Web site fertilizes shared gardens in Southern California

Urban gardeners in the Southland see opportunity in every median strip and patch of dirt. These days they have to; there’s a waiting list for community garden space in Los Angeles County.

A business owner in the city of Vernon has seeded new planting partnerships with the L.A. Community Garden Council. KPCC's Molly Peterson says they found common ground through online social networking.

Ben Swett ping-pongs like an overgrown child around the warehouse of his mail-order gardening business, Windowbox.com, in Vernon. Swett is unstoppably upbeat, as he says all gardeners are. He's active in the L.A. Community Garden Council, and he's shared space with other urban farmers before. These days he tends a patch of soil outside his Santa Monica apartment. "The key is setting up access, boundaries, and expectations," he says.

In those ways, Swett says gardening resembles online dating. He knows from online: his business, Windowbox.com, has sold small-space gardening goods for years. And he didn't see any good ways for wanna-be farmers in Los Angeles to link up and keep their private details private. So he got his web team to build a social networking site called Growfriend.org. As a cockeyed optimist, he's something of a gardening matchmaker. But he believes in checking out your dates first.

"You can see peoples' short profile on the map. You can check them out and learn a little more about them," he says. "And then if you want to get more involved, you can send them your long profile. They’ll send their long profile. If you like each other you can chit-chat through our system and then go from there."

Growfriend has sprouted a partnership between Diane Houston and Milli Macen-Moore. They're neighbors, of a sort: Houston's got an acre of land with a panoramic vista in Mount Washington; Macen-Moore lives on the back side of Mount Washington.

"My kids and I tried to plant a garden knowing absolutely nothing and we took, basically, a sprouting potato and put it in the ground, and then I watched them fall in love with this potato as it grew," Houston says. "They would come outside and talk to it they were like ecstatic. So I knew I needed to get a garden going."

Houston's perfectly pressed white shirt glares in the setting sun, in sharp contrast to Macen-Moore's gardening gloves, caked with dirt. "The reason why I teamed up with Diane was because my garden doesn’t get six to eight hours of sun to grow tomatoes and corn and beans," Macen Moore said, brushing off her knees as she stands. "So I figured hey, team up with Diane, grow my own tomatoes and my own beans, and my own cucumbers. It works out well."

Houston and Macen-Moore worked a trade, sweat equity: Moore gets dirty. Houston and her kids get to learn more about gardening. Growfriend encourages people to formalize their agreements by writing them down. A sample agreement is on the site, though Swett says you could scrawl it on a scrap of paper towel or a cocktail napkin, as long as you talk about the rules.

Macen-Moore is a master gardener. The US Department of Agriculture says so, and it runs a program for which people including Macen-Moore apply, teaching serious gardeners about soil chemistry, planting techniques, climate. Macen-Moore is an evangelical for organic cropping. "Back here are tomatoes – we have a huge variety of tomatoes. We have black brandywine, regular brandywine, Cherokees, we have sweeties. So the kids can see what real heirloom organic tomatoes really look like."

Master gardening is a hobby for Macen-Moore, who is a self-employed web programmer. She'd love to make it her profession. Sharing Houston's garden has another timely benefit, Macen-Moore says. "This is where I get my workout. I love coming out and digging some of the soil up, and you’re not paying any monthly dues for any gyms." She hefts bags of compost into the raised beds and mixes them with soil, her muscles tensing and working as she shovels.

Houston says she's getting a new peace of mind. "I work as a screenwriter, my business got devastated, we still haven't recovered from the strike, and it's been kind of a wacky financial year," she says. She was surprised when she made a list of cutbacks to keep the garden and the water it takes on the list. "This still works. Maybe I'm not working, but it still works," she laughs as she sakes her head.

Her kids present her with other rewards. Some are abstract: the happiness they've got at caring for something. Others are more concrete. Houston's son Cooper has taken to pressing worms into her hands. "I'm speaking as a city girl here still, that doesn't like worms," she says. "There is something very calming about putting your hands in a soil and making an agreement with the soil that you’ll take care of it, and it’s going to help sustain you. There’s something real basic and good about that."

Macen-Moore, and Houston both say Houston's kids have found new family. Their vegetable garden has given them far more than they bargained for.

Diane Houston, her children, and Milli Macen-Moore are weeding and watering around fall crops in their vegetable garden now. Houston says she dreams of growing enough produce to share her bounty with kids at nearby Mount Washington Elementary School.

Hundreds of people have signed up for Growfriend.org, says Ben Swett, who incubated the site. His mail-order gardening business in Vernon is closing this weekend.

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