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Sharing common ground: Community and home gardening in Alhambra

On Sundays, Leslie Levy picks up her avocado seedlings and heads to the Alhambra Farmers Market. She's not selling or buying — she’s trading.

Leslie Levy tends to her garden.

Levy started a window garden in her three-bedroom Alhambra apartment more than 10 years ago and has learned to take care of the seedlings, which she calls her children and “synergistic cultivation survival strategy,” by trial and error. She often trades the seedlings to farmers at the market on Monterey and Bay State streets for some of their slightly bruised fruit.

The Alhambra resident of almost 20 years is part of a growing community of home gardeners in Alhambra and Los Angeles County who have year-round access to fresh fruit and produce in their own backyards or at community gardens nearby. While these gardens are a source of pleasure and a way to keep food on the table, many Alhambra gardeners say they also promote neighborhood communication and foster a sense of common ground.

According to a June 2013 study from UCLA on urban agriculture in Los Angeles County, there are 1,261 urban agriculture sites in the county, including 118 community gardens, 761 school gardens, and 211 nurseries. Four of those school sites and one of those community gardens are in Alhambra.

Leslie Levy's seedlings.

The Winston Smoyer Memorial Community Garden, which was voted one of the top 10 best community gardens in L.A. by CBS Los Angeles, is home to nearly 100 plots. Margarita Meca has maintained her plot at the community garden on Granada Road and Mission Avenue – a 10-minute walk from her home – for over 20 years.

The Alhambra resident grows onions, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, radishes, chilies, cacti, and flowers such as rose, jasmine, and lily. But most of all, she said, the garden grows a sense of community. The gardeners at the Winston Smoyer Memorial garden get together once a month for informative and community gatherings.

“It makes my heart very peaceful,” Meca said. “This garden is a very good community."

Michael Lawrence's home garden.

Michael Lawrence thinks the Winston Smoyer Memorial garden, or any other community of gardeners, is a great resource for beginners. He spoke to gardener friends when he began growing what he calls his “tropical sanctuary,” his garden of kale, tomato, lettuce, and chard — complete with a banana tree, Koi pond, birds, and dragonflies.

Lawrence started his Alhambra home garden when he retired three years ago and spends about four hours a week maintaining it. He and his wife eat from their produce year round, purchasing at the farmers market what he does not grow.

“It’s very rewarding to go out in your own yard, pick something, cut it, bring it in, and eat it. I would hope that more people would think about doing this,” Lawrence said, adding that having gardens in residential areas would be a good way to share resources and promote communication between neighbors. “It’s something that has really enhanced the quality of my life.”

Jesse Chang and the LIFT program. | Photo courtesy of AUSD

Jesse Chang, a Monterey Park resident, has been gardening since second grade. His home garden includes chard, basil, tomato, beet, herbs, collard greens, pumpkin, and a gala apple tree. 

“I love to grow things, grow my own organic food, and enjoy the beauty and rhythm of nature,” said Chang.

Chang has also spearheaded school gardening projects in the Alhambra Unified School District with Kingdom Causes, a local faith-based organization. The Kingdom Causes director helped install an organic garden with students with special needs in April 2012 and again with students from the San Gabriel High School Business and Technology Academy in October 2013.

“I think gardens create community, and that’s something that I really want to see more of — community engagement around gardens,” Chang said in October.

San Gabriel High School students plant an organic garden on campus. | Photo courtesy of Jesse Chang

The biggest reward of home gardening for the father of two is seeing his young children marvel at garden critters and excitedly pick fruit. Chang wishes more of his neighbors would plant the seeds of family and community engagement. “I wish it could promote more community and sense of neighborhood, where people used to leave bags of their extra fruit or veggies out in front of their home,” Chang said.

Levy may have been one of those neighbors dropping off bags of extra produce. Before trading her seedlings for food, she gave them away to the farmers without expecting anything in return. “I just started doing it for love. I decided I had to be the giver before I asked,” said Levy. “When they realized it was a steady supply, I’d look at their cold bins, and say, ‘Do you mind if I take some apples, some citrus?’ and they’d say, ‘Yeah, take whatever you want.’ And then it became a synergy. It’s a gift when it happens.”

Editor’s note: Michael Lawrence and Jesse Chang are Alhambra Source community contributors. 

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