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Gardeners Find Fertile New Ground at Schools

Manhattan Beach: After school district decides to sell community gardens, longtime planters cut a deal to cultivate plots on three campuses.


The sweet peas have gone to seed. The last of the lettuces have been uprooted. And the once carefully tended community garden plots on school district property in Manhattan Beach are now abandoned, with only weeds sprouting on land being sold to help the school weather a budget crunch.

Closed down last month after a quarter-century at the northern edge of Mira Costa High School, the Manhattan Beach Community Garden and the Pea Patch Seniors Garden are going to be reincarnated on three elementary school campuses. Under the terms of an agreement to be signed this week, the gardeners will be given new plots at Grand View, Meadows and Pacific schools, which already have campus gardens that can benefit from the arrangement.

"We feel like this is a case of being dealt lemons and making lemonade. This really is a better situation than we had before, because we will be more visible and we can help bring the benefits of gardening to the younger generation," said Ann Barklow, a community gardener who helped negotiate the new plots after efforts to save the old gardens failed.

Until recently, things looked grim for the gardeners, many of whom are elderly or have no room to grow corn, tomatoes, fava beans or kale at home in the South Bay beach cities, where land is scarce and pricey.

The Manhattan Beach Unified School District, which had allowed gardeners to use the small strip of surplus land, found itself facing large cuts in state funding this year. Believing they could get up to $1.6 million for the land, which is large enough for three houses, district officials told the gardeners they had to be out by May 31.

The eviction notice set gardeners scrambling for help from the school board, the city, the local health district--and anyone else who might help them raise money to buy the land or provide another site that could accommodate the approximately 80 plots.

They ran out of time, but as the gardeners gathered on May 30 at the Mira Costa site to collect their tools and seedlings and to hold a farewell party, negotiations were underway for the next generation of gardens.

"The district felt very bad about needing to sell the property and [officials] wanted to see if there was a way to help out. I had several principals approach me about having the gardeners move onto their sites," said Marika Bergsund, the district's garden coordinator.

Though there was no place big enough to accommodate all the gardeners, the school district agreed to squeeze some new plots next to student gardens at three of its five elementary campuses. The city agreed to clear the sites, build new beds, and install irrigation systems and fencing. The plots could be ready by July, just in time for the community gardeners to move in and help maintain the school gardens, which sometimes slide into neglect during summer break.

District officials believe the students will learn from the older, more experienced gardeners and expect both generations will benefit from spending time with each other. There are plans to teach youngsters how to compost and how to attract beneficial insects in lieu of using pesticides--which will be forbidden in the new campus gardens.

"From the schools' perspective, this is just wonderful," Bergsund said. "The older gardeners will bring a world of experience and interests. And, as a secondary benefit, our children will get to spend time with older adults, something we believe will benefit the entire community."

The community gardeners' arrival comes just as Manhattan Beach's school gardens program is, well, growing and blossoming.

Begun 2 1/2 years ago with a small grant from the state Department of Education and money from the Beach Cities Health District, the project has spread to all of the district's elementary schools and will soon be added at the middle school. The gardens provide lessons in nutrition and give students the chance to sample what they have grown.

"This is a very affluent community but a densely packed one--not many students have tomatoes growing at home," Bergsund said. When some of the students at Pacific School first saw the tomato plants, they asked Bergsund if they were strawberries.

Community gardener Barklow hopes the program will expand to other area schools--she already is talking with district officials in neighboring Hermosa Beach about helping plant butterfly, native wildflower and edible leaf gardens at Hermosa Valley School. She also would like to see the gardens produce enough to help feed the South Bay's elderly shut-ins and the needy, and to add raised plots for gardeners who use wheelchairs.

Though some of the community gardeners have decided not to participate in the new program, many are enthusiastic and have been meeting to make plans and appoint a representative for each site to act as a liaison with the host school.

One of the gardeners, an architect, has offered to design the community gardens at each site. Officials believe they can carve out about 60 plots over the three campuses.

Because they will be sharing their space with students, the gardeners must undergo fingerprinting, be tested for tuberculosis, wear ID badges while on campus and comply with other requirements spelled out in the contract, which is subject to review annually.

"It seems to me the school district has made us a pretty nice offer," said Rudy Weaver, a retiree who enjoyed tending his flowers and vegetables at the Mira Costa site.

Some of the seniors wonder if gardening alongside youngsters will work, but Weaver said, "Most of us are pretty happy that we are going to get gardens, even though we had to go through a lot to get them."

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