When the Tap Runs Dry

Sometimes your life can change with a clunk! Last spring, Donna Johnson, 72, of East Porterville, a small community at the eastern edge of the Central Valley, ran out of water. She hoped it was a problem with the pump or something a few feet of digging would fix, “it’s a hard issue to admit to yourself that your well has gone dry” Donna told me. She brought out someone to look at the well, but when the pipes went down and Donna heard that clunk, she knew the awful truth.

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Venice Community Garden - From the Ground Up

Not long ago, an empty lot in Venice, California, just a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean, was overgrown with weeds. In it there was an old jet ski that was left to rust along with old auto parts scattered around on soil mounds. Years before that, railroad tracks ran through the center of this plot of land on Mildred Ave. Freight cars transporting their goods and perhaps tanker cars carrying oil from the surrounding wells, made their way along these tracks in what is now a peaceful and typical Venice residential community. The story of a garden is the story of its soil, and those of us living in urban environments are surrounded by land and soil that has had many and multiple uses. The soil can tell us the history of that land, something that is imperative to know if we want to plant our gardens and eat our food with surety and safety. The Venice Community Garden that is now on that plot of land on Mildred Ave. was started by some residents who had the simple idea of starting a garden, where members of the community could grow and eat the food they planted. What they discovered along the way was a little about history, a lot about soil, and ultimately a deeper understanding of what it means to grow.


Kip Wood has lived in Venice for about nine years and had developed an interest in gardening, mostly from working in his own front yard, noting he “liked getting his hands in the ground.” Inspired by some classes he took from David King at Venice High School’s Learning Garden, and surprised that there were no community gardens in Venice, he decided that to start one himself. His intention was to design a beautiful space, with trees and art - a place where people could come together, plant food and get their hands dirty. In January, 2010 he noticed a ‘for lease’ sign at an empty lot around the corner from his home. The property had been sitting vacant for some time, so when Kip inquired about it, the landlord was only too happy to lease it to Kip for a garden.

Kip initially worried about getting enough interested people. Unlike some community gardens that are on donated or city property and who only charge their members a low yearly fee, a minimum of about 48 people were going to be needed to pay the $25 a month for rent and expenses. Flyers were distributed and emails to a gardening list brought in some interest, but a post on Yo! Venice!, a neighborhood web forum, elicited a tremendous response and there was soon a waiting list of about 200 people.

Norma Bonilla was one of the first to respond. Norma had also taken some classes at the Learning Garden and was inspired to move her life in a new direction. She had owned several businesses over the years, in architecture, remodeling and design, and with those skills and her management abilities, immediately got involved in the planning of the garden along with Kip. Working together, things started to progress.


One of the first things Kip and Norma did was to download a copy of the Community Garden Start-up Guide from the University of California Cooperative Extension’s website (see sidebar), and used it to help create their own to do list. They started to hold meetings to help garden members get to know each other and to take on needed tasks. Plot assignments were given out and members signed a Plot Holder Agreement with the garden’s rules put forth. Liability Insurance was obtained to protect the landowner. Permits were not needed as residential zoning in Los Angeles allows for the growing and selling of fruits and vegetables.

Kip’s Initial schematic called for 48 plots in the six thousand square foot lot, most of them 12 by 4 feet. New trees and shrubs, donated by a local environmental group, Tree People, would line the back wall as well as a central interior space to be used for meetings and workshops. A fence was also planned for, a suggestion the start-up guide recommended to cut down on vandalism. Money was raised for the needed hardware, plumbing, lumber and other supplies through donations by members and the contributions from local merchants.

Getting a water meter installed would have been the best method of water access, fees are generally pretty low if there are pipes already installed, however the lot had no pipes and installing them was going to be too expensive, around $3,000. Eventually it was determined that sharing water with the gardens’ neighbor, who happened to have the same landlord, was the easiest and cheapest recourse.

Irrigation expert Deni Friese from UCCE Common Ground Master Program helped design the new watering system. She recommended a water line straight down the center of the garden with four hose bibs on risers for manual watering. A drip or any other kind of irrigation system was not considered, as it was decided that it was important for everyone to learn how to tend and water his or her own garden. As Norma put it, “we are growers, it is about the connection with our own land and plants, not about putting it on a timer.”

Breaking Ground.

Initial soil testing revealed high levels of lead and arsenic, so it was decided to remove the top layer of soil. Lead can be found in many urban and suburban environments as the result of automotive parts and emissions, pesticides, paint chips and plumbing. Even though the use of lead in many of these products has been outlawed for decades, the residue can linger in soil for many years after it has been exposed.

The arsenic was attributed to an old rail line that was found to have run directly through the lot. It was common to spray massive amounts of herbicide, which contained arsenic, next to the rail ties to prevent weeds from obstructing the train tracks.

On April 13, 2010 the garden broke ground and a loader began removing the soil from the garden. With each pass, the contaminated soil, rocks and debris gave way to smooth hardened clay which was then tilled with additional passes by the tractor. The huge pile of dirt was carted away and what was an empty lot was now on its way to becoming a garden.

With construction of the planting beds about to begin, Kip and Norma called on the LA Conservation Corps for help, an organization that helps at-risk youth by providing education and job skills training through neighborhood service and conservation projects. The lot was staked out and the LACC troops got to work. A local market even donated sandwiches for the hard workers. The beds were finished in a few days, it was the end of May.

There was still some glass and asphalt on the top surface, so as a precautionary measure, garden members were advised to dig an additional one-foot deeper in their beds. It was also suggested that members take one last soil sample for testing from three different areas in their planting beds. The last mounds of removed soil were carted away, spirits were high and planting was about to begin.

Then one night, Kip and Norma got a call. Some of the new soil tests came back with high levels of lead and arsenic, after all the work and digging, the toxins were still present in the soil. According to Garn Wallace of Wallace Labs “It is not recommended to grow leafy green vegetables in soils that contain lead above 30 parts per million (ppm) or arsenic with over 2 ppm.” Over half the plots had come back with high levels of one or both.

Setbacks and solutions

Kip and Norma were devastated and several members even left the garden. The project was put on hold and things seemed bleak. Then “something very special happened” said Norma, “emails started to come in from members urging us to keep going. The letters were so supportive and just what we needed to move forward on this beautiful space.” They encouraged research and many offered their assistance to seek the necessary solutions. A multi-tiered solution was decided on, and by Mid-July activity began again.

Digging deeper would probably bring similar results, so it was decided to bring in new soil and then use multiple layers to keep the plants protected from the toxins. First a bed of rocks, three inches deep, would be placed at the bottom of the planting beds. This would keep roots from reaching the contaminated soil, but would allow for water drainage. Sprinkling gypsum power over the rocks and then lightly watering it would break down the hard clay soil below the rocks, further enhancing drainage and allowing for micro organisms and worms to thrive.

Next a one-foot wide 3.5 mil sheet of plastic would be stapled around the circumference of the raised planting beds, which would prevent the toxins leaching in to the beds during rainfall and watering. Lastly, a slightly wider sheet of weed cloth would be stapled over the plastic sheeting to keep the roots from tearing holes in it and reaching the toxic soil. Woodchips are placed around the walkways to keep lead dust from spreading and to help eventually amend the soil.

Finally the new soil could be added. Several mounds of sandy loam soil were delivered and members used it to fill half their beds. Soon after, compost, available for free from the city, was brought in and the other half of the planters were filled and mixed together with the soil.

Planting and Harvest

Planting finally began in August. A moment many thought would never come had finally arrived after what seemed an eternity. Los Angeles is of course fortunate to have year round growing, the question for many was whether or not to plant seeds or seedlings. Some opted for just seeds, but many planted a combination of both.

Denise and Frank are a young couple who work in advertising. Both had experience with gardening and were on the waiting list of other community gardens when the Venice Garden plot became available. On their first day of planting, Frank was carefully placing small snow pea seeds around the berms they had built in their bed. About 70% of their plantings were seedlings, amongst them, cucumbers, radishes and cherry tomatoes.

Jennifer is an experienced farmer from Oregon, recently arrived in  Los Angeles. The garden helped her find an attachment to the community through gardening. Facing some health challenges, she has found gardening helps reduce stress and is meditative. Her physical therapist has even given her exercises and stretches based on garden activities such as watering and planting.

Aeryn and Isabel share a plot and are both studying landscape architecture While being members of the garden is relevant to their work, according to Isabel, it is also a place to “meet your neighbors and learn from everyone else.” The care in which they approached their planting bed was evident, their plantings were intentionally a diverse selection of low, medium and high growth seedlings. Aeryn said they also tried to be mindful of the color palette when they chose their flowers and vegetables.

They were one of the first to plant and so were one of the first to harvest their crop. By mid October, their bed was a robust display of colorful vegetables. Aeryn began clipping off zucchinis as large as footballs along with bright yellow squash, swiss chard and cucumbers. She held up her bounty and she smiled at what was their obvious success.

On a Saturday morning, a group of people gathers around to hear Norma give the first of the workshops she has planned. Passerby’s continually walk by the garden and peer in curiously. There is now so much activity and growth in a place that for years residents had ignored as an ugly vacant lot. The garden is now beautiful, but just as importantly, the work everyone did will ultimately leave the soil in better shape than when they found it. Both land and people will be transformed from a community coming together, learning together and growing together.

Brooklyn Grange

Earlier this Summer I visited the Eagle Street farm, a 6,000 square foot garden on a warehouse rooftop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was the first rooftop farm I had seen and I was very impressed by what they were able to accomplish and grow. Two weeks ago I went out to Long Island City to see the Brooklyn Grange Farm and was expecting something along the same lines as Eagle Street, perhaps a bit more ambitious. As I walked along Northern Boulevard and looked up at the building, I wondered what portion of the roof they were actually using for the garden. Walking out onto the rooftop of the farm I was completely unprepared for the magnitude of what I saw in front of me, essentially the whole roof of the building was taken up by the farm, 40,000 square feet, almost an acre of rooftop, was devoted to rows and rows of vegetables and crops.

Both Farms were started by head farmer Ben Flanner, a Wisconsic transplant, who along with his partners, broke ground on the Brooklyn Grange Farm back in May of this year. The farm was originally intended to be in Brooklyn, but let’s face it, Brooklyn sounds better than Queens anyway (I was born in Queens so I can say that). It utilizes 1.2 million pounds of soil, and if there is one question I regret not asking, it is how they got it up there. Nonetheless, the structural integrity of the roof was tested and supports a drainage system and even has a barrier layer to prevent roots from penetrating the ceiling below. Scattered around a mélange of rooftop pipes, pumps, fans and water towers, were crops of okra, kale, eggplant, jalapeño peppers, carrots, spinach, assorted greens and an abundance of tomatoes. There was even a beehive located in the SW corner. The organic farm is a for profit venture, selling to restaurants and to the public through their various produce stands. It is open also to the public, and if you ever think you have seen it all in New York, go out and take a look at what is fast becoming the future of urban farming and the new look for New York rooftops.

The Science Barge

A few weeks ago I talked about the idea of converting urban rooftops into urban farms. The benefits go beyond just having more locally grown food, a reduction in transportation costs and mitigating the urban heat island effect, it helps people understand how food is grown, something too many of us have lost in a world of packaged foods, fast foods and ready to eat everything. But learning to grow a garden, let alone an urban farm can be a big jump for people. There is the issue of working in small, sometimes confined spaces, and how do you set up irrigation systems and get the energy to run them. These are challenges that got some people thinking a few years ago at an organization called New York Sun Works, and so they set out to create some prototypes for urban gardening that would help them and others understand how to create agricultural systems that work in an urban environment. They created the Science Barge.

The Science Barge was launched in May, 2007, and over the course of the next year or so, was moored at several spots along the Westside of Manhattan on the Hudson River. It is now run by Groundwork Hudson Valley and has found a permanent home in Yonkers. Visitors and schoolchildren are welcome to visit and learn about urban farming and sustainability, enabling them to create a vision for urban living that so far had been reserved for their rural neighbors, namely growing their own food. The barge is powered by two raised solar panel arrays, some micro wind turbines on the roof and bio-fuels. Water for irrigation is gotten from rainwater collected in a 1,200 gallon cistern, and Hudson River water that is run through a reverse Osmosis filter that purifies it for use.

The day I visited, I saw greens, lettuce, tomatoes and melons growing from a variety of Hydroponic and Aquaponic systems along with a few examples of vertical farming. Aquaponics is a bio-integrated food production system that is a combination of Aquaculture and Hydroponics, which basically means that the waste products of one biological system serve as nutrients for a second biological system. The first bio-system contain fish, the feces of which are broken down by algae in a second tank which then distributes the nutrients to the plants, the second bio-system. The plant system filters, cleans and recycles the clean water back to the fish in the first tank. The fish and algae create the nutrients the plants need, and the plants prevent a toxic build up of nutrients that would eventually harm the fish, essentially recreating a nutrient cycle normally found in nature.

Nearby was a table of greens being grown using the Nutrient Film Technique, a hydroponic system using a shallow stream of water containing nutrients that continually recirculates past the bare roots of the plants which are held in channels or gullies. There were also a series of plastic pots containing cucumber plants using another hydroponic system, a drip process call the Dutch Bucket system.

The Science Barge had over 3100 students visit last year  as part of the barge’s formal education program. They also have a High School internship program that employs students from Yonkers. The general public can visit on weekends, here are their hours. Educating others on the benefits of urban farming is going on in many places around the country, including a number of Master Gardener Programs that bring this information directly to communities, but the Science Barge is a particularly assessable way to witness and explore this growing trend. The systems employed on the barge also happen to be high yield, and low impact as far as it’s carbon footprint, and maybe most importantly because it utilizes greenhouses, it is climate independent in that it can yield crops all year round. I keep saying it, but imagine a city of green roofs and greenhouses feeding the residents of the apartment complexes below them, what a site and what a step forward that would be.

Green roofs

I’ve been on vacation a week, but before I left Los Angeles I shot a couple of green roofs in downtown and South Central. They were two very different kinds of green roofs, one a Japanese Garden, the other an environmentally designed sustainable roof for city councilmember Jan Perry’s local headquarters. The Japanese Garden on the third floor of the Kyoto Grand Hotel in Little Tokyo is a half-acre of waterfalls and bamboo shaded alcoves, and even has a little stream running through it. And while it is pretty to look at and may even keep the building a bit cooler, the sustainability factor is pretty low as one can only wonder how much energy is used to keep the waterfall and stream constantly flowing. Still if you want to see the novelty of a manicured Japanese rooftop garden with the Los Angeles skyline behind it, take the elevator to the third floor of the hotel, which is located on the corner of Los Angeles Street and 2nd st, and take a little stroll.

Driving south from there along South Central Avenue, you come across a striking looking building, and a stark contrast to the rest of the neighborhood it resides in. It is Council District 9 Neighborhood City Hall, the offices for councilwoman Jan Perry. Designed by architect Paul Murdoch, the Leed certified building features a drought tolerant rooftop garden that helps mitigate storm runoff and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. A 7,000 gallon underground cistern also collects rainwater for re-usable irrigation. The courtyard contains eight raised photovoltaic arrays that move during the day to track the sun while shading the space below, and also contains more drought tolerant plants around the perimeter of the gated compound that takes up the whole block.

As much of a contrast as these two green roofs may be to each other, they are still the exception when you think about all the other urban rooftops out there. This was made even more apparent when last week I was driving through the Berkshires and was surrounded by thousands of acres of rolling hills of green forests and lush valleys. Imagine for a minute if all the flat rooftops in a city like New York or Los Angeles were converted to green roofs. What would that look like? Now what if some or even most those green roofs were actually small urban farms growing fresh fruits and vegetables, like the Eagle Street rooftop farm I shot the other day in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The impact of this would be tremendous: cooler buildings while lessening the urban heat island effect (a metropolitan area which is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas); local grown produce would mean a big reduction of the energy needed to transport them otherwise; improved health by eating better, and a beautiful green urban landscape that would have an enormous affect on greenhouse gases and carbon emissions.

Is this possible? Yes, but probably not anytime soon. One of the reasons is I still think we see them as unique anomalies rather than the norm. Obviously a green roof or a solar array is the smartest alternative to the empty spaces that reside on top of most buildings, but we are not used to seeing them or thinking of them in that way. This is starting to change, but a big factor that needs to alter is something I am starting to call the Visual Aesthetic. This is not some innate aesthetic we are born with, rather it is what we get used to and accept as the norm. When this starts to change, and I believe it is, then we can start to make real progress. More about this in the next few weeks.

School Gardens

I recently spent a few weeks shooting gardens at some local elementary schools here in Los Angeles for a magazine article I was working on. Growing up in New York City suffice to say I wasn’t exposed to many gardens, certainly not at school. Some nice house plants maybe, but the closest thing I got to growing produce was the ever present avocado pit that my mother would stick in a jar on the kitchen window sill, hoping it would sprout into a tree one day.  I can safely say that the 20 or so pits she tried to grow did not bear fruit. I hope my son gets more of an opportunity to learn about this than I did, and with some of the school gardens I had a chance to visit, the prospects look good.

Young girls and their mother explore their school garden.

At one time LA had over 70 or so school gardens, now there are much less, school budgets probably, but hopefully they are back on the rise. I have actually been photographing a lot of gardens and gardeners  lately and I had no idea how extremely popular it is here in Los Angeles, and just about everywhere. It makes sense, with economic times being what they are, people are looking for ways to be more self sustainable, and nothing is more self sustainable than growing your own food. I saw the coverage of Michelle Obama planting an organic vegetable garden on the lawn of the White House and I think that helped send a message to folks across the country that growing your own food is both cool and sensible.

Young girl watering the strawberries.

One young mother invited me to photograph her and her two daughters at their school garden in Laurel Canyon. The girls picked up watering cans and immediately went to work, obviously comfortable with the routine and all too enthusiastic to show me the several planting beds in the school yard that were growing strawberries and a variety of greens, beans and herbs. The fact that their mother is in the Master Gardener program at UC will probably make gardening second nature to these two girls, much like growing up in a bilingual household will enable a child to have a lifelong proficiency in a second language.

Young boys collect food for the worm compost bin after their class mates eat their lunch

Underneath the intersection of the 10 and the 110 freeways is the Downtown Value School, a public charter school serving low income neighborhood schoolchildren near and around downtown Los Angeles. Over the years they have built a garden that goes around almost the entire perimeter of the school and even includes a small greenhouse. The gardens act as an outdoor classroom, and the day that I was there, three boys collected the discarded food leftover from their classmate's lunch and emptied it into the school worm composter.

Re-planting snow peas in the vertical garden at their school.

In the schoolyard they also have vertical garden with a variety of greens, beans and berries growing out of the small pouches of soil. This vertical garden was supplied by Woolly Pockets and is a great way to plant a garden in a small area; it is made up of rows of soft breathable pockets, stacked on top of each other so you literally have a wall of plants. In addition to having a very cool product, Woolly Pockets also gives back to the community through its Woolly School Garden Program, which helps schools raise donations to start these vertical gardens.

The Woolly Pockets vertical garden at the Downtown Value School

A few weeks earlier I had attended a Big Sunday Weekend event, the largest annual citywide community service event in America. A few hundred children, parents and teachers all came out to help plant and fix up the garden at the 24th street School in the West Adams District. There were kids shoveling mulch, families weeding out planting beds and people generally having a really good time. It was encouraging to see communities coming together to do service, for schools to be teaching kids about growing food, not only for the practicality of it, but for the beauty of it as well, and for parents to pass down perhaps a renewed tradition of growing your own food and eating healthier because of it. Childhood obesity is through the roof, and I can see nothing more contrary to junk food and fast food than what I saw at all these schools.

Students, parents and teachers work on the garden at the 24th Street School garden on Big Sunday.