Community Gardens: Empty West Adams lot becomes growers’ haven


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Julie Burleigh with the fertilizer-producing bunnies.

It’s a typical story: An empty lot where a house has burned down lies deserted for decades. It becomes a gang hangout, a place to walk dogs.


That was the situation on Raymond Avenue in West Adams, and for years artist Julie Burleigh wondered about turning the lot across from her house into a community garden. In the summer of 2007 she approached Al Renner, executive director of the L.A. Community Garden Council, for advice on how to convert the space, then waist high in cheese weed.

The garden, once a vacant lot.

He put her on the path, detailing the setup steps and mentioned the four types of committee garden government he had seen over the years: rule by committee, by tribal consensus, or by benevolent or non-benevolent dictatorship.

“I was a benevolent dictator,” she says, laughing, noting that community gardens can be little microcosms of bad government. “Six months ago I stepped back so it’s more collective. Now it’s all just life lessons.”

The garden is on a quiet residential street, a block over from a cluster of immaculate Craftsman homes, a popular film location because it’s a dead-ringer for Ohio. In 2008, 37 raised bed plots were put in, city mulch delivered, and spaces allotted.

And now, three years later, Burleigh says she can see what she did wrong in her original design. The plots are 5 feet by 10 feet, neither too small nor too large, she thought at the time. In hindsight, she says, fewer and longer, narrower beds make more sense. Five feet is too wide to work easily and with a larger bed — 4 x 15 — it’s easier to see if something, or someone, is failing. Eighty percent of the gardeners live within a two-block walk — also a factor for success, she’s discovered.

Another lesson she has learned is don’t try too much, or, bunnies yes, bees no. She had bought a couple of hives but neither prospered so they’ll be coming out this spring. The rabbits in the hutch in the back, however, are doing fine, and will soon be moved to a larger and more protected cage in the shade of the meeting area. Momma Bun-bun just delivered six babies and every few days the trays beneath the cages are full with their prized poop — the only manure you can put directly on the garden without composting first. “I learn almost daily that you can never build the soil too much,” says Burleigh. “This soil is really hungry. It needs food all the time.”

The weeds in the soil are less fickle and even with raised beds and mulch remain a problem. Her solution is sheet mulching. To keep her plot clear, she laid down triple over-lapping layers of cardboard both inside and outside the wooden frame, wet thoroughly, and topped it all off with 6 to 12 inches of mulch.

What the bunnies don’t provide, Ivan Palencia’s compost worms do. He’s in charge of the garden’s three-bin compost system and doesn’t use tools. “I use my bare hands because I don’t want to harm the worms,” he says, pushing the earth aside to scoop out a handful. It blooms suddenly into serpentine writhing. “See how they are working for us? They are my babies.”

The sweetener stevia, grown by Ivan Palencia, below.

In his plot, Palencia has a bush of the sweetener stevia growing along with an onion variety he found sprouting in the compost, seasons back. It wanted to grow so he planted it. Now he’s letting the last of its children go to flower to collect the seeds for the third generation. It likes the spot, he says.

New gardeners Vanessa Guerra and Paul Scherzberg stand over their plot, a little startled perhaps by the vigor of the seeds they scattered a few months back. Although the lettuce heads are fat with leaves, they haven’t harvested anything yet. “We thought we had to wait longer,” says Scherzberg.

No, says Janet Sanchez, Burleigh’s assistant and an active gardener, driving in from Santa Fe Springs. Don’t wait to pick the whole head, start harvesting the bottom leaves now and they’ll last longer.

And the more you eat from the garden, the more it delivers. Burleigh knows that. She gets about 40% of the family produce from the garden. “It has changed my eating habits totally. I eat at least one big salad every day. That was not the case a few years ago.”

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photos by Ann Summa

See more photos of the garden, and look for our community gardens posts every Wednesday. For an easy way to stay connected, join our Facebook page dedicated to gardening in the West.

Gardener Janet Sanchez, above.

Gardener Antoinette Lillie, above, tends an artichoke.


Man versus gopher at Wattles

Learning to graft trees

Planting in raised beds

Composting like crazy

Gardening in buckets