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A plot-driven garden story

Wattles Farm brings out the cook -- and picnicker -- in its gardener-members.

June 23, 2004|Susan LaTempa | Special to The Times

Stepping through the gate into Wattles Farm, one of L.A.'s oldest community gardens, is like stepping into a soft green salad and wrapping yourself in lettuce and fragrant herbs.

You're just half a block above Hollywood Boulevard, but the noise of the traffic is muffled by the ancient trunks and leafy branches of dozens of avocado trees. As you walk down the paths that wind through 163 individual garden plots, the overall sensation is one of fresh new green.

A woman in shorts and a straw hat is watering a grapevine whose huge leaves are back-lighted by the sun. A man in jeans weeds well-fed tomato plants that line up before him in healthy green rows. Fig and loquat trees border raised beds of eggplant, squash, cilantro, parsley and dill. Beans wind up their poles. It's an urban farm in what was once the avocado grove and fruit orchard of the historic Wattles Mansion in Hollywood.

On warm summer evenings, the garden's members sit at tables under rose arbors or screened by vine-covered trellises, dining on just-picked tomatoes, avocado and lettuce salads or simple snacks of cheese and pickles.

Sam Trueblood, one of five garden masters and a member from the first year, says gardeners have been dining on site since Wattles Farm was created in 1975 and the acreage was reclaimed after years of neglect. "There were a lot of picnics in those days. People brought their lunches and we'd stop for breaks while we were developing the land."

Cooking, eating and gardening have been intertwined throughout the garden's history. An early Wattles newsletter printed recipes for pesto and ratatouille that Trueblood still uses, and while they're weeding or watering or kibitzing from plot to plot, Wattles gardeners share not only seeds and produce but also recipes.

And twice a year -- in early summer and early fall -- all 300 members of the Wattles Farm community are invited to a potluck supper. This year's summer celebration is next week, and members are pulling out recipes, watching their crops ripen and planning their contributions to what is surely one of the city's most pastoral feasts.

Although there is a small grassy public park farther up the hill that's part of the city-owned Wattles Mansion area, the 4.2-acre farm is only open to members, who pay $40 annual dues and contribute labor on community work days. There's a waiting list of more than 100 prospective members, and it takes two or three years to obtain your plot. Completely organic, the garden is run by a nonprofit organization, Wattles Farm and Neighborhood Gardeners Inc., in partnership with the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks. It's one of 60 community gardens in Los Angeles County.

"More than half our members live in apartments in the area," says Toby Leaman, another garden master and president of the board of directors, as she tugs at some errant nut grass that's encroaching on a riotous bush of flaming orange roses. "There aren't a lot of parks in the immediate area. So we have picnic tables; we come for dinner in the summertime. And we have some marvelous cooks!"

On any given weekday, you'll find retirees and actors mulching and trimming. Shift workers appear mornings or afternoons for some fresh air and exercise. Parents stop by after picking the kids up from school and gather tomatoes and cukes for dinner. White-collar types and professionals hit the dirt on weekends.

Each 15-by-15-foot garden plot reflects its owner's personality, and often hints at ethnic background and cooking style as well. Some plots are amazingly neat, with individual raised beds for onions, lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro and radishes. Other plots must belong to free-spirit types -- artichokes are blooming royal purple and the mint's a foot high.

At the present time, 51% of the gardeners are immigrants from countries that made up the former Soviet Union. This is reflected not only in the bilingual English/Russian signs and notices throughout the garden, but in the preponderance of crops such as beets and dill that are central to the cuisines of the gardeners' homelands.

Wattles has attracted many members from the former Soviet Union not only because of the demographics of the surrounding neighborhoods but also because urbanites in those countries have a tradition of gardening in community gardens or at "summer houses" outside city centers.

The potlucks, Trueblood says, are a heady hodgepodge of international tastes. "Some of the Russian members bring wonderful pirogi. There are quite a few Armenian gardeners who bring things like stuffed grape leaves and wonderful eggplant dishes. We'll get stuffed chiles and other Mexican dishes, and we have some Italians, too, so we see vegetable lasagnas."

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