L.A. Unified’s gardening program may be uprooted
The seeds of a thousand lessons are sown in five acres of North Hollywood dirt, tended by a man named Mud.
Here in this little-known oasis, Mud Baron and urban teenagers with a heretofore unknown penchant for rare flowers toil under a blazing sun to raise lemon verbena, tomatoes, lettuce and other greenery that hundreds of Los Angeles schools will use to jump-start their gardens this fall. They also cultivate exotic plants, including exuberantly colored dahlias the size of dinner plates, to sell at farmers markets.
Mud, known among administrators as Los Angeles Unified School District’s “Johnny Appleseed,” and his close-knit crew of North Hollywood High students are scrambling not only to help the district’s fledgling gardening program grow, but also to save it from joining other new programs in the compost heap.
“We’re very ephemeral; we don’t have roots,” said Mud, whose mutt, Pig, regularly riles up the dozen or so hens that live at the garden by stealing their eggs and burying them.
Tilling the soil at the district’s largest garden at North Hollywood High this summer, Mud and his students are unearthing lessons not found with pencil and paper. Elvis Ardon, a 17-year-old with a passion for thrash bands, found he prefers running away from hornets to running with the wrong crowd, and would rather prune sweet-smelling modern English roses than street crops.
Jesse Sanders, 18, a recent graduate who supervises his peers and sports a Mohawk, lip and ear piercings and black clothes, recounts how learning to make colorful floral arrangements from plants he raised himself kept him from getting kicked out of school.
“When I first saw a flower, I just saw a flower. Now I see so much more,” Jesse said, plunging his gloveless hands into the dirt. “I don’t think I would have graduated without this class senior year.”
Mud and the school’s veteran agriculture instructor, Rose Krueger, took an interest in Jesse and enrolled him in floral arranging and agriculture classes.
For several years, Mud volunteered his services before administrators used a $1.7-million state grant to hire him and several other gardening experts last fall to help teachers revive gardens at schools from South L.A. to Sylmar.
“I’ve learned what city kids can do if given a chance to grow in the garden,” said Mud, 38, the son of a Mercedes-Benz dealer who has semiretired as a cabinetmaker. “I’m much happier than I was building kitchens.”
Mud doesn’t hold a teaching certificate, but his expansive knowledge of plants prompted his students to nickname him “Discovery Channel.” A fast talker who quotes Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Lennon in the same conversation, Mud devotes so much time to school gardens that the yard at the 1920s bungalow he shares with his wife and 8-year-old son languishes.
But district money is running out. Mud distributes Razzmatazz dahlias like cigars at events around town in hopes of garnering donations to fund the program -- and his job -- past June 2009. It’s a tough proposition: Administrators face a $460-million budget gap and the prospect of increasing class sizes and reducing programs.
District officials are not optimistic.
“I don’t see us at this moment picking up that program,” said Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines. “I will, if he talks to me, try to help him get some philanthropy dollars, or other dollars to continue the program.”
But Mud and his crew aren’t deterred. With their colorful bouquets in hand, they try to teach administrators and politicians the value of outdoor education.
In the last few weeks, the teenagers have raised $830 hawking sunflowers, roses, herb bowls and other freshly cut plants at the downtown farmers market -- and at an impromptu market at district headquarters.
Farmers market manager Susan Hutchinson said the students provide “definite competition” with the other flower sellers outside City Hall.
The students, who have not yet decided what to do with the proceeds, probably will stay through September -- working weekends and afternoons after school starts -- to help fill the North Hollywood garden’s greenhouse with seedlings for about 526 schools. Funds solicited from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s summer jobs program to pay the students are running out.
While they’re downtown, Mud and his apprentices are also cultivating relationships with Los Angeles City Council members, department heads and their staffs -- who often gladly accept unsold greenery. The crew recently chatted up council staff from Encino, Van Nuys and South L.A., and commissioners from the Department of Public Works.
The hands-on business lessons for the teenagers, who already work at the garden during their own time on weekends to raise additional crops, are new for a district that until last year largely relied on motivated teachers and parents to donate money and time to help its gardens thrive.
The plots often died when benefactors left, said Tonya Mandl, a teacher advisor who administers the grant funds.
“There is no Los Angeles Unified gardening program -- we’re it,” she said.
Even though state educators called for a garden in every school in the mid-1990s, little public funding has been available to create organized programs. In districts throughout California -- most notably at Berkeley Unified, with its Edible Schoolyard founded in part by local chef Alice Waters -- teachers have found that gardens help raise test scores by linking math, science and history lessons with hands-on learning.
With his trusty plastic cart with buckets bursting with amaranths, gladioluses, roses and his signature dahlias by his side, Mud has also charted some wins for the district’s gardening program. He persuaded a recalcitrant Board of Education to pass a measure last fall encouraging schools to plant gardens to entice kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. The motion also urged administrators to save gardens from being paved over for parking.
“Mud came to me and said he was concerned because with all the school construction programs and adding on additional buildings the gardens might be jeopardized,” said board member Julie Korenstein.
She added that preserving gardens is now board policy but acknowledged that board members can enforce it only if someone lets them know a garden is threatened.
Earlier this month, Mud and his crew began a new project: a farmers market served up in the cafeteria at district headquarters, where he hopes to persuade administrators to include money to retain existing gardens and build new ones in a $7-billion school construction bond scheduled for the November ballot.
“The market is a demonstration of what we can do to an audience that is very, very removed but potentially receptive,” Mud wrote in an e-mail soliciting donations from gardening teachers. “You’ve got to stand up and have your green beans counted.”
He and his crew also plan to sell produce and flowers at a downtown street festival today. All of these events prompted Jesse Sanders to borrow Martha Stewart magazines to study how to create expensive bouquets.
Showing off his newfound knowledge of gardening terminology, Jesse ducked under a 6-foot-high amaranth recently as he demonstrated how to cut the red quill-like flower “under the terminal bud” so it would produce more blooms.
Mud, who says his hobby is “giving away flowers,” is often asked to cater events with his dahlias and other flowers. At a recent luncheon hosted by state Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) in South El Monte, for example, he said his 15 bursting buckets were “stormed upon at the exit by all these Latino and Chinese grandmas. It was a free-for-all.”
Mud says he still has a lot of ground to cover in his quest to provide aid to more than 1,000 teachers who tend school gardens and to persuade administrators not to pave them.
“It’s a huge district,” he said. “People don’t even know I exist.”
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