Ida Cousino won't talk much about herself other than to say that she's from Michigan, came to California in 1961 and founded the market garden on the grounds of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Westwood in 1985. Otherwise, her life story is under wraps. A film company has optioned it.
Rumor has it that she's to be played by Diane Keaton. If it's true, it's a fair enough piece of casting. Give Keaton a pack-a-day voice and the slightly shaggy brand of authority of a woman who's handed plowshares to soldiers for the past 15 years, and you'd approximate Cousino.
The movie deal does not, however, preclude Cousino from trying to hawk some vegetables to a visitor. The 25-acre garden is a horticultural therapy program for veterans recovering from any number of conditions, from Gulf War syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder to alcoholism and drug addiction. At any one time, there will be 35 recovering vets tending the grounds. They work for a year before moving on to jobs in the community. But for the program's liberal-hearted good will, it's also a business. The vets may come in to relearn how to work and to assume responsibility, but they also sell what they grow, says Cousino. In winter, this is mostly flowers. But in summer, it's food. Herbs and vegetables are sold at stalls at the entrance to the garden and every Wednesday morning from a stand outside the south-facing steps of the Federal Building at Wilshire and Sepulveda boulevards.
Cousino wants more business, particularly from restaurants. The vets can grow the kind of exotic gear that chefs prefer, she says. This year she expects at least 10 different types of chiles, including habanero, Thai dragon, lipstick and cayenne.
She also claims that, thanks to early input from an old friend and chef-activist, the veterans garden was among the first in Los Angeles to start custom-growing exotic baby lettuces and "microgreens" for a trendy restaurant. The friend has since moved and his restaurant closed, but owners of a new place on the site, a nearby Brentwood restaurant called Zax, have honored the tradition and are now buying flowers from the garden.
"What we would like to do is custom-grow for more restaurants," says Cousino. "We'd like to have them tell us whatever crops they would like, and we'll grow them."
This summer she expects the garden to produce all manner of squash, purslane, mustard, arugula, fennel, red chard, lettuce, kale, sorrel and lemon grass. It's all organic, she adds. "We do it because some of our guys have been exposed to Agent Orange and can't be exposed to more chemicals."
Cousino asks a colleague, Angela Carr, to provide a tour. Carr's a funny, low-key woman who spent four years in the Army, 21/2 years in Germany. She went through the veterans garden program and now works there as part of an Americorps program. One day she might be selling sage, the next running up dozens of carnation boutonnieres that she says are for a "POW affair."
Passing the row of nursery plants, which--along with vegetable harvests and flowers--are sold to the public, she identifies citrus saplings, sage, peppers, roses and buddleias.
Further along in the tour, behind a row of willows, Carr points out a small row of fruit trees. There are plums, peaches, nectarines and apples. There aren't enough trees to harvest stone fruit to sell, but Carr laughs at the in-house predators that the springtime blossoms bring out.
"We try to keep Ida from cutting them for flower arrangements so we can get some fruit," she says. As for nuts from a macadamia tree, "The birds get them before we do. So much for that."
Afternoon heat is setting in. Carr calls to a vet weeding a row of pepper plants to tell him he's off duty and can quit. But he waves as if to say he'll stick with his work, thanks.
They take the business seriously, says Carr. "But people do it for the peace of mind."
Veterans Garden, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Wilshire and Sepulveda boulevards, on the grounds near Jackie Robinson Field. (310) 268-4062. Open Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Friday 9 to 11 a.m.