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Village Matters: Harvesting an Unexpected Crop

It’s been three years now since we started the South Laguna Community Garden.  The project has grown from what could have been just a little neighborhood improvement project to a focus of community activity, creating surprising benefits.

On Aug. 15, 200, we met to clean the vacant lot of weeds and debris.  That was the first of many Saturdays. By Halloween the shed was in, the rock revetments were completed and 30 planter boxes had been installed.

Nearly everyone’s primary motivation was to grow tomatoes. “I can’t wait to taste those homegrown heirloom tomatoes,” Tom Osborne tried to remember as he shoveled and raked the first terraces for the first row of planting boxes. “Do they have to be perfectly straight and level?  Remember it’s a garden…” The professional construction volunteers took care of the answer to that question, with their tapes and sophisticated leveling devices. This was a job like any other, it had to be done true and plumb.

Anyone can become a garden member and apply for a box, and we had gardeners from all over town choosing the first boxes. When the boxes are all spoken for there is a waiting list. Community spaces are available to plant for all members, box or no box. There is an initial contribution toward garden construction expenses, $50 annually for water and insurance, and an obligation to work at least eight hours per year on garden upkeep.

By grand opening day on Dec. 6, vegetables were thriving in the raised beds, the fences and gates were in place, and colorful plants were growing all around the edges.

No tomatoes that season, since it was time for winter vegetables, cabbage, arugula, broccoli and kale. The first summer all the beds were filled with optimistically planted tomatoes. It was a cold summer, not too many tomatoes, but plenty of other veggies to test.  Second summer we seemed to have disease problems and the tomatoes didn’t thrive. This year we offered a seminar—Tomatoes 101.  Was it the seminar that instructed on disease resistant tomatoes and proper pruning and staking? Or the hot weather? Or both. Yes, this year we finally had tomatoes.

They did taste great, but by then we had experienced unexpected and more long-lasting benefits. The “community” had become more of a focus than any specific plant we might be growing.

We found building together is much more rewarding than building alone. Joining in hard work makes a bond that can’t be created in a cocktail hour or on “Linked In.” Friendships grew. Drop-in workers helped from time to time, never expecting to have a planter box. Donors were generous. Friends, supporters and the community at large arrived at garden events.  Musicians met musicians and when we had our first potluck party, there was our impromptu Garden Band. Magic.

Puttering at your planting box is an opportunity to say, “Come on in,” to visitors that happen to walk by.  The garden is open to everyone every day, and we found people began to use it as a low-key park. Some came to sit in the donated swing and read. Children played among the planting boxes, learning about the butterflies that Barbara Granger fosters in her enclave of milkweed.  When Café Vienna closed, the morning coffee group transplanted itself to the garden. Every day the self-named “Coffee Dogs” come to chat, bringing their own coffee. Though they are mostly non-gardeners, they have become garden lovers.

Visitors ask us for garden tips and we tell of our experiences.  People from other communities ask how we created the garden. We get reviewed on blogs.  The garden received four awards. It is all raising a consciousness about healthy food, growing community, togetherness.

My tomatoes taste so good thinking of all that has come from growing them.

Now there is a “For Sale” sign at the garden. We are working to buy the property to make the garden permanent. You too can be part of keeping the magic going and expanding. Contact us at South Laguna.org/Garden.

 

Ann Christoph is a landscape architect, designer of the garden, and former mayor of Laguna Beach.

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