Marie Massa calls the gardeners together for a meeting, and so they amble over, removing gloves and shaking off dirt as they form a half-circle. The group’s treasurer, Garrett Broad, reports that their finances are good and they can afford a new 8-foot fence behind the tool shed. Kids have been hopping the old one to smoke marijuana when nobody’s around. Pot smokers are not as destructive as the opossums, Broad says, but still …
Geraldo Martinez is there with his wife, Marlene De Leon. They live in the apartment building next door, and though they’re familiar with the problem, they wonder if the fence has to be so high. What about something shorter, maybe topped with barbed wire? He wants the kids to feel more visible and exposed.
Massa explains that barbed wire is not an option — not for a community garden. The city wouldn’t allow it. Besides, for this once-desolate patch of urban L.A. — its soil now thick with broccoli and turnip and kale, its air scented with lavender and the “cowboy cologne” of sage — barbed wire just wouldn’t be right. Not anymore.
It’s true, only a few years ago the tale of this 20,000-square-foot lot at Fountain Avenue and St. Andrews Place — a stone’s throw from the 101 Freeway in Hollywood — read like a fade-to-black tragedy. It had been a city-owned parking lot for trailers providing temporary housing, mainly for poor single mothers. That program ended in the 1980s and the trailers were left behind, community members say, so the gang members and meth cooks moved in. When a fire on the grounds spread to a neighboring house, local residents demanded change. Fountain Community Gardens were born.
Today this melting pot plays out not only in the people who garden here, but also in the bounty that rises from the earth. Chinese greens grow next to Italian basil. Artichoke and asparagus rise from one plot, sugar cane and chayote in another. In the year and a half since its founding, the Hollywood garden has attracted people who work in the entertainment industry as well as people who are homeless. Others are residents of halfway houses for runaway or homeless youth who need a healthy self image as much as they need healthful food. Both are grown here.
Artist Alex Alferov, Fountain’s first garden master, went to school in the neighborhood and was an altar boy at the landmark Russian Orthodox Church down the street. He has seen the area’s population shift from Eastern European and Italian to a mix of Mexican, Central American, Thai and Armenian. For everyone, the landscape provides a shared experience that bridges generation gaps, language barriers, socioeconomic strata, national borders. Step inside the entry gates, and everyone is the same: community gardener.
“We are a low-income neighborhood, and when people do well, they move on,” Alferov says, adding that the continual arrival of new immigrants reminds him of his own parents and grandparents. Walk through this place, he says, and you see a community that is constantly evolving, much like the land itself.
Seeds of a future
Change is heralded first by new entry gates, sheet metal cut in the style of Mexican papel picado (perforated paper) by East L.A. artist Michael Amescua. Inside, the gardens consist of 67 plots, most 5-by-15-foot raised beds. The land is neatly ringed by 25 species of California native plants and a few young citrus trees. Mature pines are scattered around the lot, and though the needles are left as mulch, the cones are neatly gathered up and displayed decoratively, here and there.
Dicky Bahto, a teacher at the Echo Park Film Center co-op, had his students come out to film the garden. His carrots, parsnips and beets are doing well, and an Italian eggplant from last summer is still hanging on next to the sage and a cape gooseberry. He admits that he hasn’t mastered other crops, but he’s not worried.
“I’m growing things I like and can handle,” he says. “Lavender, cosmos, sage, lemon verbena — I use it in sorbet.”
Bahto rides a fixie — no car. He sees parallels between his single-gear bike, the garden where he grows his own food, even his preference for analog over digital. Simplicity brings rewards. A delayed gratification. When he goes to pick up film at the drugstore, a surprise awaits in the envelope. The same goes with seeds.
At $10 a month, a plot here isn’t cheap compared with some other community gardens. The waiting list is short — usually about two dozen names — and it’s possible to get a plot within a month or two, not years as at the most popular community gardens.
Every month the people of Fountain gather for a communal workday. On Oscar Sunday last month, the crew that assembled numbered about two dozen, a few of them wannabe gardeners who jumped to the front of the waiting list by volunteering to weed, fertilize, pinch off dead flowers, paint pathway markers — whatever needs doing.
Massa, the co-chair, oversees the planting of California natives, some of them from the Theodore Payne Foundation for Wildflowers and Native Plants in Sun Valley, where she works. On communal work days, she’s the drill sergeant.
“Here, there’s some old basil that needs to be deadheaded or come out,” she tells Ulrika Johansson. “There’s some thyme that also needs to be fertilized. And weed the dandelion and cheese weed.”
She takes two newcomers, Sawna Guadarrama and Tracy Henton, for a fast tour of the available plots, pointing out which ones get full sun and which don’t. Massa warns them that grubs in the soil attract plant-uprooting opossums. If you encounter a grab, she tells them, discard it.
Alferov stands over a central plot where almost everything has died or gone to seed. Only the strawberry plants are looking viable. The people who should be tending the bed have been contacted several times to no avail, so he tells Massa that he’s making an official decision: They will transplant the strawberries to another bed and mark the plot as abandoned. It will go to someone on the waiting list.
“People have a commitment and then they get scared,” he says, “like a runaway bride.”
At the front of the property, where the biggest and best plots are situated, beds have turned over to businesses that donate the harvest to food banks or shelters. One plot has been thriving for the last eight months under the watch of Mark Donofrio, co-owner of the Larchmont Grill.
“There are three shelters in the area for homeless youth, and the kids come in and grow their own produce,” he says during a break in weeding. “I love working the earth and teaching kids how to do it. Hopefully it teaches them life-long lessons about where their food comes from.”
After the meeting and discussion of the replacement fence, the new gardeners are welcomed, told not to throw weeds in the compost and admonished to make sure spigots are closed tightly after use. Some people pack up and go home.
As Donofrio heads out, Larena Patrick asks him to identify the plant that she’s just pulled out of her plot.
“Is this a weed?” she asks, holding up a drooping pile of pale green fronds. “I thought it was a carrot.”
“It’s chamomile,” he says. “It grows like a weed. It’s called a nurse plant because it helps the plants around it stay healthy. And now you’ve killed it. “
But he points out more feathery foliage in her plot. A golden beet is poking above the dirt. At his urging, she gently tugs it out of the ground and smiles broadly when she sees its size. “With my collard greens?” she says. “I have lunch!”
It’s ironic that with the recession over, the clock may be ticking on Fountain Community Gardens. The city gave organizers a three-year guarantee, and that was 18 months ago. Renewal is questionable. Some on the Hollywood Studio District Neighborhood Council are pushing for a community center on the site — the original plan before the great recession hit.
But gardener Luke Vincent, a hunger and homeless activist on the council, says he can live with uncertainty.
“A temporary garden — when it’s over, it’s over and that’s fine. There are always vacant lots.” Sometimes they just sit there for decades, he says, waiting for their next spring to come.