Cover Story : Uncommon Grounds : Fresh vegetables, exotic herbs, tastes of home--welcome to your local community gardens.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The groves are gone. Only the street names--Olive, Grape, Walnut and Orange--attest to Southern California's rich farming past. Today, what little land in Los Angeles County is given over to food production consists mainly of a patchwork of an estimated 85 community gardens.

Seen in passing, these can seem ragged affairs, squeezed onto scraps of land abutting freeways, at the base of runways, near freight lines, in derelict lots. They seem as plucky as weeds pushing through concrete--and similarly doomed.

Yet for a growing number of activists and policymakers, these gardens are far from reminders of paradise lost. Rather, they are the promise of paradise regained.

Ellen Stein, commissioner of the L.A. Board of Public Works, calls them "thriving little pieces of heaven." For Pete Boden of the UC Cooperative Extension Common Ground Garden Program, they offer job training and inject the freshest of fruit and vegetables into housing projects poorly served by supermarket chains.

Doris Bloch, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank in South-Central Los Angeles, sees them as centers of people power and hopes that city gardens can eventually supplant food donation programs.

Meanwhile, over in affluent Sherman Oaks, a place not short on greenery, the Department of Recreation simply sees its Sepulveda Garden Center as "an amenity."

Visiting the gardens, one finds that they can be all these things. There is no one type of community garden or gardener. Rather, they are as various as shades of green.

THE AMENITY

To enter the Sepulveda Garden Center is to be dazzled by a mighty trick of perspective. Though it is set on the verge of the Ventura Freeway and in the flight path of Burbank Airport, experienced from within, the drone of traffic and the thundering of jets recedes. Blistering heat cools in the whispering limbs of eucalyptus trees. Windsocks flap, chimes tinkle and hummingbirds play in sprinkler spray.

Visitors suitably entranced, the site's senior gardener, Patricia Jones, likes to make one thing clear: Community gardening is classless. "We have every type of person. Some have gardens but have dogs who dig, or they have shade, or they just want the company. Some live in apartments. We have retired judges, stockbrokers, lawyers--except when they come here, they are all dressed as gardeners."

Looking around, one indeed finds all races, ages and types. The same diversity characterizes the plants. Provided that one abides by the rules--regular weeding, watering and not growing anything invasive--gardeners can grow pretty much what they like in the 423 10-by-20-foot plots.

For James McClan, who lives in the tricky-to-cultivate hills nearby, it is vegetables. McClan comes three times a week to water and weed. His plot is less bedecked with garden gewgaws than others (some, like boats, even sport American flags). Rather, it is he who is striking. He works in a stylish string vest that would not be out of place in Venice, and it comes as no surprise to learn that he is a musician. He is thinning his plot of summer crops and preparing for autumn.

"I put in broccoli, cauliflower, greens--anything that's green," he says. "It will crop around January. Ah, kohlrabi. I love kohlrabi. It's like a funny-looking plant from another planet, but it's good."

Almost all the vegetable plots have flowers, both for cutting and to attract pollinating insects. Bonny Baker's vegetables are interspersed with roses and dahlias. A school fund-raiser and former teacher, she sports a straw hat, pink shirt and overalls, and is fit for a catalog cover. Her garden is among the prettiest of the lot, and so giddily twee that she nicknamed her scarecrow Martha Stewart.

"I like the potager style," Baker says, using the French term for kitchen garden. "That way, when one thing's done, there is still something there in bloom." She grows, she says, "peas--snap and sugar, beans, cukes, tomatoes, all the herbs, lots of basil, thyme, marjoram, sorrel, arugula."

Like McClan, she comes from a hillside home where, once shade trees were in, "there was really nothing I could grow." When she and a friend began gardening at the Sepulveda center three years ago, she was an amateur. "Vegetable gardening was a whole new thing. But the beauty of this setup is that everyone here teaches you. You learn from the older, more experienced gardeners. They're more than happy to tell you what to do."

THE PEOPLE'S GARDEN

The same spirit of cooperation binds those tilling the Urban Garden at 41st Street between Long Beach Avenue and Alameda Street in South-Central Los Angeles. However, here it is not a recreation department at work, but local residents let loose on a city-owned lot.

It took a charity to hand over the keys. In 1984, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank moved next door to the 13-acre site. "There were a lot of broken-down buildings, vermin, tire fires, people living on the property in the most abominable conditions," recalls Bloch, the food bank's director. "I remember saying, 'If a private person owned that property, he'd be thrown in jail.' "

After the 1992 riots, Bloch secured a lease on the property and led its conversion to a no-frills community garden.

"In the beginning, we were just doing the southwest corner, because we didn't want to fail," Bloch says. "We put out leaflets in English and in Spanish, but early on people didn't believe it was real and wouldn't sign up."

Today, the site is full, and the gardeners have formed a governing committee and oversee a waiting list. "When the gardens spread all the way over to Alameda, there were accidents because people were stopping to look at it," she says, laughing.

It is, indeed, a sight for sore eyes. Cultivated by 300 families, the garden is home to walnut trees, papayas, guavas, avocados, cilantro, tomatoes, tomatillos and arid stretches planted solely with cactus--nopales. Peeled and boiled, left to cool, then tossed with cheese, cucumber, avocado, cilantro and tomato, these cactus paddles produce a classic Mexican salad.

Sparrows, chickadees and mockingbirds dive and chitter. Children chase one another through the maze of plots. Women nurse babies and men play cards seated at recovered office furniture.

Mainly, however, people garden. From the plot of construction worker Juan Sanchez come two distinct smells: that of the manure he is spreading and the pungent scent of a freshly watered herb. Not sage, not rosemary, not anything even vaguely familiar to a U.S.-born cook.

Asked about it, Sanchez smiles and pulls a bunch of leaves resembling watercress from the ground. "It is papalo. It is very good for the taco."

Then, struggling for the right English, he stammers, "It is good for . . . good for . . ." He gives up and pats his torso where his liver is. Taste it, and the flavor is intense, like one's first bite of watercress or arugula, but it has a lemony high note of sorrel and very earthy back-taste. It is delicious.

If stooping to spread 50-pound sacks of muck seems an odd way to relax after a long day pouring concrete, Sanchez has two motivations. He is feeding his family, and he likes it. "We don't get all our food from here, but a lot," he says. "It's good here."

THE MARKET GARDEN AND SCHOOL

L.A.'s prettiest garden centers would have a hard time competing with the intelligence of design of the one at the Carmelitos Public Housing Development in Long Beach. It is the work of the UC Cooperative Extension Common Ground Garden Program and L.A. County's Community Development Commission.

"This is unique compared to other community gardens," says Boden, its designer and overseer. "It's a public housing project."

Four years old, it was the vision, he says, of Carlos Jackson at the community development group to "get some sort of landscape training going, with the vision of forming landscape companies that would take over contracts at the CDC sites. So we train young people who lack skills in landscaping and nursery skills."

That side is up and running, and now Boden's heart lies with the potential for food production. So he has also put in a market garden, where vegetables are tested and tended, then sold. "We hold intermittent farmers markets," Boden says. "It's all fresh, all organic and it's cheap."

The variety is dazzling. "Last year, we planted 30 different varieties of tomatoes--400 plants," Boden says. 'Then we had a tasting." (Favorites included Roma, Green Zebra, Isis and Candy). There are grapes--Concord and Thompson seedless--peppers, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, eggplants, okra, tomatillos, strawberries, stripy Italian squashes, golden zucchini, cilantro, asparagus, beans, habanero chiles, cabbages, leeks and onions.

Manuel Cisneros, the agricultural project coordinator trained by Boden, jokes that he eats his salad standing in the field. "In the morning, I do like this," he says, taking a bite of okra, then a bite of tomato.

Up a hill, in the heart of the gardens, there is a greenhouse approached by a jasmine-lined path. Here plant propagation is done and taught for a school garden project, Gardening Angels. Behind it, experimental plots managed by Cisneros and Boden display bordering, trenching and trellising techniques.

"I used to garden without technical knowledge," Cisneros says. Now he knows to grow vine crops under corn, to return nitrogen to the soil, to water most effectively, and he has even become what in the gardening world is known as a "master composter."

Beyond the greenhouse, residents are offered another source of fresh vegetables: There are 58 raised beds in an immaculately landscaped terrace. These may be planted and tended by residents. There are no names on the 4-by-10-foot plots, however. Boden says, "I can tell you the ethnic background of people by what they grow." Sure enough, a Vietnamese plot has lemon grass; a Romanian one, beets; and Korean ones, bok choy.

Immediately noticeable is that Korean plots dominate. Boden would like to see more African American residents, who constitute the majority of residents at the 713-unit housing development, take plots. There is certainly room for all. He looks at a bit of adjoining lawn. "There's a spot over there. All they [the county] do is mow it. There's another one over there."

INTEGRATING WATTS

Coaxing the garden-shy into the works is a challenge that carries over to another garden project for which Boden and Community Ground serve as advisors: a plot the size of a city block opposite the Jordan Downs Housing project in Watts.

The lot is the former site of a health center that was leveled in the 1965 riots. After letting it lie barren for almost 30 years, its owner, the Watts Health Foundation, is patiently overseeing its redevelopment as a community garden.

Four years into the conversion, the land is half-planted and redolent of papalo. Here, Latino immigrants dominate, while African American residents of the projects again mostly look on, curious but hesitant.

Boden is demarcating new plots in untended ground. He hopes to move Latinos onto these with rent and amendment incentives, and seed African Americans on plots in the established Latino half of the garden.

From there, he hopes that the gardening impulses to share and teach will take over. "We want a community garden, not a Latino one, not an African American one, but a community garden."

Andre Widby is a local African American leading the integration. He is months into much the same learning curve that Cisneros followed in Long Beach and, according to Boden, showing great promise.

On a blazing Saturday in August, Widby works with Boden attacking the rubble-strewn ground. "It's going to be real beautiful place once we finish it up," he says.

Widby used to work cutting lawns, he says, but the training in garden design, trenching, composing, trellising and planting techniques has changed his view of gardening. "There's a lot more than mowing and blowing. I like it."

FOR APARTMENT DWELLERS

In neighboring Compton, at Ujima Village, the tone changes yet again. Here the garden is a fenced, terraced series of 4-by-10-foot raised plots. It is a picture-book pretty centerpiece to a series of buildings: homes, community rooms and laundry rooms. The raised beds, fencing and arbors are painted pink to match the buildings.

Passion fruit and bougainvillea trail through decorative borders. Inside are perhaps a dozen immaculately tended beds. This is an African American garden. Collard greens, okra, tomatoes and cabbage grow.

Debra Hill, a credit specialist with J.C. Penney Co., has had her plot for 2 1/2 years. Her 4-year-old son, T'barri, plays as she thins her tomatoes. "You can get a lot of food out of a plot," she says. "You come out here, pick it, come in and cook it. You can taste the difference."

A favorite dish is stir-fried beef with her own cabbage. "It's simple, but it's good," she says.

Her tomatoes picked, it's back to business. She calls her son. "C'mon, T'barri. I've got to get to work." Asked how she can make time between family and job, she replies that vegetable gardening isn't work, it's pleasure.

"I enjoy the peace of digging in the dirt, or planting, or watching my stuff grow," she says.

Mary Mann's Zucchini Orange Bread

Active Work Time: 25 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour 30 minutes * Easy

Mary Mann has been growing tomatoes and zucchini at Sepulveda Garden Center for 17 years. She cans the tomatoes for winter and uses the zucchini in a sweetbread perfect for snacks or afternoon tea.

1 cup sugar or 3/4 cup fructose

1 1/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon cinnamon

Dash nutmeg

1 cup grated zucchini

1 carrot, grated

1/2 cup chopped nuts

2 eggs

1/2 cup orange juice

1/4 cup oil

* Mix together sugar, flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg in large bowl.

* Stir in zucchini, carrot, nuts, eggs, orange juice and oil. Mix well.

* Bake at 350 degrees in greased 9x5-inch loaf pan until toothpick inserted in loaf comes out clean, about 1 hour. Tip out of pan and cool on rack.

10 to 12 servings. Each of 12 servings: 212 calories; 112 mg sodium; 35 mg cholesterol; 9 grams fat; 31 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 0.21 gram fiber.

Badgirl Press Sorrel Soup

Active Work Time: 30 minutes * Total Preparation Time: 1 hour

Shortly after taking her plot in November 1997, Bonny Baker got sick of "that Christmas gift thing." Inspired by what she grew, she wrote a cookbook, which she produced under her own imprint, Badgirl Press, and gave it to her friends.

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

2 onions, roughly diced

5 cloves garlic, minced

1 pound sorrel leaves, stems removed

4 cups chicken broth

3/4 cup chopped Italian parsley

Salt, pepper

Freshly grated nutmeg

Cayenne pepper

Creme frai^che, for garnish

Chopped chives, for garnish

* Heat oil in stockpot or medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add butter. When butter has melted, add onions and garlic and cook until softened, about 15 minutes. Stir in sorrel and cook until wilted, 25 minutes. Add broth, parsley, salt and pepper to taste, dash nutmeg and 2 dashes cayenne pepper or to taste.

* Simmer over low heat, covered, until sorrel is tender, 30 to 40 minutes. Puree in batches in blender. Taste and adjust seasonings. Serve with dollops of creme frai^che and sprinkling of chopped chives.

4 servings. Each serving: 205 calories; 1,005 mg sodium; 16 mg cholesterol; 14 grams fat; 12 grams carbohydrates; 9 grams protein; 1.56 grams fiber.

Juan Sanchez's Cornish Game Hen Tacos With Garden Vegetables

Active Work and Total Preparation Time: 45 minutes

Juan Sanchez uses two grills in the courtyard of his South-Central bungalow. Bouquets of papalo and quelites, fresh from his garden, sit on a table ready for quick harvesting. Roosters crow and children circle eagerly. Quelites and papalo can be found in some Latino markets; or you can substitute chard (stems removed and sliced) for quelites and cilantro for papalo. The flavor will be different but still delicious.

SALSA

3 tomatoes

1 clove garlic

5 dried chiles de arbol

Salt

* Roast tomatoes, garlic and chiles on griddle set over medium heat until lightly blackened, 10 to 12 minutes for tomatoes and garlic, 3 to 4 minutes for chiles.

* Puree tomatoes, garlic and chiles until smooth. Turn into small saucepan and bring to boil over medium heat. Simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Season with salt to taste. Makes 1 cup.

GAME HENS

2 Cornish game hens

Salt, pepper

* Season game hens with salt and pepper to taste. Grill over medium heat until done, 30 to 40 minutes. Let cool slightly, remove bones and cut meat into chunks.

GARDEN VEGETABLES

2 tablespoons oil

2 green onions, thinly sliced

3 white boiling potatoes, sliced

Water

2 tomatoes, sliced

2 cups quelites or chard, loosely packed

Salt, pepper

* Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook until barely softened, about 5 minutes. Add potatoes and just enough water to cover, about 1 cup. Cook, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are almost done, about 20 minutes. Add tomatoes and quelites, raise heat to medium, and cook until vegetables are tender, 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

ASSEMBLY

8 corn tortillas, warmed

1/2 cup papalo or cilantro leaves, loosely packed

* To make tacos, spoon Garden Vegetables onto tortillas followed by chunks of grilled Game Hen meat. Top with Salsa and papalo leaves and fold in half.

8 tacos. Each taco: 207 calories; 233 mg sodium; 38 mg cholesterol; 8 grams fat; 19 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 2.20 grams fiber.

How to Start

Specialist Assistance

There is no better source than Common Ground for information on everything from securing lots to landscaping, planting methods, training programs and market gardens. It runs the Master Gardener training programs and provides a free community garden start-up booklet.

University of California Common Ground Garden Program, 2 Coral Circle, Monterey Park, CA 91755. (323) 838-4540.

* For City-Owned Land

The City of Los Angeles announced a pilot program this month to convert vacant lots to gardens. It estimates that it has hundreds of pieces of land--called "900 parcels"--left over from freeway building and various public works. The city has booklets in the works on how to do high-tech irrigation and so on, but you don't need to wait for that. If you can present the city with a reasonable plan involving a neighborhood group or church, you have the option of seeking a lease on city-owned land for a community garden; you can seek horticultural expertise elsewhere or simply get out your shovels and dig.

George Gonzales, Chief Forester, Street Tree Division, City of Los Angeles, 600 S. Spring St., 10th floor, Los Angeles, CA 90014. (213) 485 5675.

* Gardens in Schools

The state's Board of Education has a goal of a garden in every school. Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin calls them "living laboratories." The first stop an interested person should make is at the principal's office of the school concerned. Also, a coalition of math and science teachers from five Systemic Initiative centers are advisors. "We have found that it's really hard to get a garden going," says one of the Hollywood coordinators, science teacher Nonnie Korten. "It takes a team--an administrator, at least one parent and at least two teachers." LA-SI has 24 schools with gardens. These can start small. The Second Street School in Boyle Heights began a garden 10 years ago in two crates. Today it attracts school tours--and 16 varieties of butterflies.

Contact an LA-SI center near you. East L.A.: (323) 261-1139; North Hollywood: (818) 762-1156; San Pedro: (310) 832-7573; Van Nuys: (818) 997-2574; Westside: (310) 390-2441.

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