says Michele Grant, co-owner and chef of the Grilled Cheese Truck. “If I can help, I’d put my money on Mud any day without a doubt. He’s a force to be reckoned with in the best possible way.”

At Muir one chilly morning, Baron and retired science teacher Doss Jones roam among students in the garden. There are piles of cast-off shoes and work gloves so teenagers wary of dirt have no excuses.

The students hope to get area residents to buy weekly produce boxes. Baron prompts students to try mizuna straight from the ground or to spread compost. He jokes with boys who tell him they use cologne after his class to cover up the smells. Senior Shante Chaney confesses to coming by to snack on radishes between classes.

“He talks to you more as a friend than a teacher,” says Luis Santacruz, a Muir senior. “He talks about gardening and life and not straying myself too much, how to work.”

Jones, a 1966 Muir High graduate and former Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, asked Baron to help with the Pasadena school’s garden. “Part of what Mud teaches me is that we’re telling a story,” she says.

Like an evangelist, Baron tells stories for effect. One such “story” might be filling a garden bed with flowers that could, he says, make Pasadena officials that much happier to support the garden.

Another is about nutrition, he says: “How do I teach kids about Flaming Hot Cheetos? We grow radishes.”


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Corrected: An earlier version of this post said Jones was a 1996 Muir High graduate.

Photos, from top: Mud Baron directs volunteers helping to spread mulch at the San Pedro Science Center; Baron talks to representatives of school gardens from around L.A.; Baron and "Duck Duck" at the science center garden; Baron with supplies at the garden. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times