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Community Property

Leased Plots Give Urban Gardeners an Opportunity to Be Land Lords


Tucked away on a quiet street in Orange lies an urban oasis. Those who travel the street will see a chain-link fence enclosing a series of gardens. If they stop to take a closer look--as many do--they'll gaze upon neatly tended plots of land bursting with colorful cutting flowers, herbs and vegetables.

Known as a community garden, this land at 254 N. Main St. has 51 10-by-10-foot gardening plots, carefully nurtured by various gardeners. The land is owned by the city, which has leased the parcels to local gardeners since 1978. The current lease price is $36 a year.

Many community gardens sprouted in Orange County in the 1970s. Some have fallen victim to development, but those remaining continue to be popular.

Most community garden plots are leased for a fee--anywhere from $5 to $48 a year. The rules are usually simple. Pay your fee, use the plot for growing produce and/or flowers, and keep the weeds pulled. Most gardens are open only to residents of the city.

"Over the years, there has always been a waiting list for the garden," says Rich Kollen, superintendent of recreation for the city of Orange.

Wait times range from a few months to more than a year.

"The turnover is very small, and plots aren't empty for long," Kollen says. "It's a low-key recreation enjoyed by a wide variety of people."

In response to community demand, Costa Mesa started a garden containing 40 15-by-15-foot parcels last year. San Juan Capistrano will open a garden with 77 plots of various sizes and price ranges. Registration is expected to start in October.

Although in years past, most community gardeners were senior citizens, "within the last three to four years we've seen a greater increase in younger families wanting to garden," says Kathleen McGlynn, recreation supervisor for Seal Beach. "Now it's truly a family deal."

Seal Beach has offered 125 12-by-12-foot parcels since 1978.

The reasons for tending a community garden plot are as varied as the gardeners themselves.

Those new to gardening enjoy learning techniques, while gardening veterans use their plots to grow uncommon or expensive produce. Retired people say they like to keep active, and families enjoy the thought of a group project.

The common dominators?

Most gardeners tend their plots because of the fresh and healthful produce. While some live in condos and apartments and need a place to set down roots, others already have a backyard garden but still want more room to grow.

June Leach has been gardening at the Orange community plot for 13 years.

"The satisfaction of growing your own fresh vegetables is wonderful," says Leach, a special-education teacher. "Most of the gardeners take pride in their gardens. It's a beautiful, relaxing place to be."

Many community gardeners develop friendships with fellow gardeners. Leach has enjoyed meeting the many people from various cultures who come to garden and the children who help their parents.

Sharon O'Hara is an elementary teacher who has had a plot at the Orange garden for five years. "I was surprised at the friendships I've made at the garden," she says. "A lot of people know one another and regularly talk, sharing growing tips. We all help one another out whenever necessary."

Despite the additional work, O'Hara has been maintaining three plots for a gardener who has been sick since March. "I take her produce and herbs that I've grown on her plot," she says.

Eldean Hemmings, who harvests produce and flowers at her community garden in Seal Beach, says there is "a wonderful camaraderie" at the garden.

She has gardened three plots with her husband, Ray, for 15 years.

"We watch out for each other and water when someone is away. When we have extra plants and produce, we gladly share," she says. "Sometimes there's a lot of conversation and not much work done, but we all enjoy it."

In the summer, the Hemmingses grow dahlias, stock, asters, sunflowers and roses. They also have berry vines, various herbs, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, squash and Anaheim chiles. In their winter garden, they usually grow cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, lettuce, peas and Swiss chard.

Though the benefits of growing in a community garden are overflowing, it's not easy work and can take a great deal of time.

"For a couple of weeks in the spring when I prepare the soil and plant the garden, I spend at least 12 hours a week there," says Hemmings, who lives four blocks away.

"When I've just planted seeds or have seedlings growing, I must run to the garden twice a day to sprinkle them," she says. "I go there less often at other times of the year, but there is always plenty of work to be done, especially weeding."

Leach says if you want your garden plot to work, you must commit to several hours a week. "Summertime is the hardest, because everything is growing quickly; it's hot, and watering is critical. I go every other day for two hours. In the winter, when things grow more slowly, I go once or twice a week for an hour or so each time.

"Those new to the garden sometimes don't realize how much time it takes; they get overrun by weeds and become discouraged," Leach says. "It's a good idea to consider the work involved before signing up."

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