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The newest community garden in Los Angeles has no soil, bakes in all-day sun and is seen by few outsiders except those who pass above in helicopters.
The Skid Row Community Garden is on the roof of a four-story building on South Main Street, between 5th and 6th streets in downtown L.A. It’s part of the Los Angeles Community Action Network, an 11-year-old organization with more than 600 members working with homeless and low-income people in the Skid Row area, a population that by some estimates totals about 13,000.
Pete White, founder and co-director of the group, points to the south noting that just a few blocks away is the produce market, the hub for much of Southern California’s fresh fruit and vegetables, but the residents of downtown wouldn’t know it. Want a definition of food insecurity? Try to buy a fresh carrot around here.
“If the city can’t get fresh produce to skid row, we’ll grow our own,” he says.
The garden is young, started in late June with tomatoes, peppers and herbs, everything planted in plastic containers. Now, with the help of master gardeners Anne Hars and Maggie Lobl, the first fall crop will be going in: fava beans, radishes, brassicas such as kale and mustard, peas, herbs, micro-greens and catnip, the last two intended for downtown restaurants and pet emporiums, a potential revenue source.
The building had been the home of an Army-Navy department store with an unreliable elevator. Even though the summer was mild, gardeners had to trudge up more than 100 steps to water plants on the roof, sometimes twice a day during a heat wave.
For the fall crop, Hars enlisted the help of Erik Knutzen, co-author of “The Urban Homestead.” Using a 1917 design, he showed the volunteers how to construct a self-irrigating pot system, or SIP, using two 5-gallon paint buckets, an 18-inch piece of 1-inch plastic pipe and a plastic party cup. (See the YouTube video or read full instructions.) The SIPs work off the wicking method, drawing water up from a bottom reservoir to feed the roots. Though others do use potting soil, the growing medium at the skid row garden is not dirt but a soil-less compound, similar to a seed starter.
It’s a nutritional mix that is just the right weight,” Hars says. “The water wicks up nicely and doesn’t get too soggy at the bottom. If you used regular dirt, there would be no wicking action.”
The first two SIPs are a few weeks old and are thriving. The fava beans are bursting out of the protective sheeting on top in a thick bouquet.
“They’re doing better than my ones at home are,” Hars says.
— Jeff Spurrier
Photo, top: Anne Hars, left, helps Skid Row Community Garden member Lydia Trejo plant in self-irrigating pots made from 5-gallon buckets.
Photo, above right: Dee Weakly, a member of the Skid Row Community Garden, drills a water-overflow hole in a self-irrigating pot at the Los Angeles Community Action Network downtown.
Photo, above left: Though the plant in the foreground looks stressed, the fava beans in the background are thriving.
Photo credit: Ann Summa