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Digging In With Enthusiasm : Community Garden Provides Food, Fellowship and a ‘Little Bit of Heaven’ in Alhambra

Times Staff Writer

As cars and trucks roared past on nearby Mission Road in Alhambra, Leon Dyer sat contentedly in his little bit of heaven--a tiny garden bursting with roses and crops of broccoli, spinach, eggplant and a dozen other vegetables.

About 50 yards away, Ludy Ho and her children were pulling weeds and tending garlic, onions and bok choy in the family garden. Occasionally the boys broke away from their chores to dart along narrow dirt paths connecting the rented plots that make up Alhambra Community Garden.

The community garden, 2.3 acres at Mission Road and Granada Avenue, is a patchwork of vegetable and flower gardens that occupies a special niche in the middle of suburbia. Nestled behind a vine-covered chain-link fence and a wall of cactus and roses, the garden offers 75 San Gabriel Valley residents and their families an escape.

“When I get tired of looking at people, I just sit here,” said Dyer’s daughter Maryanne. “It’s peaceful.”

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Two years ago, Dyer, 83, whiled away his days sitting around the house, his daughter said. But after renting a small plot at the community garden, Dyer is a new man, visiting and working in his garden almost every day.

“This has been wonderful for him,” his daughter said.

Provides a Refuge

For Ho, who faces pressure-filled days juggling housework and caring for her four young children, the garden is a refuge.

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“When you are starting to dig, you forget everything,” she said.

Southern Pacific freight trains running parallel to Mission Road thunder past the garden now and then but do not destroy the bucolic atmosphere.

The Alhambra Community Garden was started in 1972, when nearby residents transformed the former vacant lot and city dump into a network of small gardens. Where abandoned cars, sofas and trash were once strewn, weekend gardeners nurtured gladioli, roses, tomatoes, squash and lettuce.

The gardeners, mostly senior citizens, cleared away the weeds and stones, built picket fences and installed mini-irrigation systems. They reclaimed the area through what Teresa Lees, manager of the community garden, described as “guerrilla gardening.’

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Gradually, the former dump evolved into a neighborhood garden.

Nominal Fees

Instead of kicking out the gardeners, the city started a community gardening program, renting out 200- to 1,000-square-foot plots for fees that now range from $1 to $8 a month.

The city provides water, stocks a small shed with garden tools that residents may borrow and pays for a part-time manager.

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Each of the 105 plots looks like someone’s pride and joy. A few are marked with hand-painted signs such as “Vicki’s Garden,” or “Grandpa John’s Garden.”

The entry to Dyer’s plot is garnished with a gabled trellis, and spires of lavender-blue delphiniums ring the edges. A short path leads to Dyer’s lattice gazebo, where he often sits to enjoy the view.

Inside the gazebo hangs a small painting of the Dyer family farmhouse in Ohio where he was raised. A wooden trunk that also serves as a bench holds Dyer’s straw hat, seeds, garden tools and thick photo albums with pictures of his garden in different seasons.

Strolling through his garden one recent afternoon, Dyer bent down, rummaged through a leafy row of vegetables and emerged triumphant with a dark purple eggplant.

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“Cube these, stir-fry them, put a little basil on them,” Dyer said. “Oh, they’re good!”

Rent Is a Bargain

Dyer, who pays $39 a year in rent, said he’s getting a bargain because his vegetable harvest is worth much more. He grows and dries his own spices and usually has more vegetables than he needs. Dyer shares extra produce with family, neighbors and other gardeners.

On a small table near the communal tool shed, gardeners may leave their extra tomatoes and cucumbers, and in exchange, pick up the squash or cabbage they need. Seeds are also traded through a “seed exchange box.”

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“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have a garden,” said John Brkich, 74, a retired truck driver who visits his garden two or three times a day.

One late Saturday afternoon, Brkich stopped by to water the plants. Sporting a white cap and sunglasses, he stood in the rich, dark topsoil with hose in hand, admiring his garden.

“I love to see things grow,” Brkich said. “I don’t sell anything. I give it to the homeless.”

For Fun, Not Profit

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Other gardeners, however, have broken community garden rules by growing vegetables and spices for commercial use, said Nancy Hogan, community services coordinator in the city’s Department of Human Services.

One Vietnamese grandmother, for example, planted a patch of mint and sold the leaves to nearby restaurants, she said.

“We are trying to discourage that so it’s more a family environment,” Hogan said. The city originally designed the community garden program to give residents, especially apartment dwellers, a place to garden for fun, not profit, she said.

Although Lees agrees that residents should not garden for profit in a program subsidized by the city, she said differences in cultures are understandable.

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The Vietnamese grandmother, who is in her 70s, planted and sold the mint because she wanted to make a financial contribution to her family, Lees said.

To discourage gardening for profit, rules prohibit covering more than one-third of a plot with any one plant.

Gardeners must also keep the footpaths around their gardens clear of weeds, keep pets out and use nontoxic pesticides and fertilizers.

The city does not require that gardeners be apartment dwellers or even Alhambra residents, Hogan said. But preference is given to those who live in the city.

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A dozen people are on the community garden’s waiting list but should be able to get a plot in about six months, Hogan said. Space opens up when gardeners give up their plots or are asked to do so because they have neglected their gardens or violated rules.

Some of the 75 gardeners have more than one plot, but as demand for gardens grow, some of those with multiple plots are being asked to give them up.

As young immigrant families have moved into the city, the racial composition of the community gardeners has changed, leading to resentment from a few older residents, according to Hogan.

She said her office has received calls from residents asking that the city give preference to whites on the garden’s waiting list. Hogan said her office refuses to discriminate.

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“We take whoever calls in the order they call,” Hogan said. As on-site manager, Lees said she has also heard occasional disparaging comments about Asian gardeners.

Striving for Unity

“I want to see unity here,” Lees said. “When I hear comments like that, I ignore them. Alhambra is changing, so there’s going to have to be acceptance.”

Nick Wagner, 80, said problems have been limited to isolated cases involving only one or two people.

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“As far as I can see, we get along well,” Wagner said. “I don’t know of any friction unless it’s a personal thing.”

In addition to native Californians and transplanted Midwesterners, some of the gardeners come from the Philippines, Italy, China, Vietnam, Korea and Hungary.

Lees, who studied international agricultural development, said the manager’s job fits in perfectly with her training.

She has tried to promote good relations between the different generations and cultures by sponsoring get-togethers. In August, for example, the city’s Department of Human Services was host of a potluck harvest party, at which gardeners were invited to bring dishes prepared with fresh vegetables from their gardens.

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Exchanging Tips

Despite language barriers, gardeners have exchanged gardening tips and introduced one another to new vegetables and flowers.

Ho, who is from the Philippines, said fellow gardener Larry Jong introduced her to Chinese vegetables such as bok choy and hollow-heart greens.

Pointing to Mike Russo, a 60-year-old Italian-American, Ho said, “He’s the person who taught me how to plant garlic and onions.”

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There is also team gardening. Wagner and his brother-in-law, for example, share one plot that they cover with boysenberries, artichokes, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.

“By splitting it in half you can take care of it better,” said Wagner, an Eagle Rock resident who works in the garden twice a week. A robust 80-year-old, he learned gardening from his mother, who lived to be 103.

Winston Smoyer, chairman of the Community Garden Assn., joined the community garden 13 years ago because he said his own yard is too shady.

“I need more open sunny space, and the camaraderie,” said Smoyer, 78.

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With cozy gardens separated by an occasional picket fence or footpath, the community garden is one of the few spots left in the city where neighbors can still wave hello or shoot the breeze over the fence.

“For some of the folks, their social life is here,” Lees said.

Steve Sallay, a retired barber, labors in his garden from 7 to 11 a.m. and then again from 2 p.m. until dark.

“When I came from Ohio I was terribly lonesome in my apartment,” said Sallay, 80. “Then I heard about this garden and told myself, ‘let’s investigate.’ ”

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That was 12 years ago. Sallay is now hardly ever in his apartment, which he said is in such a mess that he fears his landlord may throw him out. He told his landlord, “Come to my garden. I’ll show you a nice clean garden.”

Upon entering Sallay’s fenced garden, a visitor is escorted along a carpeted pathway past meticulous rows of shallots, basil, roses and mums. The strips of weathered beige carpeting, which Sallay uses to scrape mud from the bottom of his shoes, long ago merged with the dirt path.

Women from a nearby nursing home often come to get free roses, he said.

“They think I’m a prince of a guy,” Sallay said with a wink.

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He maintains a storage shed that has become a second tool center for other gardeners.

“Sometimes they bring it back, sometimes they don’t,” he said, shrugging.

Sallay sometimes find it hard to walk away from his garden at day’s end. Under the moonlight, he said, the community garden is “dream heaven.”

“If it was not for this, I would be dead long ago,” Sallay said. “This is my home.”

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