spring 2014 @ UCLA: urban ag, again



Because I grew up in the middle of big big-scale corn and soybean farms, I have to admit that sometimes, I have qualms about the term “urban agriculture” or “urban farming.” The scale here just seems different–less vast, but responsive to different things. I think we need a new term, like we need a new term to displace the awful eradicating phrase “food desert,” which we should know better than to use in LA! Maybe this Quarter we will find a way! The link to the course blog is here.

korean TV shoot in s la

This weekend I helped coordinate a photo shoot for a Korean crew visiting some of the gardens in S LA built by the organization I work with, Green Grounds. The “PBS of Korea,” EBS, is making a two-part series about various food justice movements in the US.

The two-guy crew was able to follow our hosts, Roberto, Sandra and young Lee Aguilar as they worked in the very lush space that has replaced their front lawn. The crew was were pretty eager to see some vegetables which are apparently very pricey in Korea growing like weeds in this lawn, and also quite curious about how the movement for parkway gardening was able to succeed in LA.For my part, I was interested in hearing about the very active scene of urban gardening in Seoul.

Two of the gardens that GG worked on in S LA have been catalysts for changing the LA City Code after plantings on the lawns ran afoul of technical language that only allows a very small group of plants and a few edibles to reside on  a parkway (the strip of land between the street and sidewalk which is even “double-wide” some places in LA).

Turning over the soil, picking out grubs, and planting new fall seedlings.

Turning over the soil, picking out grubs, and planting new fall seedlings.

Fukushima vegetable curry

Array of spices in homemade curry powder.

Array of spices in homemade curry powder.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been visiting a wonderful organic farming program, located outside of Tokyo. Keisen Women’s University is one of the “YWCA” colleges, women’s colleges that boast a humanitarian agenda, and a curriculum that emphasizes peace studies and internationalism, a humanist vision of Christianity, and, most importantly, a four-year gardening curriculum. Here are a couple of photos I took in March of at harvest time, as both “eastern” spinach, which came by way of China, and “western” spinach, which came by way of the Jesuits and Nagasaki, were plucked out by student gardeners. The garden at Keisen was the first school garden to be certified organic in Japan, and routinely grows crops like sato-imo/taro, carrots, beans, and many many other things, all organically without pesticides.

Surrounded by spiky "eastern" spinach and the more familiar round "western" spinach.

Surrounded by spiky “eastern” spinach and the more familiar round “western” spinach.

"Eastern" spinach--look, it's spiky!

“Eastern” spinach–look, it’s spiky!

Daikon, lettuce, spinaches from the Keisen garden.

Daikon, lettuce, spinaches from the Keisen garden.

Keisen also has a number of spinoff projects, including a CSA, a café, and most recently, a cookbook made up of recipes created by students, including exchange students from a long-running program in Thailand. I translated one of the most interesting recipes, one for Fukushima “solidarity” curry, cooked up by the students in garden director Sawanobori-sensei’s class. Sawanobori-sensei is an agronomist, and a real pioneer in this field in Japan. As I visited in March, she was about to run off to Korea with the college president on an exchange visit, and was busily teaching the first of three seasons in a sequences of urban ag courses like our Master Gardener course. You can buy the original cookbook here.

Japanese curry came in to the country thanks to the British colonial diaspora. My friends and I used to call it “jelly curry,” because the consistency is a bit more viscous than a coconut milk-based or broth-based curry, it’s actually made with the flour thickener, roux. You can buy it in chunky blocks in grocery stores, but many people customize their curry, by mixing and matching blocks, adding pepper or fruit, jam or raisins, all over rice. The Keisen organic café recipe is on the far artisanal end of the spectrum, since it involves making curry powder, a spice blend, before making the curry base; and in turn, making the curry base before the dish itself.

Recipe background, from the Keisen Organic Café Cookbook:

This recipe was inspired by the desire to support organic farmers of Fukushima whose lives were uprooted by the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear reactor.
In the phase after the reaction but before testing had begun on the effects of radiation contamination, all you heard about Fukushima was rumors, and the fear had an effect even on produce that had been harvested before the reactor spill. In May 2011, volunteers at Keisen decided to host an event, “Thinking of Fukushima @ Keisen,” featuring a special curry recipe that used rice and potatoes like yama-imo that had been harvested at Fukushima the previous year. When the festival was over, the student-run organic campus café kept the curry dish on its menu, and both used and sold vegetables from Fukushima that showed no radioactivity. The curry is now a staple on the café menu.
The really vital thing about this curry is its variety of spices. It’s easy to use store-bought pre-mixed curry, but we decided to make our own spice mix. For the spices, we reached out to student in Chiang Mai, where we have a long-standing relationship with Chiang Mai University as part of our Field Station program. Every year from August to December 10 students participate in this experiential education program, where they work alongside NGO staff, organic farmers, and farmers from hill villages. The students wanted to source their spices directly from the farmers, and this “Keisen original fair-trade spice” blend became part of that long-held dream.
The campus organic café is a student-run space that is planned to develop into a local community center. The curry offering will join a menu and a line of products that the face sells that supports its fair-trade mission—joining a product line that includes coffee, olive oil, muscavado sugar, salt, Japanese-grown green and black teas, and jam.
Graduates of these programs have gone on to work as farmers and work in organic agriculture. Our work with organic farming continues, forging ways for anyone to have a rewarding and healthy life and thrive in a society that supports it.

Fukushima Solidarity Curry

½ medium onion (100g)
1 turnip (100g)
kabocha or other squash (30g)
½ carrot (100g)
½ bunch broccoli (50g)
*any combination of veggies, including sato-imo/taro, potato, eggplant, etc. will do—it should amount to about 150 g per person.
2 cups+ curry base
½ knob ginger minced (5 g)
½ knob ginger grated (5 g)
minced garlic (10 g)
1 T olive oil
1 T salt (+ salt for blanching greens and broccoli in step 2)
pepper, to taste
1-2 t garam masala

300 g brown rice

How to:
1. Take leaves off turnips. Keeping turnip greens separate, cut onions, peeled turnips and carrots into chunks 3cm at their longest point by turning the veggies as you cut (this is called rangiri in Japanese).
2. Cut the broccoli into easy-to-eat sized pieces, including the stems, and add the stems to the turnip greens. Blanche in salt water.
3. Fry the garlic and minced ginger with the olive oil and onion.
4. Add the kabocha, carrots and turnips in that order, salt and pepper, and cook until still firm but cooked (and maybe a bit browned, for flavor).
5. Add the curry paste to the cooked veggies from 4, with a cup of water. Add a bit more water, if necessary, as you bring it to a boil for about 5 minutes.
6. When the sauce has thickened, add the garam masala and minced ginger, to taste.
7. Add the broccoli and turnip greens, and serve.

Curry base recipe—serves about 8 portions, at 1 c each:

4 medium onions (800 g)
4 t whole cumin (8 g)
knob of ginger (60 g) minced
6 cloves of garlic (60 g) minced
3 T homemade curry (35 g; recipe below)
10 T rhubarb jam (* or other tart jam)
400 g canned tomatoes
4 bay leaves
1 grated apple (300 g)
1 grated carrot (200 g)
1 T salt
2 t miso
5 c (1000 ml) water
pepper, to taste
6 T olive oil

How to:
1. Mince the onions.
2. In a frying pan, add cumin, ginger and garlic to the olive oil, on high heat until a scent arises, being careful not to burn the spices.
3. Add with the salt to the minced onions and cook until caramelized (* you may want to add water and deglaze at some point).
4. Add the homemade curry powder, and mix in with 3 or 4 additions of the water.
5. Add the rhubarb jam, tomatoes and bay leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cook.
6. At the end, add the grated apple and carrot, miso, and salt and pepper to taste.

Homemade curry powder—makes about 20 portions of 88 g each
3 T turmeric (24 g)
3 T coriander (15 g)
1 T fennel seed (5 g)
2 t cinnamon (4 g)
2 t allspice (3 g)
1 t (3 g ) each of fenugreek, cloves, nutmeg
1 ½ (2 g) each of dill, cardamom, sage, oregano
1 t (2 g) each of chile pepper, star anise, thyme, black pepper
1 T olive oil

How to:
1. Mix all the spices together.
2. Heat the oil in a frying pan, and taking care not to burn the spices, cook for 5-6 minutes.
3. When cool, store in an airtight container. Best if used within a week; refrigerate.

cabbage bouquets

Here is a shot of two of my lovely students from the Urban Ag class @ UCLA this quarter. They are holding bouquets of cabbages, gai lan, and lettuce, veggies with an interesting backstory.

In front of the student garden @ Sunset Canyon Rec Center

In front of the student garden @ Sunset Canyon Rec Center

The” bouquets” are partly sourced from our very own garden. But the explicitly “Asian” ones come from a farmers’ market. Two other students in the class went to do their “fieldwork” assignment for the class at a gleaning operation located at a farmers’ market. The project has the mandate to recover food at markets which might not be sold, then re-distribute it to shelters and food banks: a win-win situation in which the farmers can recoup some costs for their goods, and the recipient organizations can get fresh produce they might not otherwise get.

One thing that the students, who were all Asian American, remarked, is the high quotient of Asian vegetables in the array of leftovers. They surmised, after seeing the selecting and talking to other volunteers, that the selecting organizations “didn’t know what to do” with the Asian vegetables–which are, like most greens, composed of leaves, stalks, and, on occasion, flowers (in the case of tine bouquet on the left, yellow flowers). We were all intrigued that these veggies would be so illegible to people who have a love of good, fresh, healthy good–though it was a “win” for the students, who brought bagsful of them to distribute to the class, and no doubt fed some happy stomachs.

I think we all agreed that given the boom in Urban Ag and homesteading in LA, the spread of “technical” information about growing things seems to be spreading apace. But that cultural information lags behind, about how to treat and eat “foreign” veggies without being intimidated and just throwing them away (insert yellow peril joke here, based on historical legacy of displacing Asian farmers in Southern California). They made a nice stir-fry at my house, and I enjoyed them, while feeling slightly rueful that more people who needed them did not have the know-how of how to do the same.

ontario farm trip / urban ag summit

The Iceland Garden in Mississauga–named for the skating rink across the way. In the background, some of the large houses that are quickly filling in the formerly rural land outside of Toronto.

In mid-August I hopped up to Toronto for a few days to go to a big gathering called the urban ag summit. I had cased a lot of projects and talked to people in Montreal in the spring, and was quite curious about Toronto, regarded from afar as one of the most with-it cities going in terms of food policy. The sheer number of people involved in food issues was astounding; for the first time, I met an urban planner who specialized in food issues, in the way one might specialize in other infrastructure like traffic.

There was a long talk by Will Allen, whose most oft-repeated word was: “quantify.” There were meals thronged by people without dainty appetites. There were cool workshops about growing on rooftops. There were authors whose works I had enjoyed (Food and the City). There were lawyers who worked on “urban ag law,” prying land out of the jaws of vacancy, inventorying it, and turning it into gardens. The 596 Acres folks have an exceptionally awesome visual presence–large graphically striking newsprint mapping out the various areas in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. There were debate about interim use of such plots. And there were tours.

I took the tour of peri-urban landscapes, in homage to both greater Glendale, the vast stomping grounds I call home, and with deference to all of LA county in general, with its edge city qualities. We went to four farms. Iceland Teaching Garden, above, a community garden firmly planted in encroaching sprawl; a large perma-culture-based farm; Farmstart, an “incubator” farm, where people started with 1/4 acre, got bigger, and drew on minimal technical advice from a state-funded incubator that basically left them alone; and a farm-educational center with amazing covered-cloth tent apparatus.

FarmStart McVean Incubator Farm, in Brampton.

Awesome tent structure @ Albion Hills Community Farm, in Caledon.


gardenspotting, SFO

A couple of weeks back, I went to SFO to get a sense of the city all over again. I had lived there through most of the ‘nineties, when urban ag was to be found in the lush confines of the Berkeley Bowl or Rainbow Grocery. Since then, farms like City Slicker, in West Oakland, and the Quesada Gardens Initiative , in Bayview/Hunters Point, have celebrated ten years on the map.

Funnily enough, though they are in California, you don’t hear nearly as much about these localish efforts as you do about things going on in Milwaukee (Growing Power) and Detroit (Urban Roots). Maybe you can chalk up this disconnect to typical So-cal desire to go it alone. Or, given the socially conscious edge of much of LA urban ag culture, maybe you can chalk it up to a perception that No-cal food culture is driven by white suburbanite bohemians and denizens of gourmet ghettos, since that drift is largely what registers in media here, and in synoptic accounts of whatever American food is. One example is the narrative of California cuisine you find in the chronicles of The United States of Arugula, which tracks the “big three” of Craig Claiborne, Julia Child and James Beard, along with assorted garnish such as nods to Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck.

Maybe the street-food tilt of LA, so evident in taco truck and food truck culture, has also impacted the way we tend to think of urban ag as something tied to infrastructures–intimately connected to eco systems (soil quality and water use), and the human landscape (food deserts, the foodscapes of indigenous plants and peoples). The term “food deserts,” of course, was thrown out by the resident of a Scottish housing estate in 1995, who likely had been no closer to a desert than a Road Runner cartoon. It is silly to use that term when you live next to actual deserts and are quite aware they are complex and vibrant eco-systems, but that is another post.

I hope to keep up a summer run of community garden road trips. Last year I visited Proyecto Jardin, Milagro Allegro, Francis Avenue Gardens and several others, all here in LA. This year I hope to go a bit farther afield, and see what else is up in near-ish cities, like Long Beach, San Diego, and Oakland/SFO. Long Beach has a whole network of growing/gleaning outfits, San Diego does interesting trans-border stuff, and I am curious about the self-determination legacies of the Black Power movement in No-cal.

Looking off over the row crops to the orchard hillside of Alemany Farm

Long story short, this summer I started with SFO, and went to check out Alemany Farm, the biggest parcel of land devoted to urban ag in the city; it clocks in at about 3.5 acres, 1 of which is directly under cultivation. It’s in Bernal Heights, and smack up against the freeway. You cut through a kids’ park and a dog park to get there, after a 15-minute walk from the BART station. Its organizers have been working not only on the 4 parts of their space–herbs, natives, orchards and row crops–but also on dialoguing about food security issues more broadly. For one, they have supported city legislation to make urban ag more possible on more land, without a wildly expensive permitting system. And for another, they have been working with their “owner,” the city’s Rec and Parks department, to develop a plan for more programming–it’s quite interesting to see what a far-reaching planifesto for a community ag space might look like (see their draft here).

Alemany Farm is a communal garden, meaning that people work according to what needs to be done, regardless of where it falls on the property. This is different than many community gardens, which use an allotment model in which people stick to their specific plots, while maybe sharing some basic maintenance tasks. It’s interesting that they report a higher crop yield, and don’t just cite community-building or ideology as the motivation for running things this way.  At the end of the work day when I was there, vegetables were weighed or counted, as part of a running assessment of how much food is produced. This communal model is also leagues better for a school garden than than individual allotments, given the ebb and flow of student schedules as well as the calendar year, with its changes of personnel every quarter or semester. And finally, communal work means that instead of tacking yourself onto the end of a 3-year waiting list, you can jump in and start getting your hands dirty immediately.

Other things I liked about this scheme were its incorporation of neighborhood stakeholders, and the eye turned to youth green jobs and entrepreneurship. School gardens have their own ebb and flow, with the school year, but that too leaves room for interesting minglings with community programming–I look forward to re-visiting, and to checking out more goings-on in the Bay Area.


holy #*&$*#&$*# !

We’re in the Huffington Post! A long dishy piece on Green Grounds following on the Good Food festival in Santa Monica a couple weeks back. A nice quote from Ron [Finley] breaking down how we do what we do:

The idea is that LA Green Grounds helps people who want to set up a community edible garden but don’t know how: “We turn up with basic tools and a bunch of plants and teach people how to grow their own organic fruits, vegetables and herbs right in their own backyard.” So how does it work? “First, we establish whether or not the area is a viable plot for growing and if there is sufficient local support to make it happen. If it’s looking good, we work with the community to draw up a garden plan. Then, we plan a community ‘Dig In’ where friends and neighbors come together to create their garden. We teach them how to maintain it, even how to make compost. It’s all about instruction, demonstration and participation.”

defiant gardens: another perspective on 9/11

Landscape architect Kenneth Helpland’s 2006 book on gardens–other than “victory gardens”–during wartime

The image above is the line I will be thinking along on September 11, as I haul a truck-load of mulch from the City compost facility to my friend’s house in S LA. Gardens of defeat, and defiance, have a lot to offer the commemorative mood…

The modern-day food movement often looks to the small and doable scale of the “Victory Garden” as a model for what can regular people can do to feed themselves, and get all kinds of benefits–health, de-linking from industrial food, and the lazy satisfaction of stepping outside your front door to grab the materials for dinner. I get the comparison, and love the iconography. Posters like these make the humble routine of getting your hands dirty seem not so small-scale at all–everyman’s sacrifice is heroic and aesthetically pleasing.

Although commonly associated with WW2, the “good war,” victory gardens were actually first planted during WW1:

Uncle Sam offers literature on gardening during WW1-note the pastoral landscape, and somewhat eclectic mix of winter and summer vegetables


A flapper-esque Lady Liberty strays seeds, à la Johnny Appleseed, in a WW1 poster

And even cartoon characters got in on the act–the goofy as well as the heroic.

One of the pragmatic how-to cartoons, carried in a story of goofiness, as Barney tries to purge a mole from his garden


In the more familiar 1943 round of victory gardens, Batman and Robin put aside their differences with competing brands to get their hands dirty (except for Batman, who prudently wears gloves)

But the triumphalist tone of victory, in 2011, has always unsettled me a little bit. I think there is a lot of moral high ground to be had in making gardens. But I’m not crazy about linking home gardening, much less school gardening, to a nostalgia for hunkering down in a time of war.

As a different approach to gardening in a time of war, the Defiant Gardens book is interesting to me for 2 reasons.

One, is the mere fact that it swerves away from the tried-and-true narrative of community gardens, which are usually traced back to ideas from land grant universities that drift into industrial 19th c. cities, and are tied to progressive reforms to make workers’ or students’ lives healthier and more fit for work. This more familiar story is mapped out nicely in Laura Lawson’s City Bountiful: A Century of Community Gardening in America. Lawson hits the big national touchstones of Detroit and Philly, both of which had big initiatives in city gardens well before 1990s de-industrialization. She also covers the arguments for school gardens, which really haven’t changed much in 100 years, though the jargon has (obesity instead of spindliness). And she has the de rigueur chapter on victory gardens.

Helpland’s book on defiant and defeated gardens is a little more interested in what might seem to be perverse operations. He explores how and why people in extreme–often interned or occupied–circumstances nonetheless plant gardens. Gardens are a notoriously time-based art that may take years to come into a lookable or edible condition. Why bother? He looks at “gardens of war in the 20th century, including gardens built behind the trenches in World War I, in the Warsaw and other ghettos during World War II, and in Japanese-American internment camps, as well as gardens created by soldiers at their bases and encampments during wars in the Persian Gulf, Vietnam, and Korea.” It turns out there is a lot to learn from gardening as a speculative fiction, which may or may not ultimately come into fruition.

The book introduces new photos and stories of wartime gardens in Nazi-occupied Poland, and connects them to contemporary prisons, as well as occupying soldiers’ efforts in the other Asian wars of the 20th century, Korea and Vietnam. Aside from my amateur work in S LA gardens, my local professional interest is, of course, the internment gardens that were planted in the camps established by FDR following Executive Order 9066 in February 1942. Before WW2, 1 of 3 Japanese American men was employed as a gardener.

Defiant Gardens has a great on-line set of materials that includes photos, biblios, and links, here. I will end with a long-ish excerpt from Helpland’s on-line section on Guantanamo:

Saddiq is one of the many mistakes at Guantanamo Bay. In 2005 our military admitted that he was not an enemy combatant, but the government hasn’t been able to repatriate him. (By a curious irony, Saddiq’s opposition to Osama bin Laden makes him too hot to handle in his native Saudi Arabia.) So he lives behind razor wire in Camp Iguana, with eight other men whom the military cleared long ago but who are nevertheless forbidden newspapers, visits from loved ones, English-language dictionaries — and flowers.

For some time we lawyers have been asking the military for a garden. Gardens are commonplace in prisoner-of-war camps, and these men aren’t even enemies. They live in a pen, but it has a small patch of ground. Why not? The military refused.

I was trying to explain this to Saddiq, along with other inexplicable things (such as how it is that innocent men can be held for years in an American prison), when he said, “We planted a garden. We have some small plants — watermelon, peppers, garlic, cantaloupe. No fruit yet. There’s a lemon tree about two inches tall, though it’s not doing well.”

“The guards gave you tools?”

He shook his head.

“Then — how do you dig?” I was struggling to grasp this.

“Spoons,” he said. “And a mop handle.”

The soil in Camp Iguana is dry and brittle as flint. And I’ve seen the spoons they give our clients.

“But the spoons are plastic — aren’t they?”

Saddiq nodded. “At night we poured water on the ground. In the morning, we pounded it with the mop handle and scratched it with the spoons. You can loosen about this much.” He held his thumb and forefinger about a half-inch apart. “The next day, we did it again. And so on until we had a bed for planting.” He shrugged. “We have lots of time, here.”

“But the seeds?” I asked. “Did they give you seeds?”

After four years at Guantanamo, Saddiq rarely smiles, but his face seemed to brighten then. “Sometimes, with the meal, they give us a bit of watermelon or cantaloupe to eat. We save the seeds.”

One day the sordid history of Guantanamo will be written. There will be chapters on torture, chapters on the how the courts turned a blind eye, chapters on cruelties large and petty, on the massive stupidity and uselessness of the place. Many pages will illustrate the great lie of Guantanamo — that it is a “terrorist detention facility” — with accounts of goatherds and chicken farmers and stray foreigners sold by Pakistani grifters to the United States for bounties. Saddiq may have one of the oddest chapters of all: jailed first by the Taliban as an enemy of its regime, then by us.

For all that, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.” Maybe the History of Guantanamo will have a few uplifting footnotes. America denied them seeds and trowels and they created life anyway. We tried to withhold beauty, but from the grim earth of Guantanamo they scratched a few square meters of garden — with spoons. Guantanamo is ugly, but man’s instinct for beauty lives deep down things.

When our meeting was over, the flowers had wilted. Saddiq picked up the little nosegay. “May I take these back to Camp Iguana?”

But flowers are contraband. He wasn’t allowed to keep them.

Song: “Gardening at Night,” the song that made R.E.M. “R.E.M.”: