At El Sereno Community Garden, planting seeds of change for urban L.A.


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Community Gardens Dispatch No. 35: El Sereno, Los Angeles

When a late-night hit-and-run driver recently crashed into El Sereno Community Garden’s just-completed retaining wall, co-founder Marie Salas was on the case. She took pictures. She collected pieces of the car left behind. She canvassed the neighborhood, looking for witnesses. One woman said she had heard the crash and saw where the car was dropped off by a tow truck -- up the hill from the garden.


At first, the car’s owner denied any responsibility. But Salas, who runs a home-based day care, knew how to deal with the ‘it-wasn’t-me’ response. She told the man that she was happy he hadn’t hurt himself or anyone else, and that she was not going to call the police. Then she walked him down to the garden and introduced him to Ruben Barragan, right, one of the oldest gardeners at El Sereno.

By the end, the driver was remorseful. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry,” he said.

The point of Salas’ anecdote: Although good earth and organic practices are important, the essential ingredients of successful community gardens are solid relationships.

“They are our neighbors and we all make mistakes, but I gave him a lecture first,’ Salas said. ‘When you live in a community where there may be a problem, you want those eyes. People take care of you.”

El Sereno Community Garden is on 2.5 acres of L.A. Department of Transportation land, along a busy section of Huntington Road South that had been slated for the 710 Freeway connection to Interstate 10. When that project was shelved, the vacant trash-filled lot was offered up as a garden and came with a city donation of $100,000, half of which went directly to the Conservation Corps, the youth group that builds the infrastructure for many community gardens.

Salas and her group divided the land into three sections: the garden and its 42 plots, most of them 10 feet by 15 feet; an open-air ‘plaza’ meeting area; and the Passive Park, a communal garden of California native plants and low-maintenance ornamentals, ringed with fruit trees that anyone can harvest. (That’s Barragan’s plot above, planted with corn, beans and squash.) Caltrans owns a building across the street that Salas and her team want to take over for indoor workshops on plant propagation, canning and nutrition.

The garden is used by apartment dwellers, single moms with toddlers, families needing to raise money for an emergency such as a funeral, even artists looking for a public space to perform.

“Until this community garden was open, there was no interest in farmers markets or gardening in El Sereno,” says Melissa Chinchilla, one of the organizers of the year-old El Sereno Farmer’s Market, held on Friday evenings across the street. She lists the gardens that have since sprung up nearby: at Woodrow Wilson High School, on Department of Recreation and Parks land in Rose Hills, at a Sierra Park Elementary School.

Gardeners pay $50 annually and must sign up for rotating chores. They also get outside help from students from Cal State L.A., USC and Occidental College. Engineers Without Borders did their arbor for free.

The other rules are simple: No smoking, no alcohol, no pesticides. And you have to be serious. For the looky-loos, Salas says she has a simple test.

‘Give them a rake,’ said Salas, right, provoking a round of laughter from other gardeners around her.

‘Tell them to weed a section. Then you can see the ones that are going to work and the ones that are in the garden for the wrong reasons.’

-- Jeff Spurrier


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Curly kale.

Art in the plaza area of El Sereno Community Garden.

The plaza serves as a meeting area for members of the garden.

Peaches grow on communal trees that anyone can harvest.

Artichoke plants, photographed just before some get harvested and others go to flower.

In addition to the food-producing plants, California natives and ornamental flowers color the landscape.