Tomato plants have never looked better to Monika Tanhill.
For the past year, the 60-year-old Sherman Oaks woman has lovingly tended a plot in the community garden that lies next to the Ventura Freeway in Encino. She put in her tomatoes a few days ago, to be followed by pole beans and zucchini.
"This is my first garden ever," said Tanhill, pointing to her shapely rosebushes and proudly displaying a gardener's short, unpolished fingernails.
In Tanhill's experience, a garden cures many ills, and tending cukes and cauliflower is the perfect antidote to stress. In the last few weeks, she said, tilling her evolving garden has grown into something more -- a welcome alternative to brooding about war in the Middle East.
"I feel sadness about what's going on, and instead of sitting home eating, I come here and dig holes," Tanhill said.
She is one of about 400 people with plots in the Sepulveda Garden Center's community garden, opened in 1966.
Tanhill gestured toward the nearby plots of people she has met in the former parking lot, where a 10-by-20-foot mini-garden rents for $25 a year and a mutual interest in mulch often leads to friendship. "Many of my friends are here to heal in one way or another," she said.
Like Tanhill, Mary De Sio, 79, who grows fennel, San Marzano tomatoes and other staples of a Neapolitan kitchen in her meticulous plot nearby, was widowed many years ago.
Tanhill said she first took solace in the garden after losing her job at a high-tech firm in Thousand Oaks that downsized. "It was your typical job: lots of stress, lots of money."
Once she recovered from her initial devastation, she said, "I started to do things I had never done before in my life."
Getting older also made her eager to rid her life of fripperies. "There's another consideration as we get older -- how much time have we spent in our lives doing things that have no significance?"
Feeling helpless about the war in Iraq, Tanhill finds herself yanking weeds and pinching plants back with a new intensity. "The last time I felt this way was during the [Northridge] earthquake."
But then she concentrates on amending her soil or eliminating garden pests. She and half a dozen friends "do natural pest control, like cutting grasshoppers in half instead of poisoning them," she said.
Nurse Debra Spitz drives from Northridge to tend her plot. In her 40s, Spitz started gardening here because she wanted home-grown tomatoes and her condo lacks a patio or sunny balcony. Soon she will have six varieties as well as miniature Cecil Brunner roses, like the ones she remembers from her grandmother's garden.
The garden "is a good way to get away, whether it's from the war or things that are going on at home. Pretend your boss is the weeds. It works wonders," Spitz said.
Dietitian Joyce Carlson of Sherman Oaks tends more than 50 rosebushes in her four-plot paradise. "When I started two years ago, I didn't know a floribunda from a tea rose. Now I consider myself a rosarian," she said.
Carlson, in her 50s, has fashioned garage-sale trellises and a cast-off birdbath into a suburban Eden. She and her friends sometimes picnic under the umbrella in one corner of her lush garden, heady with the scent of roses.
"It's very comforting," she said of the refuge she visits daily. "You just can't watch CNN 24 hours a day."
Carlson works with people who have kidney disease and spends much of her day trying to keep up their spirits as they undergo dialysis and cope with a diet that limits liquids and chocolate. It is rewarding work, but draining.
Carlson's garden lets her slip into another, better world. "There's always something blooming and something coming up," she said, curved rose pruners close at hand.
Carlson just bought a new tomato called Health Kick that seems a natural for a dietitian's garden because it is rich in the antioxidant lycopene.
And, in light of the war, she thinks a new rosebush is in order.
"After 9/11, my friend and I came out here and planted a Peace rose," she said. "I was thinking I should plant another one."