Community gardens: Year-long series comes to a close


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Community Gardens Dispatch No. 52: The end


It’s transition time in the garden. For me, that means the end of my year in the community garden.

This series began after I graduated from the UC Cooperative Extension’s master gardener class in spring 2010. My education continued in community gardens from Ventura to Long Beach, from the foothills to the coast, from the inner city to the ex-urbs.

Microclimates, demographics and histories of the gardens may have differed, but one commonality stood out: No matter the ZIP Code, gardeners were generous with their time, expertise, seedlings and harvest. It sounds like a cliche (or a statement of the obvious) to say that community gardens build community, but after seeing how these gardens can be good neighbors, raising property values and welcoming newcomers with open arms (and full sun), the cliche just sounds like fact.

Los Angeles is blessed with a climate that allows for year-round planting. Just as the car culture produced an asphalt grid now being reclaimed by a generation of urban cyclists, the region’s low-rise sprawl creates opportunities for community gardens in light-drenched flat lots. Land-poor would-be gardeners usually are not far away.

I started in the Highland Park neighborhood in Northeast L.A., where the relatively new Milagro Allegro Community Garden had risen in an urban community where nutrition and green space were big concerns. On the Westside I visited the Main Street garden in Santa Monica, one of the most public of the community gardens. It often was open for strolling tourists, and the mishmash of garden decor and fences gave it a great hippie vibe.

At Park Drive, also in Santa Monica, I learned how the garden had been made more accessible for wheelchairs. My wife, photographer Ann Summa, came on board, and suddenly I had great visuals every week.


The gardeners that followed came in seemingly every form, from a 10-year-old intent on growing a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to octogenarians. Some gardens had strict regulations about what was allowed, whereas one garden in Boyle Heights didn’t bother with private plots. Community meant communal.

Team-building worked at the bigger spaces, most impressively at Ocean View Farms, where dedicated work crews produced high-quality compost for all its gardeners -- nearly 500 people -- and then some.

Two issues were universal: water and pests. At Stanford-Avalon, the growers flooded the land. On a rooftop in downtown L.A., the Skid Row Community Garden consisted solely of improvised self-watering containers. Monterey Road in Glendale had the good fortune to receive recycled water at a cut rate. For pests, most commonly gophers, people set traps, wired their plots, planted gopher splurge, even installed sound generators.

Everywhere I went, community gardens had an effect that went beyond the garden’s fences. Schools used them to broaden outreach or to teach cultural heritage. The gardens erased blight while uniting neighbors who had been strangers.

And though just about everyone grew tomatoes and beets, spinach and cauliflower, I always found a surprise planted in there too: minari, a Korean herb used in kimchee; the diminutive dog’s tooth pepper, which packs a wallop; moringa, a fast-growing, drought-tolerant tree. And did you know you can grow coffee, tea and all types of mango and papaya here? I didn’t.

This vast variety of edibles, flowers and other flora from around the world will be the subject of my new series for L.A. at Home: the Global Garden, a trip down a cross-cultural path that winds through Southern California. In many ways the new series will be an extension of this one -- a reflection of our community as seen through what we plant. Stay tuned.


In the meantime, to all the gardeners who welcomed me into their plots, putting down their trowels, pruners or hori-hori to answer my questions: Thank you. And grow on.

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photos, clockwise from top left: Carrots at the Growing Experience Urban Farm in Long Beach; Anne Hars and Lydia Trejo plant in converted buckets at the rooftop Skid Row Community Garden; Haber’s cabbage at Ocean View Farms in Venice; a fava bean at Venice Community Garden; Milagro Allegro Community Garden master gardener Milli Macen-Moore; Oro Blanco grapefruit at Wattles Farm. Credits: Ann Summa, except Milli Macen-Moore by Jeff Spurrier