Some gardeners want fresh, pesticide-free harvests. Some want their children to know how it feels to work the soil. Some simply lack a yard where they live.
But if there's one thing that the boosters of community gardens do share, it's common ground.
"You come here to forget all your problems and to be with other gardeners," says Ed Mosman, a retired electrical engineer who joined a Mar Vista community garden called Ocean View Farms in 1982. "We've had people meet here and get married."
Adds Susan Dworski, a graphic artist, freelance writer and six-year regular at the same garden: "It's my gym and my church."
Community gardens usually have rules: Straight-sided beds, tended by one or more individuals, are standard, as are annual fees, required work hours, strict organic practices and restrictions on fruit trees, tall plants or structures that cast shade. But they are also places of kinship and cooperation, as diverse as the neighborhoods they occupy and the gardeners who tend them.
"Each community garden is its own entity," says Yvonne Savio, head of the University of California Cooperative Extension's Common Ground Garden Program, an umbrella organization that oversees and assists community gardens in Los Angeles County.
The Francis Avenue community garden occupies a tiny lot in the Westlake neighborhood. Alhambra's plots sit on a leach field, so no manures can be used. The garden at North Hollywood High School straddles campus and an adjacent property that includes an orchard.
Manzanita in Silver Lake may be the smallest. Its 10-foot-wide plots run down both sides of a public staircase. The Long Beach garden, by contrast, is so huge that an entire section is devoted to growing tomatoes for a food bank. Savio says the Crenshaw garden is wonderful for its breadth of ethnicities and languages.
All offer the chance to bond with others in the community, often by tackling common challenges: foraging rodents, heavy clay soil or perhaps an infestation of late blight on tomatoes. Despite these and other frustrations — finding and keeping a site, scrounging for material donations, resolving disputes — the movement is thriving.
Although the number of gardens is in flux, more exist now than at any time since the victory garden era of World War II, according to the American Community Gardening Assn. Most in Southern California have waiting lists; Ocean View Farms, one of L.A.'s oldest and largest, with 500 plots worked by 300 gardeners, has a waiting list of more than 100 people and an average wait of 12 to 18 months.
"We've been doing this for more than a century," says landscape architect Laura J. Lawson. "It's always been hard and always been loved."
Lawson, a Glendale native and former coordinator of Berkeley Youth Alternatives' Community Garden Patch, visited more than 100 spots while researching her book, "City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America," to be published in May by University of California Press.
She found that interest in community gardens surges during wartime and when populations change because of immigration or de-urbanization — in essence, "anchoring communities with gaps," she says. In the 1890s the gardens were planted for sustenance, but over time they became recreational, social and educational.
"Community gardens are models of empowerment, self-sufficiency and social ideals," Lawson says. "And the people are so wonderful — the organizers and the gardeners."
Frank Harris got hooked on heirloom tomatoes and Blue Lake string beans while working at the Los Angeles restaurant Campanile. He joined Ocean View Farms to grow items he couldn't find at conventional markets. He's now the garden's president.
Dworski, the graphic artist and writer, says gardeners use their spaces in different ways and, in the process, learn from one another. She mixes roses, annuals, perennials, bulbs and edibles in a series of terraced beds but says her garden neighbor "really knows what she's doing."
The Oak Park Community Garden in eastern Ventura County was founded on a formerly undeveloped corner lot in May. Caterer Bobby Weisman has enjoyed bumper crops of tomatoes and lettuce there after only two seasons. He says newcomers don't realize how much they can grow.
"A 10-by-20-foot plot can produce a lot of food for a family of four," he says. "I tell my kids: The only thing it doesn't make is ice cream sundaes."
Weisman visits four or five times each week and never brings his cellphone into the garden. "I stop by for five minutes and leave three hours later," he says. "It's such a reprieve from the world outside."
Next to Weisman's plot is Kate Frankson's, a miniature English garden in which bands of dianthus and Dusty Miller contain vegetables and herbs. She attributes the abundance to good soil, organic fertilizer and guidance from another Oak Park regular, Jeanne Cope, a hospice social worker who started gardening at her grandmother's knee.
Cope raises flowers, bulbs and berries, and she expands her "vegetable repertoire" with crops she has not eaten before. This year, she grew — and liked — kohlrabi, a cabbage relative.
"Gardening makes you less afraid," she says. "It reminds you that 'there is a season,' and that things will be OK. Making plants grow brings you peace."
Education is part of the goal at the Learning Garden at Venice High School. Students from its horticulture classes and volunteers from the community tend to the plantings.
Surrounding the students' rectangular plots, designated "garden master" David King has planted a geometric patchwork of mounded beds with unusual plants, cultivated communally under his tutelage — "things you won't find in a store," he says.
On any given visit, gardeners may find themselves working with Chinese, ayurvedic or Native American herbs; California native, succulent or aquatic plants; heirloom apples, garlic and roses; or Florence fennel, fava beans, strawberries or kale. Crops sales subsidize the garden, and the excess harvest goes to the homeless.
The Learning Garden also has a compost coordinator, Brian Bailey, who manages a demonstration site funded with an Environmental Protection Agency grant. The garden's recycling efforts also include lining walking paths with old newspapers topped with chippings, to smother weeds.
Some locals gather on weekends for tai chi instruction, and King says gardeners often hang out on a patio and talk between shifts.
"It feels like I work in someone's kitchen," he says. "The sense of community is really profound."
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How to start up
The urban landscape is dotted with thriving community gardens, and new ones are sprouting up regularly.
For information on gardens in Los Angeles County, call the Common Ground Garden Program at (323) 260-3348. A downloadable start-up guide and a roster of gardens is at celosangeles.ucdavis.edu/garden/pubs/index.html.
The website of the American Community Gardening Assn. provides publications, monthly tips and networking opportunities for garden professionals and volunteers at http://www.communitygarden.org .
Some community gardens operate their own websites, providing more insights into how the organizations operate. Examples include Oak Park Community Garden (www.oakparkgardeners.com) and the Learning Garden (www.thelearninggarden.org).