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SOUTH BAY / COVER STORY : Highly Cultivated : Community gardens tucked away in the landscape yield bushels of produce, offer an oasis from city life and provide fertile ground for social interaction.

February 16, 1995|SCOTT SANDELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The smokestacks and oil tanks of the Unocal refinery stand in the distance. Garbage trucks rumble into a nearby city maintenance yard. Rush-hour traffic on the Harbor Freeway zooms not more than 200 feet away. But Ruben Villegas considers the spot a little piece of paradise.

Villegas, 51, tends neat rows of onions, garlic and cabbage on his plot in the San Pedro All-Year Gardens on Gaffey Street amid the smell of wet earth and mulch after a recent storm.

"This is where I find my peace and relaxation," he says. "It's cold now, but I like to come here and kick back. During winter, plants grow slow. Some people don't like that. It doesn't bother me."

Easy to overlook and often shoehorned into the unlikeliest of locations, community gardens in the South Bay give refuge from the stress of city life to Villegas and hundreds like him. The gardens provide land to grow fruits and vegetables and a gathering place for all ages and cultures.

Those qualities have attracted many to the gardens, which typically charge $20 to $25 a year for a 200-square-foot plot and water. Most of the dozen or so community gardens have waiting lists, some as long as 18 months.

"Gardening here is really just a kind of fellowshiping," said Wil Ching, 69, a high school geometry teacher with a garden at Columbia Park in Torrance. "We're like brothers and sisters out here."

Though senior citizens have long been the primary users of community gardens--a couple even require members to be 55 or older--many sites have seen increasing numbers of people in their 30s, 40s and early 50s join.

"It's just satisfying, watching that little seed grow into something you can actually eat," said Kevin Williams, 32, a telephone maintenance supervisor who is growing cauliflower, bok choy and romaine lettuce in Hawthorne's community garden. "I like to cook, and nothing beats fresh ingredients."

Even so, tilling soil, weeding, watering and harvesting crops can be hard work. To maintain a productive plot, gardeners recommend spending at least four to five hours a week on it, regardless of the season.

Winter poses its own problems. Heavy rains this year have turned many plots into muddy messes. Flooding has killed seedlings. Early morning frost and lack of maintenance have led to further losses.

"With the weather we've been having, it's kind of tough to get out to the garden as often as I'd like," said Williams, a native of Battle Creek, Mich. "Of course, it's much worse where I grew up."

Theft and vandalism can also play havoc, so gardens are locked to outsiders. Chain-link fences, frequently topped with barbed wire, guard tools and plants.

The measures are "more of a deterrent than anything, and we have had only a few problems," Ching said. The biggest loss at Columbia Park garden came last year when thieves cut through a fence to steal a $900 plant shredder, gardeners said.

Crime, though rare, stands in sharp contrast to the gardens' spirit of quiet order and sharing. Bylaws typically require growers to help maintain common areas, such as walkways and compost heaps, keep plots clean and make sure large plants like trees do not block light or infringe on other plots. Supervisors patrol for illegal plants like marijuana.

The sheer abundance of some crops also encourages a giving spirit. A 10-by-20-foot plot can generate hundreds of pounds of vegetables in one season, far too much for most families to consume.

Gardeners exchange crops, give produce to friends and neighbors or donate it to soup kitchens such as the House of Yahweh in Lawndale or the Union Rescue Mission in Downtown Los Angeles.

Passersby at some gardens often ask to buy a basket of tomatoes or a few ears of corn. But gardeners, who are usually prohibited by bylaws from selling their bounty, usually just toss the requested items over the fence.

"I give away about 95% of it," Ching said. "What else are you going to do with 300 pounds of zucchini?"

*

Community gardens trace their roots to World War II, when food rationing spurred people to grow their own produce in "victory gardens." In the 1970s, the ecology movement revived interest in the idea and, at the same time, federal funds helped establish urban gardening programs.

With land at a premium, most community gardens sprouted wherever residents could win approval to use undeveloped land. That led to some unusual sites.

San Pedro All-Year Gardens, for instance, lies next to the Harbor (110) Freeway on a landfill closed in 1977. Lawndale's community garden is on a Caltrans-owned strip near Hawthorne Boulevard and the San Diego (405) Freeway. Other plots are on unused parkland, school grounds and vacant lots.

In Torrance, Hawthorne and San Pedro, cities have set aside land for community gardens. But elsewhere, such as the seniors-only Green Acres garden in Wilmington, gardeners have had to strike agreements with private property owners--who may later decide to use the land for profit-making ventures.

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