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Urban Farmers Really Dig Dirt : Vegetables and Friendships Thrive in Fertile Community Garden Plots


LONG BEACH — Frank Ruelke, a retired McDonnell Douglas contract administrator, was busy weeding his farm--a 19-by-27-foot plot filled with squash, beans, corn, garlic, white onions and rhubarb.

Nearby, nurse Joanne Rice admired the ripe Carmellos on her tomato vine, while Bud Marble, a retired Rockwell engineer, bragged that his Better Boys are, well, just better tomatoes.

It was a typical day down on the urban farm, where nearly 500 residents grow crops on 6 1/2 acres owned by the Long Beach Community Garden Assn. near the Navy hospital and police academy.

With 365 plots, it is one of the largest of the 50 community gardens in Los Angeles County. Urban farmers pay $20 the first year and $15 each year thereafter for a chance to dig in the earth, provide fresh produce for the dinner table and occasionally lean on their hoes for a chat. The association provides a water faucet on each plot, hoses, wheelbarrows and pushcarts, but the urban farmers supply their own tools, said Ruelke, who has been farming his plot for 12 years.

He comes to the garden two or three times a week and spends three hours each time cultivating, planting, fertilizing, weeding and harvesting.

"My wife, Lonnie, is all for it. I keep her supplied with fresh, tasty vegetables year-round. It's great to be here, working outdoors, seeing the stuff grow, visiting with neighboring farmers like Herman," Ruelke said. Herman is Herman Harrison, 78, a Tennessee transplant who gardens with his wife, Eva.

"We have a truly representative mix of people, old and young, rich and poor, doctors, lawyers, teachers, police, postal workers, mechanics, firemen, housewives, an old sea captain. You name it," said Bud Marble, who was elected president of the association by the other farmers. "Some of our gardeners grew up on farms. Some never had a garden before."

Only Long Beach residents are allowed to rent the plots, for which there is a long waiting list. And it isn't all fun and chat. Danger lurks around every leaf: Mites munch through corn and tomatoes; viruses attack buds; fig beetles spit in your eyes or crawl in your ears.

The community garden newsletter is full of warnings and tips: "Please do not touch the plants; you can spread diseases by doing so. Do not plant onions, leeks or lettuce near your tomatoes. They take all the nutrients from the tomatoes. Planting radishes around squash and beans helps repel the squash beetle and bean beetle."

Joanne Rice edits the newsletters. She was recovering from cancer nine years ago when she started farming for therapy. "I really got hooked. I feel so much better whenever I'm here," she said.

In addition to her garden she runs a test plot, experimenting with new varieties of vegetables. Among them are exotic tomatoes, including Japanese odoriko, Greek Lorrissa and others from France, Italy and Germany. She also grows heirloom tomatoes called Abraham Lincolns that were raised in this country during the 1800s.

The city farmers around her walk through rows of corn as high as an elephant's eye and clutches of cabbage, cauliflower, zucchini, radishes, celery, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, spinach, broccoli, kohlrabi, turnips, parsnips and beets.

These urban farmers are not allowed to sell their produce for profit. It is strictly for home consumption or for relatives and friends.

There is a huge bin on site where the growers put extra vegetables aside for the community garden's food bank. It is then distributed to the homeless, the needy and area shelters.

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