Shared neighborhood gardens offer a fresh approach
By By Mary MacVean
May 06, 2009 | 12:00 AM
The front yard at Lexi Conrad and Joshua Mogin's house one recent Sunday morning felt like a Larchmont Village version of a barn raising.
Before the party was over, much of the front lawn was gone. In its place were rows of tomatoes, eggplant, beans, squash and more -- 288 plants in all. Wooden stakes were pounded into the ground for a grape arbor to surround the garden. Volunteers shoveled and scattered compost, planted and carried.
In gratitude for such labor, a farm family might have served ham and scalloped-potato casserole or chess pie; Conrad offered bagels and fruit for the volunteers who showed up to plant 400 square feet of food crops for their urban farm, which is intended to help feed 12 families.
The planting at their house, and one at another nearby, was organized by Heart Beet Gardening, a company owned by three young women who share with many people around the country a penchant for urban farming. Heart Beet's goal is to bring together people who have yard space with people who want super-local produce. The women provide most of the labor and everyone gets to eat what grows, in a twist on a movement called Community Supported Agriculture.
Edible, or kitchen, gardens are riding a wave of popularity. The L.A. Garden Show last weekend adopted the theme "A Festival of Flavors." Los Angeles County has 66 community gardens, many with years-long waiting lists. And Santa Monica is setting up a registry so residents who want gardens without gardening can offer their land to someone willing to do the work.
By the time everyone had left Conrad and Mogin's house, the front yard was like no other on the block. Curious passersby could read a sign informing them: "Your neighbor is growing food in her front yard. She is part of a neighborhood-based urban farm project with Heart Beet Gardening. This garden and . . . others like it in the area will be growing uber-local, more than organic produce all summer long. Love it? Hate it? Want a bite?"
Conrad and her family moved to Los Angeles four years ago from New York City, where they belonged to the Park Slope Food Coop in Brooklyn. Here, Conrad says, they found the supermarkets full of "all these weird, Stepford wife fruits and vegetables." She began looking for alternatives and when they bought their house, they put in some native and edible plants. But that was not quite enough.
"I had wanted to get rid of this lawn and do something more Earth-friendly," Conrad says.
At the same time, the women of Heart Beet Gardening were trying to get their urban Community Supported Agriculture project off the ground. CSA is a growing movement usually organized around a farm. Members buy a stake in the farm's operation; in return, they get a share of the weekly harvest, while also accepting a share in the risk inherent in agriculture. There are hundreds of such projects around the country.
Another urban-grown-produce subscription program operates near downtown, providing food to 40 or 50 families for as little as $10 a bag, says Neelam Sharma, executive director of Community Services Unlimited Inc., which runs that program as well as other food programs such as school gardens, a produce stand and youth training. The food is grown at community centers, schools and homes, as well as on farms near L.A.
In a city neighborhood, a CSA also aims to create a community feeling, says Sara Carnochan, one of the women of Heart Beet.
Lots of opportunity
Since January 2007, as she and partners Kathleen Redmond and Megan Bomba planted several dozen private edible gardens at homes around Los Angeles, they began thinking about how much urban space was available for planting.
"It became apparent that Los Angeles needed saving. It sounds presumptuous -- not that we are going to save Los Angeles," Redmond says. But, she says, they decided they needed to do their part by trying to turn some urban spaces into food gardens.
For Mogin and Conrad, taking part in a CSA meant "doing something that more people can participate in," Mogin says.
"It's organic fruits and vegetables. My daughter likes gardening. It's just a great combination," says Mogin, a real estate lawyer who recalls gardening as a child at his grandfather's upstate New York home.
Their daughter Madeleine, a second-grader at the Larchmont Charter School, which has an organic garden where children play and grow food, says she is happy to have a garden in her front yard. "We're going to feed six families, and, for another thing, I just really like gardening," she says.
Nearby, her younger sister Joy picks up a worm and asks about it. "I think earthworms are the same on both ends," Mogin replies. In response, Joy drops the worm on her bare foot to watch what it might do.
It's just this sort of knowledge he and Conrad hope the girls will get.
More on the horizon
Heart Beet Gardening lined up another 400-square-foot plot just a few blocks away, which they planted Sunday. Ten additional families subscribed to the CSA and for $100 a month, they will get a share in what the women harvest starting, they hope, in mid-June. The two families with the gardens paid about $1,000 each; they get the help of Heart Beet Gardening in growing their fruits and vegetables, plus they can pick anything they want to eat in addition to their weekly allotments.
In the fall, Heart Beet plans to add a third garden, this one 900 square feet, and six to nine more subscribers.
"When we started this whole thing, we always reminded ourselves that this is a trial," Carnochan says. "We don't know if it will work, but it's looking very sunny, very, very sunny."
On the Sunday morning they planted Mogin and Conrad's lawn, they hammered in the wood stakes for the grapevines. To kill the grass in an Earth-friendly way, they instructed the volunteers to layer newspaper on the lawn, hose it down and top it with a layer of compost from the five cubic yards they had brought in their white Dodge pickup. Finally, that got covered in mulch to help keep moisture in the ground.
Throughout the day, people came and went, bringing children or shovels, or both, even a wheelbarrow to help distribute the compost. Twenty or so volunteers helped out.
"Oh, here come some people with their shovels. I don't even know them," Conrad said.
One of them was Sinh Trinh. "I'd like to be part of the movement toward local agriculture and supplying local food," said Trinh, a first-grade teacher at Charles White Elementary School near MacArthur Park, who isn't a gardener but was eager to learn.
Somebody sent Teresa Feldman a Web link to a notice about the garden planting, so she came. She and her son have a garden in the yard of their duplex. She planned to join the CSA, saying, "This is worth supporting, and I'm happy to give my labor over to it."