Cultivating an urban wilderness

Food City-dwellers are transforming unused plots into miniature farmland | Sophia Lee

Cultivating an urban wilderness

Jeanne Kelly in Rockdale, a community garden in Los Angeles.
Photo by Ryan Robert Miller

Jeanne Kelley has a big bowl of salad for dinner every night.

She lives across from a giant supermarket in Eagle Rock, a hill-studded neighborhood northeast of Los Angeles. But instead of driving to the store, she walks three minutes down the hill to a community garden called Rockdale, where she picks arugula, lettuce, snow peas, spinach, tomatoes or kale—whatever is in season and ready to harvest.

Kelley, a cookbook author and food stylist, owns a few feet of beds in Rockdale. The community garden forms a long stretch of 50 plots on what used to be light-rail tracks. One sunny Tuesday afternoon, Kelley walked me through the shady garden, snapping emerald snow peas from their stem. 

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“Just taste how sweet they are,” she said, crunching into the plump pods on the spot. “There are so many great, simple meals I can eat just by coming here. Healthier, too.”

Dressed in black skinny jeans and ankle cowboy boots, Kelley doesn’t exactly embody the image of a farmer, but she’s got all the workings of a farm in her backyard: thriving beds of produce, an open-air chicken coop, numerous fruit trees, and even a bee hive (recently ensconced in her neighbor’s tree).

Kelley is just one of the many city-dwellers serious about urban farming, a fast-flourishing phenomenon from Los Angeles to Detroit to New York City.

Urban farming is a garden hobby turned serious passion, a conscious get-close-to-nature movement, a self-sustaining business, or all of the above, depending on who you talk to. At a time when books and documentaries are exposing the unhealthy practices of large-scale corporate agriculture, more people are picking up spades and rakes to regain control over what they put into their mouths.

Just in Los Angeles alone, more than 70 community gardens are spudding and feeding about 3,900 local families. These spaces stretch from mountain-hedged Altadena all the way to beachside Santa Monica. And that count doesn’t including rooftop gardens serving restaurants, residential backyards, and container bins in dense apartment complexes.

Los Angeles comes from a long history of agriculture. Its mild Mediterranean climate attracted many homesteaders and farmers. Until the 1950s, Los Angeles County grew enough fruits and produce to feed its entire population. The recent boom in urban farming is in a way bringing Angelenos back to their roots, said certified University of California Master Gardener Judith Gerber: “It’s almost like we’re going back to the turn of the 20th century.”

Gerber, who also authors an urban farm blog called LA Farm Girl, said when she first started writing about local and sustainable farming in 2000, “nobody else was doing it.” But a decade later, a wealth of information about DIY farming has exploded in print and through social media. 

“People are craving this, and it hasn’t slowed down,” she said.

While some urban farmers grow things in their backyard for pleasure, others grow primarily for food production.

Parents, concerned kids will think broccoli comes from a truck or the supermarket, want to educate them on what they eat. Most of these adults remember a childhood filled with produce stands and fruit trees, and want their kids to experience that close-to-nature upbringing as well.

But financial motivation is still the top reason people gave me for urban farming. After the recession, many families sought ways to cut costs by growing their own food. Urban farming rarely produces enough to earn a living, but some people have developed creative, lucrative ways to form small businesses, community spaces, and social projects.

Farmscape, the largest urban farming business in Los Angeles, helps design, install, and maintain urban farms in backyards, community gardens, schools, corporate buildings, and restaurants. One of the company’s more daring ventures included building a 200-square-foot organic garden to grow seasonal fruits and produce on the rooftop of a downtown restaurant, The Jonathan Club. 

Some blocks away, another rooftop garden sprouts on top of an apartment building in downtown’s Skid Row, an area with the nation’s highest density of homeless people. The apartment, Charles Cobb Apartment, provides housing for the homeless, and now it also provides edibles such as herbs, green beans, tomatoes and chard.

Urban farming includes educational efforts as well. The Carver Garden in South Central serves as both food producer and classroom for the George Washington Carver Elementary School. Teachers incorporate gardening into the school curriculum, and its fruits end up in school lunches.

Despite the boom, some worry about the lack of dedicated and educated farmers. Los Angeles provides plenty of open space, but not enough farmers to consistently tend to plots with enough know-how to cultivate them successfully. Even in Rockdale, while some beds thrive with neat rows of beets and arugula, others remain derelict and mottled with weeds.

Kelley stopped by one garden bed, in which a tight, creamy bud of cauliflower peeked out among vast leaves. “Sometimes I wonder if I should just help them out,” she said, bending over the cauliflower head and gathering the leaves around it into a loose bunch. “If you don’t tie the leaves together around the head, that’s what happens,” she explained, pointing to another cauliflower nearby that had sprouted wild and loose. When too much sunlight hits the young head, it loses its sweet tenderness and becomes ricey and inedible.

It’s just one example that shows urban farming takes a bit more than raw passion. That’s where educators like Gerber step in.

Since 2009, Gerber has offered gardening lectures for seniors at the Torrance Memorial Medical Center in the South Bay region of Los Angeles. Last year, she resurrected an abandoned community garden to add a hands-on component. Unlike the senior gardening classes, workdays at her learning garden are open for people of all ages.

Right now, winter batches of bok choy, cabbage, broccoli, peas and beets sprout in the garden. In time, Gerber hopes to expand the program to provide enough food for the hospital’s cafeteria. She also hopes to create a gardening space for physical therapy and healing.

Although teaching won’t make her rich, Gerber recalls swelling with pride when one of her students finally looked a stranger in the eye and called herself a gardener. 

“I know it sounds really hokey, but it feels like you’ve changed somebody’s life when you hear things like that,” she said. “There’s no amount of money that will give you that sort of gratification.”

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