Silver Lake Farms owner says goodbye

Grass no longer grows at Silver Lake Farms, a half-acre property that helped establish urban farming in Los Angeles.

Farm founder Tara Kolla long ago banished that remnant of residential, pre-drought lawn fashion and replaced it with organically grown plants that were either edible, provided a cash crop or attracted beneficial insects.

Shortly after buying a 1935 Spanish-style house in 2001, Kolla eyed its vast, prosaic yard and determined that a flower farm would yield a self-sustaining return. Founded two years later, Silver Lake Farms evolved from a few rows of fragrant sweet peas — her favorite — into a vegetable garden, cut-flower farm, garden-care business and a community-supported agriculture program, better known as a CSA.

Now a new owner will inherit the literal fruits of Kolla’s years of labor: She and her husband, Beat Frutiger, have sold the property.

The 1,863-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house on a flag-shaped lot listed for $1.825 million and sold for $2.25 million. It attracted multiple offers for substantially over asking in under four days, said Sotheby’s International Realty agent Patricia Ruben.

The new owner, Kolla says, has pledged to preserve the garden, which was a key criterion in her selection of the buyer.

As she winds down Silver Lake Farms, Kolla is pursuing a new venture far from Los Angeles: converting an 1800s watermill in western France into a bed and breakfast called Mill on the Rock. Frutiger, meanwhile, will split his time between restoring the stately stone buildings and art directing on U.S. film sets.

“This has been a lot of hard work,” Kolla said recently as she toured her gardens, pulling weeds as she walked. Located in a quiet Silver Lake cul-de-sac, the terraced gardens wrap the house with color, fragrance and food: blueberries, mulberries, boysenberries, peaches, apples, oranges, figs, nectarines and apricots.

The garden, designed as a commercial enterprise,   has contours that seem more residential than industrial. A shaded patio outside the back door is scented by jasmine and gardenia and framed by enormous ferns, spider plants and a loquat tree. Terraces take in mountain views, and chairs sit surrounded by intoxicating mint and lavender.

The frontyard, once a swath of grass with a sorry hedge, is now an intricate wildlife habit where hachiya persimmon, Meyer lemon, pomegranate, Rio red grapefruit, mango and Turnbull White guava trees mix with grapevines, honeysuckle and vivid butterfly bush.

With a background in public relations and information systems, Kolla advanced her knowledge of plants and soil through botany studies at Pierce College and with biodynamic-farming experts.

“This property has absolutely changed my life,” she said. The garden allowed her to escape the dot-com crash and start a new career in horticulture. She earned national attention as an early proponent of urban farming, organically grown flowers and sustainable landscapes.

Just as her farming transformed the once-ordinary yard, her advocacy turned Los Angeles into fertile territory for urban farming.

In 2009, a dispute broke out when a neighbor alerted city authorities that her residential farm was illegally growing flowers for the purpose of selling them. At the time, residential codes allowed vegetables to be grown on personal property and sold but didn’t mention flowers or fruits.

Then-Councilman Eric Garcetti rewrote the rules as the Food and Flowers Freedom Act to promote and expand local growing and selling. The new law opened the way for urban farming across L.A.

With new momentum, Kolla continued to build her business and its all-important soil with mulch, compost tea and beneficial insects — never pesticides or tillers.

“What we have here is 15 years of organic soil that we created,” she said, tucking a spade into the dark, loamy dirt. “There aren’t that many people who appreciate it, but it’s gold for growing plants.

“Now the next generation can take over,” she said. “I’m very happy about that.”

hotproperty@latimes.com

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