Gardeners Reap Friendship, Food From Lakewood Community Plots

Times Staff Writer

Ruby Fleischer left her roots on an Oklahoma farm more than half a century ago to move to the city, but her zeal for gardening has flourished through the years.

"I left the country in 1923 and came to California. But I have had a garden in every place that I have lived," said Fleischer, who is 80, as she chopped weeds from her most recent patch.

Fleischer grows her crop along with 250 other gardeners at the Lakewood Community Gardens, which are on nearly three acres of land that run under the power lines in a residential area in northeast Lakewood.

Like the crops they grow, the gardeners are varied. It is not unusual to find senior citizens, the handicapped, retired persons, the employed, families and children working the land--reaping from the garden food and exercise, as well as enjoying a fellowship with nature and other people.

Started in 1978

More than cabbages and peppers are harvested in these community gardens, which were started by the City of Lakewood in 1978.

"You can meet people here--lots of people," said Fleischer, who shares a plot with a neighbor, 61-year-old Anita Cantrell, who does the driving.

"You can raise enough to eat, can and give away," said Fleischer, a retired sandwich-maker for a catering company. The crops, which can cost as little as $20 for a year's worth of seeds, also cut down on grocery bills, said Fleischer, who is on a fixed income.

"This is fantastic. It is a great deal," said Cantrell, a housewife, who has shared her garden plot with Fleischer for more than four years.

The city started the community gardening program in February, 1978, leasing the land from Southern California Edison for about $10 a year, said Mark Deven, Lakewood community services manager. The land was cleared and developed with $54,000 in federal grants.

Lakewood residents were offered 10-by-15-foot plots for $2.50 a year. The fee pays for materials and products, including water, water hoses and fertilizer.

Newsletter Published

The gardens are closely supervised by the Lakewood Community Gardens Assn., said Bill Deck, association vice president. The association publishes its own newsletter, the Compost Pile.

"The association is very strict. As an example, we give them a notice of 30 days to clean up the weeds and get things in order. If they don't, the plot is given to someone else," Deck said.

A recent article in the newsletter described how to sterilize soil without stinking up the house: put the soil in a pan and cook it outside on a barbecue grill.

Len Parker, the newsletter's editor and a 64-year-old sales representative for a pharmaceutical company, said, "We have a variety of people among our members, gardening for all type of reasons. I do it because I enjoy it. It is a hobby for me. I have to get out in the sun."

Another gardener who longs to get outdoors is Jim Murray, 46, who is disabled. Murray has had a plot with his mother, Elizabeth Murray, 63, for about four years.

Murray suffered a serious head injury in an automobile accident when he was 17, said Elizabeth Murray, a retired timekeeper for McDonnell Douglas Corp.

"I just have to get out here and get my hands in the soil. It's good therapy," said Jim Murray, who walks with a metal-framed walker.

'They Taste Better'

"We grow cabbage, squash, string beans, cauliflower and everything. They taste better than the vegetables you buy in the store. They also cost less," said Elizabeth Murray.

She said she and her son live on a small pension and Social Security benefits.

"This garden definitely puts food on the table. It helps with the grocery bill," Jim Murray said.

"This is heaven," said Mike Wynn, 70, a retired Navy veteran, as he walked his plot in the garden at Candlewood Street between Woodruff and Palo Verde avenues.

"After many years of working on a submarine and being restricted, it is great to be able to get out and move about in the open," said Wynn, who has a plot with his wife, Beatrice.

Joann Galuska, 36, brings her two sons, Elliott Gorfain, 9, and Daniel Gorfain, 11, with her. They have been gardening there for about four years.

"We have a backyard, but it's taken up by our two big dogs. So this space is just great," said Galuska, who works part-time as a supply buyer for a drugstore chain.

"We eat as much as we can. All we don't eat we give away to neighbors and friends," Galuska said.

Both Daniel and Elliott, who are students at Mark Twain Elementary School in Long Beach, said they enjoy working in the garden with their mother.

Preparing for Spring

The three of them, like many of the other gardeners, are busy harvesting their winter plots and preparing the land for spring and summer.

The gardening association is encouraging members to get out and start weeding, watering, fertilizing and planting seeds for the coming season.

The association is also offering a gift to members and potential members that will give a boost to the spring crops.

"All the old members and new signees will be given a free bag of fertilizer this weekend," said Deck, the association vice president.

"You can't beat that," he said.

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