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After 10 years, South Laguna garden still demonstrates community till power

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Ann Christoph, left, and Barbara Granger work on plots Friday at the South Laguna Community Garden Park, which is marking its 10th anniversary.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

There’s quiet pride in the way Ann Christoph talks about the South Laguna Community Garden Park.

Christoph smiled Friday morning when she discussed the shed sitting by the aging entry gate to the garden at the corner of Eagle Rock Way and South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach. It was donated by Geoff and Julie Beckham in 2009 and trucked to the then-empty lot from their backyard in North Laguna.

The shed came to the beachside town in the early 1900s from the orchards where Disneyland now stands in Anaheim, Christoph said.

“With a team of horses, they brought the shed ... it was a cabin actually,” Christoph said. “You can tell. Someone could live in there and it was a place where someone who was taking care of the orchards would have lived.

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“Somehow [the Beckhams] got it and they were remodeling their house and they didn’t need this anymore and it just happened to come at the right time. Everything fell into place so beautifully. I couldn’t believe it.”

The garden’s terraces, rock walls, planting boxes and the staircase between the upper garden and the lower were made by volunteers across the past 10 years.

“This was all a parking lot,” Christoph said of the lower garden before turning to the upper terraces. “And up here, [there] was a parking lot. The post office used to park their vehicles over here.”

Christoph, who was mayor of Laguna Beach in 1994 and is currently director emerita of the South Laguna Civic Assn., was a member of the committee that planted roots for the community garden, which will mark its 10th anniversary Saturday evening with a celebration punctuated by a farm-to-table, four-course dinner prepared by chefs Leo Goldsmith and Tiffani Tincher. All proceeds will go toward the garden. Ticket sales have closed.

Neighborhood volunteers clean up and work to prepare the lot that would later become the South Laguna Community Garden Park.
Neighborhood volunteers work in 2009 to prepare the land that would become the South Laguna Community Garden Park at Eagle Rock Way and South Coast Highway in Laguna Beach.
(Courtesy of South Laguna Community Garden Park)

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It’s hard to imagine that the garden, in all its lush greenery, was ever anything but. However, it was a vacant lot in August 2009 when then-property owner Paul Tran gave permission to the South Laguna Civic Assn. to establish a garden there without charge.

The fertile patch opened in December that year.

Gayle Joliet, who said she has been part of the “big garden family” since the beginning, said gardeners are planting more flowers than before. Earlier gardeners focused on vegetables, she said.

“We had a couple of workshops that said, ‘Oh, flowers are great too. You get those in there with the plants. It brings the bees and butterflies,’” Joliet said. “Now we have a more colorful garden, for sure.”

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Cosmos grow in a plot at the South Laguna Community Garden Park on Friday in Laguna Beach.
(Scott Smeltzer /Staff Photographer)

Those who want to cultivate the garden must make a one-time payment of $120 to cover infrastructure costs such as landscaping and other improvements. Plots are determined every year at a minimum cost of $75. The annual fee might be increased depending on water usage and costs and the costs of insurance and garden maintenance.

Joliet said she jumped at the chance to get a plot in the garden because there was no land for her to till at her home. The community garden also has helped bring people together who otherwise might not have met, she said.

Joliet and her husband, Tom, live in a condominium, where “you don’t get to meet your neighbors as much,” she said. “But the camaraderie here [at the garden] and the friendships that have been able to build up are ... even more important than the plants.”

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South Laguna resident Lynn Chaldu, who calls herself a novice, said she has been part of the garden for a year and a half. She’s taken her grandchildren there to help plant vegetables and flowers.

The most rewarding part of learning to garden, she said, was being able to make a salad from everything she grew.

“Watching my tomatoes actually grow and get red — because I don’t have a green thumb — was a big deal. My family makes fun of me,” Chaldu said, laughing. “I went home and I said, ‘I’ve got a red tomato!’”

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A large pumpkin nearly ready for harvest sits at the South Laguna Community Garden Park on Friday.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Looking forward, Christoph said the South Laguna Civic Assn.'s first priority is to acquire the garden land.

Tran sold the property in 2013 to Ahmed Altuwaijri of Saudi Arabia for $1.2 million. The sale called the garden’s future into question, and efforts began in 2012 to raise funds to buy the two lots at 31610 and 31616 S. Coast Hwy.

Since then, Christoph said Friday, the organization has raised $170,000 and hopes to raise more through the anniversary event.

The city of Laguna Beach earmarked $251,252 in 2014 toward the purchase of the lots and later increased the amount to $500,352. The funding earmark was extended to June 30, 2021.

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The “elf rock” was donated to the South Laguna Community Garden Park in February 2016.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“What hasn’t changed is our appreciation for the good the garden has done for the community [and] the benefits of doing something directly to make a corner of the community more beautiful and welcoming,” Christoph said. “In a world where the public struggles to be heard, here is a place where we can speak through creating something everyone can see.

“We all can make a difference we can see as the garden grows and people enjoy it.”

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