Breathing Room

Posted Wednesday, December 9th, 2009 at 6:32 pm


There are vacant lots all across Los Angeles.  Spaces waiting to be filled.  Between the concrete walls, patches of earth sit, waiting to be reclaimed and returned to a primal state.  Though it seems improbable in this industrialized, over-developed, metropolitan behemoth of a city, there is still breathing room.

These empty parcels of land create an illusion that “nothing” is there.  In reality, it is simply in a dormant state.  I love that word.  Dormant: lying as if asleep; inactive; torpid.

Last weekend, 45 people from all over California and Los Angeles gathered for the Growing Communities workshop to learn how to lift these barren landscapes out of their slumber and return them to life, as in some kind of urban fairy tale, by creating Community Gardens.

David King, Master Gardener at the Learning Garden of Venice High and Al Renner, head of the LA Community Garden Council, were our wise teachers, sharing decades of experience with plenty of humor and charm.

It’s funny, because I started this blog while meditating on my fruit bowl.  It boggles my mind how fast the journey was from my plate to the rest of the world.  My quest to find somewhere to plant a seed led me directly into a community of activists trying to shift our entire culture.  Before I could say “tomato plant”, I was thrust into a political movement.

Beyond the wealth of information, most of which I’m still trying to digest, the real benefit for me was my fellow classmates. I met teachers, city officials, organization leaders and just plain concerned citizens trying to start their own gardens.  What brought us all together was a deep commitment to “food security” (making sure that nobody goes hungry and everybody has access to fresh food) and a farm-to-plate ethos, something I find increasingly important in my own eating habits.

So why community gardens?  There are the obvious answers: neighborhood unity, fresh food, urban beautification.  But just as important is that, amidst the chaos of the city, a garden is a place where the simplicity of nature is protected; held sacred.  The lush surroundings reflect a natural abundance, which is an essential contrast to the scarcity experienced in so many parts of the city.

Solano Gardens

Solano Gardens

Gardening also offers people a simple, rewarding, highly therapeutic relationship that is, all to often, hard to replicate in the complicated world of human affairs: if you give to plants, they will give back.

Recently a friend sent me a story in the New York Times about the incredible effectiveness of the Veteran’s Administration’s  Garden Therapy Program in rehabilitating soldiers returning from Iraq who were suffering from PTSD.  By learning to deal with plants, they eventually were able to learn how to deal with society.

It follows then that the workshop curriculum had to do with tending people, not gardens.  We learned how to navigate the jungles of government bureaucracy, grow neighborhood interest, attract volunteers.  We were warned about some of the common pitfalls within organizations caused by the imperfections of human beings.  Emphasis was placed on the personal beliefs of a good community organizer:

– people are basically good and want to do the right thing,

– people can be trusted,

– groups make better decisions than individuals

– everyone’s opinion matters

We were encouraged to adhere to these principals even if we didn’t necessarily believe them.  If not for our organizations, then for our plants.  These basic tenets give space for people, and gardens, to grow.

CLICK HERE to purchase the in depth Growing Communities Curriculum on which the workshop was based.

As a parting gift, here are just a few of the organizations and gardens I learned about this weekend.

The Learning Garden at Venice High Schoollaunched in March of 2001, it  has quickly become one of the country’s largest and most successful school gardens.

Los Angeles Conservation Corpa group that provides at-risk youth with job skills with a focus on conservation and community projects.

Mudtown Farms, 2.4 acres in the middle of Watts, one of LA’s poorest neighborhoods, that is being tended by 118 farmers.

SHARE -  works to find affordable house for disabled people.

Millagro Allegra – the newest community garden in Los Angeles located in Highland Park

Solano Canyon – a community garden just East of Chinatown

There are plenty of places to jump in and get dirty.



  1. Eleanor

    Oh Evanne, another wonderful post. Yesterday I OD’d on news and was reading about how Dubai has tried to get a freeze on their debt interest, and how the U.S. has eerie similarities, and how the dollar is going to collapse and everything is just going to hit the shitter, there’s going to be a run on the banks, people will raid the supermarkets to stockpile food, and I only managed to grow a few small green tomatoes on my first try this summer, and who can just live on tomatoes, well maybe if we buy a lot of rice at the Asia market and grow a few herbs (I can manage that) it won’t taste so bad, and oh my god, we’re all gonna die!

    This post reminds me that people can and do work together locally and that GOOD IS HAPPENING. Should a catastrophe befall us, our connections to our communities will be the most powerful means of sustenance, empowerment and security!

    Thank You!

  2. Evangeline

    Ha! I’m glad I was able to talk you off the ledge! The reality is we’re all going to die, money doesn’t mean much, and we should all grow our own food. These are existential truths that apply no matter where the economy is, who’s in office, what wars we’re fighting or whatever else is blowing in the wind!

  3. Fern @ Life on the Balcony

    Have you considered taking part in the Master Gardener training through LA County? Their program focuses a lot on community gardening. I know Adriana ( is applying for next year’s class.

  4. Evangeline

    Hi Fern,
    Yes, I am applying this year for the Master Gardener program. It’s pretty competitive to get in. There are 50 spaces for over 250 applicants. They have a USDA grant to promote Community Gardens in low income neighborhoods, so they really look at how much community service and volunteer work you’ve done. Anyway, fingers crossed, I’ll get in and finally meet Adriana!

  5. Sally

    I love this! I’m so glad you are applying for the Master Gardener program. Now that it’s so freeeezing in the northeast, it’s lovely to ponder gardens, period. But I love this idea in LA with its conducive climate and so much unused space–a really great cause. Keep us updated!

  6. Twitted by LifeOnTheBlcny

    [...] This post was Twitted by LifeOnTheBlcny [...]

  7. Anarchy in the Garden

    I am yet to chronicle my journey with Wrigley Village Community Garden. Unfortunatley, friendships ended through out the way. It was a year and a half project.

    If you ever find yourself in Long Beach please visit us.


  8. Elisabeth

    What an inspiring website! Thank you for the time you’ve put into all of your posts. I recently moved to Los Angeles (Culver City) and was told there is a wait list of 2-4 years to get a plot in the community garden nearest me. I went from keeping up 3 plots in 2 community gardens, a plot in my backyard, and leading a children’s garden where I worked, to having NO SPACE.

    My thinking is, if there is a wait list of 2-4 years then there’s obviously A LOT of interest. If you’re considering starting a community garden I would LOVE to be involved.

  9. Evangeline

    Hi Elisabeth
    Thanks for the comment! I have had a lot of luck finding space and hooking into the local gardening scene through yard-sharing programs. Check out my post

    I will definitely keep you posted on any community garden projects I have going on. In the meantime, can you start a container garden somewhere?

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