Get your hands dirty for Earth Day

Earth Day

Gardening demonstration, on April 6, for Earth Day South L.A. 2013, presented by Normandie Ave. Elementary School and Community Services Unlimited Inc.

Earth Day, which falls on Monday, April 22, is fast approaching but there are several events in South Los Angeles that can help you celebrate and even preserve green spaces throughout the city.

The worldwide, annual event gives communities an opportunity to express the importance of preserving the environment.

If you’re looking to get your hands dirty or simply kick back and relax, check out the small sampling of Earth Day events below. [Read more…]

Neighborhood garden brings fresh produce to South L.A.

imageTwenty years ago, a house burned down on Raymond Avenue. As the neighborhood filled with apartment complexes and preserved Victorian homes, this lot remained empty, dotted with garbage, dog poop and sodden, abandoned mattresses.

Three years ago, the lot was reborn. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it transformed into a thriving community garden, where 30 neighborhood families collectively grow fruits and vegetables.

The garden, known as Raymond Avenue Neighborhood Garden (RANG), is the brainchild of Julie Burleigh. Raymond Avenue is a residential neighborhood, with wide tree-lined streets. As many pedestrians and bikers pass as cars. The quiet neighborhood is punctuated by bikes bells of tamale vendors and the mechanical jingle of ice cream trucks.

“I had always looked at this spot and thought, ‘wow, that would make a great community garden,” said Burleigh, standing on a wood-chip path between elevated plots. She gestured towards the jungle of kale, snow peas and corn behind her, as though revealing the results of her vision.

Burleigh lived across the street from the eyesore for six years before approaching the lot’s owner. The two women worked out a deal; the neighborhood could use the lot as a garden until the owner wishes to develop or sell it.

The garden is one of many vacant-lot-gone-community-gardens in Los Angeles. The movement aims to help bring fresh produce to food deserts, areas that don’t have ready access to fresh produce.

With all the empty lots in Los Angeles, creating gardens has great potential for alleviating food deserts. It wouldn’t be easy, requiring a solid structure of people and could only happen on lots with adequate soil. Still, it is possible. The Raymond Avenue garden proves that.

Watch a video story about the Raymond Avenue Neighborhood Garden:

“I drive around the city and see empty lots and think, ‘people could grow food there,’” said Burleigh.

But in order for the idea to catch on, it would need to become a community priority. People would need to change their relationship with food, argues Burleigh, pointing out the irony that the least healthy food is often the most affordable.

“Fresh foods need to be an indispensible part of the diet,” Burleigh said. “It’s not super easy, but it can be done with a little training.”

The lot is broken into 37 individual 5-by-10-foot plots. When the project broke ground, neighborhood volunteers chose a plot. The plots became the families’ personal gardens, everyone shouldering all responsibilities for their own bed.

The amount of food that comes from the lot is directly correlated to the work put in.

“From one 50-square-foot plot, if you’re really taking good care of it, and switching out crops seasonally and adding compost, it could feed one person,” said Burleigh. “All their vegetable needs.”

Burleigh is a certified Master Gardener, a program under Common Ground and the University of California system. Common Ground, based out of the University of California, Davis, aims to take the scientific research from the university system, translate it in to layman’s terms and train dedicated volunteers on how to create and manage gardens.

Though there are Master Gardener programs around the nation, the one in Los Angeles County is unique. Thirty-five years ago when the United States Department of Agriculture subsidized the project, the funding was contingent upon the program specifically helping low-income people.

imageYvonne Savio, project manager for Common Ground, says the emphasis on poor communities goes beyond building connections with food – it build connections with people.

“There are so many folks that really need a lot of help,” said Savio. “It’s not just food, we’re intent on people becoming real communities.”

Burleigh has seen how her neighborhood garden has facilitated a sense of community first-hand.

“I know my neighbors, and they know me,” said Burleigh. The garden has worked as an equalizer for the neighborhood. West Adams Historical District, where the garden is located, is economically diverse. Poor immigrant families live next door to historical mansions and USC students.

But, as Savio put it, once in the garden, all these differences “melds and melts out of existence. People are bonding together just because of the gardening.”

Burleigh said she has gone from being a stranger to the “Garden Person” on the block.

“Before I started the garden, I was feeling isolated,” said Burleigh. “And when you feel isolated, it can really compound. And by the same token, when you feel connected, that can really compound.”

The garden also provides outdoor space for apartment dwellers, who otherwise would not be able to have a garden.

“In a few words, this is life,” said Fatimah Rodriguez, who lives in an apartment less than a mile away. She has had a plot at RANG for almost two years. “Fresh food, fruit and vegetables that you plant with your own hands, and take care of them and nurture them, it has no price. It’s just very important to me, and my family, too.”

Like Rodriguez, Burleigh says she has an almost spiritual connection with gardening – one she would like to share with others. It gives her the opportunity to feel soil between her fingers in the middle of this asphalt city.

“I love the process of being involved with nature in a pointed way,” she said. “Having a collaborative relationship to the natural world, you’re watching the cycles, you’re learning about how things grow, learning to care for things and tend for things.”