STYLE : GARDENS : Green Acres

Scattered across L.A.'s urban landscape like so many bright green patchwork quilts are 50or so community gardens, some vast, some small, where neighbors congregate to till the soil. To city-weary passersby, these gardens are visual oases. To the gardeners themselves--many apartment dwellers and retirees--the gardens offer a welcome chance to create a miniature Eden.

Expressing the tastes and cultural traditions of its maker, each plot is a world of its own, measuring on average 10-by-12 or 15-by-20 feet and densely planted to maximize yield. One tiny garden may be given over to vegetables laid out in impeccable rows or strung up meticulously on lattices. Another may be planted with a profusion of flowers in formal beds--a diminutive Versailles. Here, tomatoes, basil and peppers run together in a riotous tumble, guarded by heavy-headed sunflowers. There, roses old and new reign supreme, a stone rabbit napping in their fragrant shade. Still elsewhere, usurping precious growing space, a Lilliputian pond takes pride of place, and a statue of an urn-bearing damsel presides over a corn patch.

In polyglot Los Angeles, community gardens are multicultural spaces where gardeners mingle everyday crops with exotic reminders of distant homelands: Tahitian melons, Philippine opo , Vietnamese chi , Hawaiian taro, Hungarian peppers, Italian chicory, guavas, rue, Japanese long beans and French haricots verts . Speaking their different languages, the gardeners communicate in pantomime, abetted by smiles and the generous exchange of the fruits of their labor. "These gardens are sociable places," says retired history teacher Winston R. Smoyer at Alhambra Community Garden, at the corner of Granada Avenue and Mission Street. "You have to learn to work while people stop to visit."

Digging, sowing, watering and weeding are strenuous physical work--a serious commitment--but the rewards are numerous: good exercise, fresh air and sunshine, and a chance to augment the family food budget while growing flavorful, pesticide-free edibles in a friendly, cooperative setting. Herschel Gilbert, the head garden master at Wattles Farm, on Franklin Avenue at Sierra Bonita Avenue in Hollywood, expresses the sentiments of many when he calls gardening "the best therapy you can find." "You get there and you forget everything else," he says. "My white corn is so sweet--it's unmatchable. You pick it at 5 p.m., rush home, put in boiling water. Everything tastes better in the garden--picked at the proper time, fresh and sweet and with all its nutrients."

For Bryna Skuro, whose enclosed plot at Santa Monica Community Gardens, on Main Street between Pico and Ocean Park boulevards, mixes a little of everything--roses, cacti, herbs, vegetables ("I let them decide what's going to survive")--gardening is a form of self-expression that "always gives me more than I put into it." "Tourists from all over the world stop by," she says, "and even if we don't speak the same language, we manage to communicate. Everyone speaks garden."

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