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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Highly Cultivated : Community gardens tucked away in the landscape yield bushels of produce, offer an oasis from city life and provide fertile ground for social interaction.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The smokestacks and oil tanks of the Unocal refinery stand in the distance. Garbage trucks rumble into a nearby city maintenance yard. Rush-hour traffic on the Harbor Freeway zooms not more than 200 feet away. But Ruben Villegas considers the spot a little piece of paradise.

Villegas, 51, tends neat rows of onions, garlic and cabbage on his plot in the San Pedro All-Year Gardens on Gaffey Street amid the smell of wet earth and mulch after a recent storm.

“This is where I find my peace and relaxation,” he says. “It’s cold now, but I like to come here and kick back. During winter, plants grow slow. Some people don’t like that. It doesn’t bother me.”

Easy to overlook and often shoehorned into the unlikeliest of locations, community gardens in the South Bay give refuge from the stress of city life to Villegas and hundreds like him. The gardens provide land to grow fruits and vegetables and a gathering place for all ages and cultures.

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Those qualities have attracted many to the gardens, which typically charge $20 to $25 a year for a 200-square-foot plot and water. Most of the dozen or so community gardens have waiting lists, some as long as 18 months.

“Gardening here is really just a kind of fellowshiping,” said Wil Ching, 69, a high school geometry teacher with a garden at Columbia Park in Torrance. “We’re like brothers and sisters out here.”

Though senior citizens have long been the primary users of community gardens--a couple even require members to be 55 or older--many sites have seen increasing numbers of people in their 30s, 40s and early 50s join.

“It’s just satisfying, watching that little seed grow into something you can actually eat,” said Kevin Williams, 32, a telephone maintenance supervisor who is growing cauliflower, bok choy and romaine lettuce in Hawthorne’s community garden. “I like to cook, and nothing beats fresh ingredients.”

Even so, tilling soil, weeding, watering and harvesting crops can be hard work. To maintain a productive plot, gardeners recommend spending at least four to five hours a week on it, regardless of the season.

Winter poses its own problems. Heavy rains this year have turned many plots into muddy messes. Flooding has killed seedlings. Early morning frost and lack of maintenance have led to further losses.

“With the weather we’ve been having, it’s kind of tough to get out to the garden as often as I’d like,” said Williams, a native of Battle Creek, Mich. “Of course, it’s much worse where I grew up.”

Theft and vandalism can also play havoc, so gardens are locked to outsiders. Chain-link fences, frequently topped with barbed wire, guard tools and plants.

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The measures are “more of a deterrent than anything, and we have had only a few problems,” Ching said. The biggest loss at Columbia Park garden came last year when thieves cut through a fence to steal a $900 plant shredder, gardeners said.

Crime, though rare, stands in sharp contrast to the gardens’ spirit of quiet order and sharing. Bylaws typically require growers to help maintain common areas, such as walkways and compost heaps, keep plots clean and make sure large plants like trees do not block light or infringe on other plots. Supervisors patrol for illegal plants like marijuana.

The sheer abundance of some crops also encourages a giving spirit. A 10-by-20-foot plot can generate hundreds of pounds of vegetables in one season, far too much for most families to consume.

Gardeners exchange crops, give produce to friends and neighbors or donate it to soup kitchens such as the House of Yahweh in Lawndale or the Union Rescue Mission in Downtown Los Angeles.

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Passersby at some gardens often ask to buy a basket of tomatoes or a few ears of corn. But gardeners, who are usually prohibited by bylaws from selling their bounty, usually just toss the requested items over the fence.

“I give away about 95% of it,” Ching said. “What else are you going to do with 300 pounds of zucchini?”

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Community gardens trace their roots to World War II, when food rationing spurred people to grow their own produce in “victory gardens.” In the 1970s, the ecology movement revived interest in the idea and, at the same time, federal funds helped establish urban gardening programs.

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With land at a premium, most community gardens sprouted wherever residents could win approval to use undeveloped land. That led to some unusual sites.

San Pedro All-Year Gardens, for instance, lies next to the Harbor (110) Freeway on a landfill closed in 1977. Lawndale’s community garden is on a Caltrans-owned strip near Hawthorne Boulevard and the San Diego (405) Freeway. Other plots are on unused parkland, school grounds and vacant lots.

In Torrance, Hawthorne and San Pedro, cities have set aside land for community gardens. But elsewhere, such as the seniors-only Green Acres garden in Wilmington, gardeners have had to strike agreements with private property owners--who may later decide to use the land for profit-making ventures.

In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, gardens in Carson, Inglewood, Lomita and San Pedro closed due to development or flagging community interest.

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Green Acres, located on a busy stretch on Avalon Boulevard, started in 1979 when plans to build a grocery store fell through, said Steve Morales, the garden’s manager. (The garden got its name from one of its early sponsors, Eddie Albert, who starred in the 1960s television sitcom “Green Acres,” about a lawyer who flees the bustle of Manhattan for farm life.)

Though Green Acres faces no imminent threat, builders have expressed interest in the land over the years. The owner would only need to give the gardeners 90 days’ notice if he wanted them to leave, Morales said.

“Community gardens can be here today, gone tomorrow,” said Rachel Mabie, an adviser to the Common Ground Garden Program, a federally funded organization that has helped start more than 100 gardens in Los Angeles County since 1977.

In recent years, the urban farms have enjoyed a renaissance, largely due to interest in pesticide-free organic gardening.

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“There’s nothing like a good tomato, ripened on the vine, that’s been grown completely naturally. The sugar content is higher and there are no harmful chemicals,” said Fred Eckert, a 76-year-old retired agriculture teacher at Mira Costa High School. His community garden, the Pea Patch, for senior citizens in Manhattan Beach, prohibits pesticides.

Instead, gardeners control insects primarily by examining plants and soil for larvae or by placing thin protective cloths over vegetation. Some bugs, like aphids, can be killed by spraying a mild soap solution on the plants.

Organic gardening “just takes a bit more effort because you must monitor the garden more closely,” Eckert said. “That’s one reason why it can be so expensive at stores . . . that have all-natural food.”

Growers must guard against chemicals in the air and soil. Lead from car exhaust may have built up in dirt along freeways and heavily traveled roads. Oil residue may lie under lots previously used as parking areas.

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Yearly soil testing is crucial to detecting and preventing problems, said Kathleen Bullard, a state conservation official. Treating the soil with mulch and other substances can remove many hazards in the ground, she said, and produce should be washed before it is eaten.

The relatively low cost of growing produce at community gardens is another attraction, especially for low-income families and senior citizens. Also, many of the gardeners live in apartments or have yards that are too small for cultivation.

“We ask first, ‘Do you have a house with a yard?’ and second, ‘How is your income?’ ” said Kemo Begovic, who runs the San Pedro Neighborhood Garden. “We want to give the plots first to people who don’t have a yard or who don’t have much money.”

Gardeners say they need to spend only about $100 a year for tools, seeds and fertilizer. The other materials, including land and all the water they need, is included in yearly fees of $25 or less. But some spend more.

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“With the money we spend here and the time, we could buy beautiful vegetables in the store,” Ching said. “But it doesn’t taste as good, and it’s not as much fun.”

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Community gardens also serve as a melting pot for old and new immigrants, native Southern Californians and transplants from the East Coast and Midwest.

At the San Pedro All-Year Gardens, Latinos, Filipinos and Koreans trade tips on growing hot peppers, bok choy and Swiss chard. Cactus is one of the most plentiful plants because many Mexican Americans cook and eat it as a home remedy, Villegas said.

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“I started coming here to get rid of stress at work,” said Villegas, a cannery worker on Terminal Island who grew up in the Zacatecas region of Mexico. “Sitting around, watching TV all the time--that’s no good for you. I come here, drink a beer, talk with my friends. It’s nice.”

About three miles to the south, at the San Pedro Neighborhood Garden, the ethnic mix is more Old World.

“When I was a kid in Bosnia, we had a big garden where we grew apples and grapes and potatoes,” said Begovic, a retired printer who works a plot alongside immigrants from his homeland as well as from Croatia, Italy, Mexico and the Philippines.

“Now, I don’t have enough room to grow potatoes, but I can grow other things like lettuce in the winter, tomatoes in summer,” he said. “I come every day to work, to be in the fresh air and get exercise.”

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Gardeners say they reap more than fresh produce from their plots--they also find friendship and learn about nature.

Ching, a native of Kauai, said he had never grown his own vegetables until two years ago, when his brother moved from Torrance and asked him to take over a plot at Columbia Park.

For three months, Ching prepared his plot--clearing the land and conditioning the clay soil with compost. He said other gardeners, who grew up in places like Kentucky and Kansas, guided him along the way.

“Many times, I came here and didn’t do anything but talk and listen to other people,” he said.

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Ching grows taro, the Hawaiian plant used to make poi, the staple food of his youth. Other gardeners have given him seeds for Arabian herbs, German beets and Jerusalem artichokes.

In the meantime, Ching has mastered composting, which turns weeds and food scraps into mulch, and teaches classes on the subject. Several South Bay cities are promoting composting in an effort to meet state trash-reduction regulations.

Indeed, many say the most important role community gardens can play is to make city-dwellers aware of the environment.

“Most people don’t really know what it’s like to enjoy nature. . . . I think if more people did, it would be a great benefit,” Eckert said. “The bees may be buzzing around your head, and the birds are trying to steal your vegetables, so you may not notice (enjoying) it at the time. But after you’ve been out there, you realize that’s it’s something you don’t want to lose.”

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