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Huntington Ranch digs roots into urban garden concept

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Today’s enthusiasm for urban agriculture — or to put it more romantically, kitchen gardens — would seem more than familiar to millions of Americans who lived during the world wars.

“We’re just going back and claiming our heritage,” Rose Hayden-Smith, a historian and victory garden expert, said at an urban agriculture conference marking the opening this month of the Huntington Ranch, a 15-acre project at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

She noted that rooftop gardens have been around since ancient Rome and that urban agriculture in this country once meant growing food in Boston Common. School gardens are nothing new, and formerly empty urban spaces have been used to grow food in this country for more than a century.

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The Huntington Ranch was designed to tackle the subject for a new generation. The vegetable gardens, fruit orchards and experimental plots northwest of the botanical center won’t be open for daily visitors but will be a site for programs and classes.

It might surprise some to learn that the San Marino project was born in South Los Angeles. In 2006, when the South Central Farm closed amid controversy over the land, the growers saved dozens of banana, guava and other trees from being bulldozed. The Huntington agreed to store them temporarily.

Once the trees arrived in San Marino, botanical gardens director Jim Folsom “started percolating this idea,” Huntington spokeswoman Lisa Blackburn said. Scott Kleinrock came on board as project manager and has been working on the Ranch for almost two years.

“The point is demonstration, and the point is exploration,” Kleinrock said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions about growing food in the city.”

A call to garden

Hayden-Smith and other speakers at the conference last week said growing food in the city may become increasingly important. The United Nations estimates that food production has to increase 70% by 2050 — at a time when resources are growing scarcer.

One question is whether home gardens can make a difference. Hayden-Smith said that victory gardens produced a great deal of food: In 1943, for example, 40% of the fresh produce consumed came from home, school and community gardens.

Hayden-Smith noted that earlier administrations connected food gardens to national security; wartime posters drove home such slogans as “Food is ammunition: Don’t waste it” and “Follow the Pied Piper, join the United States school garden army.”

Today, she noted, military leaders recently bemoaned the childhood obesity epidemic, saying they feared for the future of the armed services because of it. “Let’s have the Pentagon pop some bucks for school lunch,” she said to enthusiastic applause.

She also praised Michelle Obama’s efforts to end childhood obesity and to grow food on the White House lawn.

Another speaker, Gary Nabhan, an author and professor at the University of Arizona, connected national security to personal food security — that is, having access to healthful, culturally appropriate food. Facing the loss of farmland, global warming and energy scarcity, he said, Americans need new ways to produce food.

“The system is already broke in many ways,” said Nabhan, author of “Coming Home to Eat” and other books.

The Ranch project, he said, can be a training center for figuring out how people can best grow their own food.

Back to the Ranch

When Henry Huntington bought the property in 1903, it included hundreds of acres of citrus and other crops. Huntington planted what’s believed to be the first commercial avocado grove in California.

Today, the Ranch includes eight acres from the original orange grove and 63 avocado trees (32 significant varieties), chosen by the California Avocado Society.

A 1,200-square-foot section of vegetables — cabbage, cauliflower, garlic and more — has been planted in rows, and other garden spots have been laid out in raised beds or other designs that might work in front or backyards. A space for demonstrations and lectures eventually will have sinks and counters.

And though not many Angelenos have the space for such a thing, a “food forest” is perhaps the most unusual idea being explored at the Ranch.

“If you think about a whole forest system, it’s really productive, but no one fertilizes it. There’s a balance. It’s self-regulating,” Kleinrock said on a walk through the garden earlier this month. It doesn’t, however, always provide what people might like to eat. So in this forest, he has tossed seeds for greens and planted fruit trees.

The food forest took planning — thinking about what kinds of plants could grow in partial shade and without a lot of attention, considering how to make sure the soil gets rich, plotting how to create a self-sustaining ecosystem. Food forests grow in Asia and South America but less so in Mediterranean climates, Kleinrock said.

One morning, he found cherry tomatoes, guava, persimmons and all sorts of greens. And after a while, he said, it’s not hard to know the land and know where the food is.

“What I’m trying to do here is explore how to create a system that is highly resilient, semi-wild and really productive,” he said. “I’m a fan of growing vegetables like wildflowers.”

Kleinrock is blogging on the Huntington’s website, where he plans to document his work — gathering data, holding discussions and offering instruction for people who want to replicate what he’s done.

Across the Ranch, dozens of kinds of food are growing: herbs, greens and other vegetables; fruit trees, including fig, apple, persimmon and stone fruit. In one hole grow four peach trees — one early, two midseason and one late-producing type, increasing the potential for months of pie.

The food harvested from the Ranch will go to staff, volunteers and perhaps a restaurant. Some of it will be donated.

The Huntington will supply the kitchen in another way too. Earlier this week, the Huntington announced a gift from the Frances Brody estate of more than $100 million, part of which will go to a kitchen garden in the public area — a place where visitors can stop and become inspired, spokeswoman Blackburn said Tuesday.

“There are so many strategies if you are interested in growing some of your food,” said Kleinrock, who grew up in Van Nuys and was drawn to growing food after studying design and landscape architecture.

Many people tear out their lawns and plant food, but what happens when the grower has a busy time at work or a sick relative who requires prolonged attention, and the garden goes untended and the neighbors grow angry? So he is looking at ways to grow food that require less attention and create happier neighbors.

It’s not at all clear that people are ready to see food growing in frontyards if the land looks like a farm, said Susan Mulley, a professor at Cal Poly Pomona who presented her research at the conference.

She and students gauged reactions to photographs of two types of yards: those with green grass and those with food plants. The research is ongoing, but she said people need to consider aesthetics as well as harvests when planting frontyards or spaces in public view.

Color, texture, height and other aspects of appearance do matter. “Plant food like it’s flowers,” she said.

mary.macvean@latimes.com


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