Pasadena gardener becomes a one-woman food bank


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Virginia Paca’s backyard garden is more than a feast for the eyes. It provides food for friends, for families on the economic edge, for the homeless at a Pasadena food bank.

When Paca, a Pasadena architect and garden designer, bought her Pasadena house two years ago, she decided to take advantage of its sunny backyard by turning it into an organic garden. After a year of experimenting with a few plants, she decided to triple the size.


The first beds to go in were tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. In between all the plants, Paca placed non-hybrid marigolds, which helped to keep pests away. After that came three varieties of squash, artichokes, cucumbers, watermelons, green beans and corn, all grown from organic seeds.

“When I started growing all this food, I knew it would be way more than one person could eat,” Paca says, standing amid a garden bed planted with eight varieties of tomatoes. “I read about people losing their homes and jobs in this economy, and one day, I was walking around the neighborhood, wondering what to do with the produce.”

A few blocks away, near Washington Park, she came across her answer: a building with a sign that said, “Friends in Deed, Food Bank today.”

Now, every other week, she takes baskets of produce to Friends in Deed, a service organization for low-income and homeless people in northwest Pasadena. The group is run by the Ecumenical Council Pasadena Area Congregations.

“It’s a structure in our community that’s almost unnoticed,” Paca said. “They have a lot of processed foods and bread, so they were thrilled to get fresh produce. I was going to donate every week, but I found that some weeks I would know of friends who were having a hard time, so I’d drop a basket of fresh produce at their house.”

To learn more about Paca’s garden, keep reading ...

As Paca dug the garden beds, she made her own compost with coffee grounds from Jones Coffee Roasters in Pasadena. After a while, she purchased compost from wizard Tim Dundon, a fixture in the Altadena community known for making a unique blend of the organic matter and delivering it to anyone within driving distance for a nominal fee.


Parallel to the vegetable garden, Paca put in an herb garden with sage, oregano, chives, thyme and tarragon. Fennel, which is normally grown for the root, was allowed to grow unchecked. As the fennel flowered, it attracted bees, birds, butterflies and beneficial insects to the garden.

Soon Paca will be putting in a winter garden of beets, carrots, French breakfast radishes, three kinds of lettuce, broccoli, endive, Swiss chard and mesclun salad greens.

Friends donate baskets that can be filled with the produce to share with those who are in need.

The garden consists of six beds that are 4 feet wide by 12 feet long, proving that you don’t need a lot of land to have a bountiful harvest. The remaining area is planted with shade trees and ornamentals, creating a lovely retreat that looks out onto the garden.

“My concept of a garden is the idea that it’s beautiful, and integrated with other plants,” Paca said. “It’s not just a row of vegetables. It has to provide an environment for birds and insects. The grounds should be a beautiful, tranquil retreat. Gardening has always been therapeutic for me, and I’m happy that the food I’m growing is helping others too.”

-- Dinah Eng

Photo credits: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times



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