It might seem like an unlikely picture – patches of vegetables thriving beneath towering, buzzing Southern California Edison power lines on what used to be a massive gravel parking lot.
By ANNIE ZAK / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Published: Sept. 11, 2013 Updated: Sept. 12, 2013 10:50 a.m.
But the Huntington Beach Community Garden, a nonprofit, has taken that unlikelihood and turned it into a reality – and a reality with a long waiting list, at that.
In the more than three years since the garden was officially founded, it has established itself as a pillar in the neighborhood – a place where children can learn about the future of food and a valuable resource for local nonprofits.
In 2010, the city entered into a five-year lease agreement with Southern California Edison and agreed to pay $600 a year for planting on the site.
With 110 plots, the garden is expansive. It runs along the Santa Ana River at the east end of Atlanta Avenue, and the diversity of crops growing there ranges from standard seasonal tomatoes for the summer to noteworthy Chinese vegetables. The garden was even the origin of the biggest beet at this summer’s OC Fair at 16.5 pounds, grown by gardener Virginia Thompson.
The garden, which produces more than 1,000 pounds of food annually, is now putting more and more emphasis on involving youth by teaching them the importance of learning how to grow produce.
“We have some great family plots,” said Carlina Thomas, the garden’s vice president. “Some families just get it; they’re teaching their kids about the value of food.”
In addition to families bringing their children, the garden also hosts educational symposiums for youth groups and has involved Boy Scout groups in its beautification projects.
Three Eagle Scouts either have projects in the garden or work that is soon to come. One Scout laid bricks engraved with names of local groups and residents to bring funds to the garden. Another flattened the gravel to make it easier to walk through, and the third upcoming project will install barn owl houses, an idea from a new member, Sheryllyn McClintock.
Barn owls, Thomas said, will help to naturally manage the garden’s current pest problem; gophers and ground squirrels are the culprits of half-eaten and rotting crops in various plots. Thomas said owls seemed like the best option for taking care of unwanted rodents, in keeping with the garden’s commitment to being organic and not using pesticides.
Despite pest problems, there is still an increased demand for plots from community members, and the garden’s board is eyeing (sic, eying) Irby Park, about 8 miles northwest of the current spot, as a location to expand.
“We’re getting an incredible amount of inquiry and demand from the rest of the city,” Thomas said. “We hope someday to have multiple sites.”
When members join the garden and take over a plot for an annual fee of $100 for a 15-by-20 plot (or $50 for half that size), they pledge to donate at least 10 percent of their excess crops to nearly a dozen local nonprofits. A committee called the Harvest Brigade delivers these crops to local organizations Mondays through Fridays throughout the summer.
Jonathan Zschoche, 35, spends some Saturday afternoons digging in his garden plot. He’s been a plot-holder in the garden for four months.
Zschoche, who grows a variety of vegetables in his plot, said one of the major benefits to the garden is the wealth of knowledge from the six master gardeners and other seasoned crop-tenders who invest their time.
“It’s an important part of our community that is sometimes overlooked,” said Zschoche, who often brings his daughters, ages 7 and 9, to garden with him.
“This is what they wanna eat now,” he said. “They’re healthy, and they understand food doesn’t just show up at the supermarket in some magical way.”
In 2011, when the garden was new, some residents complained about the development to the city. Zschoche, who is friends with some of the neighbors, said he believes most of the problems have quieted down.
“I think when they first started preparing the land, that’s what frustrated,” he said. “I think they got off on a bad foot there – I think there was a problem where it was too dusty.”
Even though the dust from creating the plots has settled, there is still one neighbor who has a sign of protest hanging on the fence between the houses and the garden. It simply reads, “We hate the garden.”
Annette Parsons, garden president, agreed that complaints from residents about the garden being intrusive have dwindled to just one or two people – specifically, the person who hung the sign.
“Most of the neighbors are really supportive of us,” said Parsons.
The food given away from the garden to nonprofits also teaches local kids and teenagers what can be done with food grown locally.
At the Huntington Beach Youth Shelter, director Elsa Greenfield sees how the garden’s donations bring together the kids who stay in the shelter.
“Typically, a lot of people give us cans, so it’s nice to get fresh stuff,” Greenfield said.
Last year’s zucchini surplus provided enough crops for the kids at the youth shelter to make loaves of zucchini bread, and Greenfield said lately the tomatoes coming into the shelter have allowed them to make more pastas, salads and sauces with local ingredients.
Providing food and knowledge about where it comes from is as important to Thomas as expanding to build a sense of stewardship.
“We want to continue to impress the community, public and neighbors,” she said.
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