Surrounded by a housing project, perched below a historic mansion, across a hillside overlooking Santa Monica Airport or on a busy street opposite a massage school, patches of earth burst forth with six-foot-tall corn and scarlet tomatoes, and the sweet smell of roses and herbs fills the air.
They're the product and the pride of their fastidious caretakers, Westside residents who come to stoop over them, tug at weeds, and churn the soil with hoes and rakes.
The parcels are community gardens, managed by cities and by nonprofit groups. For several hours a week of weeding and watering and for a low fee or no fee at all, they provide their gardeners fresh produce year-round, savings on grocery bills, and respite from the stress of living and working in a metropolis.
"It's the biggest bargain in the world," said Herschel Burke Gilbert, president of Metropolitan Neighborhood Gardens and Farms Inc. (Metro Farms), a nonprofit group that oversees four gardens on the Westside and 11 elsewhere in Los Angeles.
"I read a lot of things all week long which are kind of sad--so I have to get away from it," Mickey Engle, a medical records clerk and doctor's assistant, said on a recent Saturday at Ocean View Farms in Mar Vista. She was wearing soil-stained white tennis shoes and a straw hat, and a grapefruit-size tomato was perched on her fence. Gardening on Saturdays and one night during the week "gives me therapy, away from all those sick people," she said.
Santa Monica and Culver City operate gardens on city land, and West Hollywood leases a plot from a private landowner. Metro Farms and the Common Ground Garden Program, another nonprofit group, lease public and private land.
In most cases, the leased land is obtained for free, but the property owners benefit because the lessees provide liability insurance, trash collection and weed control, said Rachel Surls, community outreach coordinator of Common Ground, a 12-year-old program of the University of California Cooperative Extension that starts gardens in low-income neighborhoods. It sponsors one garden on Crenshaw Boulevard and one in the Mar Vista Gardens housing project.
If landowners have vacant lots they plan to keep vacant for a while, "they'll save some money on it, and it's good community relations," Surls said. "It's going to turn probably from a trashy, vermin-infested lot with kids hanging out . . . into something beautiful and nice for the community."
Among the gardens affiliated with Metro Farms are Ocean View and one in Wattles Gardens Park in the Hollywood Hills, below Wattles Mansion and surrounded by avocado trees.
Community gardens have roots going back to at least World War I, and sprang up again in World War II, when food was in short supply and the federal government urged citizens to grow their own vegetables in "victory gardens." The Department of Agriculture and the Office of Civilian Defense published such manuals as "A Victory Gardener's Handbook on Insects and Diseases."
Communal gardens were in style in the 1970s because of the environmental movement and the "back-to-the-land feelings people had," Surls said. Now, she said, they are cropping up once more because gardening is popular and people fear pesticides on their produce. There are at least 50 community gardens in Los Angeles County, she said.
"It's much better and healthier" knowing how your vegetables grow, said Rosemary Channel, 30, pointing to her frilly, bright green lettuce at the Mar Vista Gardens housing project.
The plots are also in demand by apartment and condominium dwellers. Culver City's garden, wedged between office bungalows for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Boy Scouts, accommodates "a lot of condo owners who have lost a place to dig," said Carolyn Cole, Culver City's secretary of community services.
As a result, waiting lists have sprouted up at many gardens, with 15 people and more--who should expect to wait anywhere from a few months to more than a year, officials said. Santa Monica has about 50 people waiting each year for the $18-a-year, 18-by-20-foot plots on Main Street and on Park Drive near Broadway, said Ramona Cicciarelli, who supervises the gardens. The wait can be as much as three to four years, she said.
Some gardens, such as those in West Hollywood and at Mar Vista Gardens, charge the gardeners nothing, but most collect an annual fee of around $20 to cover trash collection, water, insurance and tools.
The gardens come with their own sets of rules, such as limits on fences and pesticides, requirements on upkeep, and prohibitions on selling produce.
At West Hollywood's triangular garden at San Vicente Boulevard and Norwich Drive, pumpkins and marijuana are forbidden, said garden manager Kamish Blume. "Pumpkins, because the city considers them an attractive nuisance--kids jump over the fence and try to steal them. And marijuana, because it's illegal," she explained.