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More than vegetables take root and grow at rented garden plots

June 18, 1987|GERALD FARIS

Most of them do it for fun and exercise.

Some make it a social thing, exchanging tips about growing vegetables while sharing sandwiches, soft drinks or beer under the shade of a tree.

Some take the scientific approach, determining, for example, the best kind of manure for a particular crop and the temperature that starts tomatoes ripening.

Others don't know a whole lot more than how to spread fertilizer and use a watering hose--and they really don't care. They like having a hobby that gets them outdoors.

They are the South Bay community gardeners--mostly retired people with green thumbs who continue to delight in a phenomenon of the 1970s ecology movement, when many cities started renting small garden plots to residents for piddling sums.

Their domains are next to parks or schools and, in the case of one garden in San Pedro, on a hillside next to the Bureau of Sanitation and overlooking the Harbor Freeway.

"We look at this as a service to elderly people so they can have a garden," said Millie Dreyer, a Torrance recreation supervisor who oversees the city's two community gardens. "We have a lot of apartments."

In the gardens, narrow, crooked paths weave between plots, typically 20 by 20 feet, which may contain clumps of cabbage, rows of onions, green beans all but concealed by their leaves, tall corn, and thick tomato plants supported by wooden stakes. Tiny windmills shoo birds away. Lawn furniture here and there offers tired gardeners a place to rest.

"This is something to pass the time," said Frank Wall, who started his garden 10 years ago next to Lago Seco Park in Torrance after he retired from the electronics business. "I'm down here every day, doing what needs doing." That's mostly watering, cultivating and keeping the weeds out.

"The Bermuda grass comes through from the park," he said, pointing through the chain-link fence that separates his plot from the park. "It looks bad if you don't dig it out."

Al Salo, a retired chemist who has been gardening at Lago Seco since 1975, said he "got tired of supermarket vegetables, which became tasteless to me. After one crop, I knew I was right."

For the $10 a year it costs him to rent the garden plot, plus a few bucks for seed and supplies, he said he saves $50 a month in groceries by growing such things as string beans, cabbage, Swiss chard, corn and squash. And pulling weeds, raking and hoeing, he says, is better exercise than he'd get if he paid to go a gym.

"So I get two payoffs."

Over at the San Pedro garden next to the sanitation complex, Tony Barrera said he was the first person to start a garden there 12 years ago after a stroke caused him to leave his maintenance job at a Long Beach hospital. "It's lots of fun," he said. "I raise enough for the house--there's only me and my wife--and I give to others."

Right now, he's growing what he calls the summer crop--corn, tomatoes, squash and his prize crop, chilies. "For a Mexican, that's the best," he said.

Because of mild Southern California weather, community gardens are a year-round project. The favorite crops seem to be corn, tomatoes, various kinds of squash, beans and onions.

"These are about ready to be harvested," said Wall, bending over and pulling the leaves back from the ripe green beans. "The squash is ready now, too." Next month, it'll be tomatoes.

According to the Lago Seco gardeners, a few crops just don't make it there, such as potatoes, carrots and beets. Salo says the heavy clay soil is hard on root crops.

The birds also are a bother. Salo took an old hat and a red jacket and made them into a scarecrow after losing three crops. "The birds would sit up on the wires, watch me slave, and after I left they'd come down and eat my crops," he said.

For some, like Wall, growing vegetables was something new. "I had no experience and I asked my neighbors how to do it," he said, explaining that veteran gardeners helping out novices is part of life at the gardens. "I just planted everything according to the directions."

But when Martin Koebel started his garden seven years ago while recovering from open-heart surgery, he drew on his Wisconsin boyhood, when he grew and sold vegetables. He also read up on the subject.

"I like to experiment," he said, explaining that he was the first Lago Seco gardener to plant turnip-like kohlrabi. It thrived, and now other gardeners there have planted it.

"It's a challenge," Koebel said. When he first tried butternut squash, he got only two. Deciding that he hadn't prepared the ground right, he tried steer manure as a fertilizer and got 40 to 50 squash the next time.

Beans, he said, do best when the soil is warm. Corn likes warm nights. And when the temperature is 70 degrees, tomatoes start ripening.

Several other South Bay communities, including Carson, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Manhattan Beach, Harbor Gateway and Wilmington, rent garden plots, but there are rules. Most cities restrict their plots to residents, and sometimes there's a waiting list. No vegetables may be sold, and if a person does not keep his garden planted and well-maintained, he can lose it.

Vandalism and theft are problems, but at Lago Seco, the fence topped with barbed wire has taken care of that.

Not so at the garden near the Sanitation Bureau. "A lot gets stolen," said gardener Richard Jimenez. "They jump the fence."

Although the vegetables can't be sold, there's nothing wrong with giving them away.

"Everyone likes tomatoes," Wall said, "and I usually have an awfully lot of them."

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