Urban farmers getting rooftop farming off the ground

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Newly Paul/KPCC

Community gardens are sprouting across LA, in vacant lots, on rooftops, and wherever people can find a little piece of earth. The gardens are more then place to grow fruit and vegetables. They are communal grounds to form friendships, share stories and build a better world.

Interest in urban farming is growing even faster than late summer corn. Throughout Los Angeles County, community gardens have sprouted by the thousands, and there’s a shortage of room for newcomers. KPCC's Molly Peterson found would-be gardeners with creative solutions for landing patches of tillable soil. **Featuring Green Piece Warriors slideshow**

Late summer, in a Sunday's golden hour, painter Alex Alferov sweeps his brush across paper taped to a shed, making a sunflower, inspired by the six-foot tall ones behind him. He says it's fitting tribute to this longtime Russian neighborhood. "If you think of Russia you see fields of sunflowers just waving and moving in the wind," he says. "And I think that is the sunny, the happy spirit of the Russian people." (He's not kidding.)

Little Armenia this may be, but spoken Spanish drifts over the raised soil beds, as kids spray each other with hoses, running and laughing. Christian Oliva, 13, is king of the pack – he just started eighth grade. He's a proud farmer of beans, corn, and cucumbers. "One year ago, one-and-a-half years ago, there was, like, houses right here, of homeless people. It was all dirty," he says.

His hands dig a small hole in the soil for a potato plant. Oliva's been learning to farm from his dad and his neighbors, who dig and plant nearby. "I like to come here because it's, like, fresh."


Fountain Community Gardens began when summer did, in June. Painter Alferov is working with other planters to nurture their crops by amending the dirt underfoot. He points to the feet of his sunflowers, where vegetables take some shade. "We've added worms to the soil. We will be getting compost. At this point I can say this is a weak soup and eventually it will become a rich broth. And it takes a lot of adding things to the stock and be patient."

Neighbors drift in and out of the wrought-iron gates on Fountain Avenue, filling watering cans from spigots at the end of rows of raised beds. The sun sets on a perfectly warm summer day in this corner of Hollywood.

The L.A. Community Garden Council's Glen Dake gardens in Watts; he knows the patience Alferov's talking about. He says it's not just a virtue, it's a necessity. In L.A. County, plots of land fill up as fast as they’re available. "There was a huge set of gardens built in the 1970s and a set of gardens built in the wake of the civil unrest in 1992," Dake says.

He's been gardening for 10 years; his home garden is in Watts. "And just recently we've been building gardens at a good clip." Dake says the economy has spiked interest in saving money. "The number of calls that we all get from people [wanting to garden] easily doubled right at the time of the economic collapse."

In a corner of the Fountain Community Garden, three women sprout plans for another form of planting. Alissa Kueker and Danielle Marie Holland have organized a nonprofit effort called RocknRoll Community Gardens. "Our goal is to have Los Angeles covered with rooftop farms growing beautiful food. Everyone should have it and be growing it themselves."

Kueker is passionate. Her friend Danielle Holland is rambunctious. They set a RocknRoll motto: "Resistance is fertile." They organize events at gardens thriving on the ground to cultivate interest in claiming rooftop space for gardens – as people have on rooftops in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, where Holland lived last. "Seeing the kind of rooftop gardening going on there where it's edible, sustainable – it's exciting!" she says.

They've brought a band to the Fountain Community Garden today. Some older neighbors have brought out folding chairs to listen. As they weed their plot, Irwin and Greille Alonso watch the musicians play. Irwin's hands cup radishes, squash, tomatoes. "Next week I think we will plant more things," he says. He and his wife are weeding her brother's neglected spot, where grass has taken over. He's surprised to learn from his wife it took two months to get crops going here. "She cook for me," he says sheepishly.

The Alonsos maintain full plots on Fountain Avenue, unlike many of the garden's board members, including Edith Darling. Close neighbors got priority. Darling and others who live farther away took partial shares. That hasn't killed the waiting list. "It's about 30 people now," Darling says, grimacing. "But the thing is, I don't know how long it will take, and I never can give them any kind of answer. I feel bad."

Gardeners want to help other gardeners; that's one reason new plans like those of the RocknRollers find evergreen support. Holland says her group is trying to arrange for gardens to sprout atop roofs in Silverlake and Echo Park. She says gardening is one of the purest expressions of community there is. "You can take care of yourself, and you're part of a community that's taking care of one another," she says. "Because when it hits the fan, that's what matters!"

The rooftop plans are just getting off the ground. Kueker and Holland say they're looking for structural engineers to help them plan more space. But they're optimistic their prospects will grow.

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