Read Kristin Marguerite Doige's wonderful story about how Dillion Toscano worked his recovery around GrowGood in Caring Magazine.
Thank you Kristin and Caring Magazine for highlighting Dillion's inspirational story!
When I came to the Salvation Army's Bell Shelter in December, it seemed like a nightmare had brought me there. I was out of a job with no home, very little money and no support from my family.
For the first few months I concentrated on my skills in computer graphics.Then in April, I applied for a three-month employment program at GrowGood, a sustainable farm that provides healthful food for the shelter and is just a stone’s throw away. I thought this would be a good opportunity to earn some money while I continued my computer graphics studies.
I soon learned that working at GrowGood was going to be much more than just a job. The work was harder than I imagined, and at the end of every day I felt it. But each day it also left me with a sense of satisfaction, knowing that my labor was helping to put chemical-free, nutritious food on the plates of the homeless.
The GrowGood employment program also includes sessions conducted by Jayne Torres, the GrowGood program cultivator. Once a week we explored conflict resolution, personal strengths and weakness, keys to gainful employment and meditation. We talked about how we saw our futures and our ideal jobs. And it made me think of how I saw the world as a child. I thought that if I got involved in helping the environment, maybe I could help stop all the polluting and that could help bring people together. As with most of us, as we grow older we forget about the things that seemed so important as children. As I grew I became more concerned about what others thought of me and less concerned about what was in my heart.
Thinking about your past inevitably makes you think of your present. My address was nothing to brag about, but it was warm (sometimes too warm) and dry, and I had a part-time job that, while it didn't pay much, I didn't have many expenses either, and it sure was rewarding. And looking closer at my job, it was directly contributing to helping the environment. Sure, going out and sweating in the little GrowGood farm might be a small step, but it was a positive one. And I have to thank Corrine McAndrews, the farm manager, who in her words and deeds, reminds me every day of something we all know deep in our heart, that if everyone contributes just a little, the sum will be huge.
With all that in mind, I began to see my situation for what it was, a chance to do what I had wanted to do for so long. I stopped looking at my job as a temporary way to earn some spending money and began looking at it as a stepping stone to a career. I believe with this attitude my work improved and was noticed, because soon after Corrine told me that I was going to kept on after my three-month program. I was ecstatic. And shortly after that, Jayne told me that an organization called Community Healing Gardens was looking for someone to work at the garden at Markham Middle School in Watts. With Jayne's recommendation and all that I had learned at GrowGood, I headed to the job interview with confidence, and nailed it.
Now I work at both places, and I feel my new career is well underway. GrowGood has several projects in the works such as a community composting project and a new greenhouse, and Markham is working on a partnership with an organization called L.A. Kitchen to offer cooking classes to the parents at the school.
So the rocky road of a nightmare that landed me at the Bell Shelter has evolved into a wonderful journey. Even though it is still in its nascent stages, I have a new career.
By: Albert Viera
Bell Shelter resident and participant in GrowGood's Temporary Employment Program ("TEP")
We are proud to announce that GrowGood's greenhouse is UP! While she still needs to be connected to water and power, we expect it to be up and running by the end of September.
Andrew & Brad
Joe Cobarrubio didn’t work at GrowGood farm, but GrowGood worked on him when he lived at the Salvation Army Bell shelter.
“Oh my God, the garden is what helped maintain my sanity,” Cobarrubio says. “If it wasn’t for the garden, I would have left the shelter.”
Cobarrubio says that shortly after he arrived at the shelter from UCLA Harbor Hospital, in August 2016, he happened upon GrowGood – which, although it’s just across the parking lot from the shelter can be a little hidden. He noticed trees and people and came through the fence.
Cobarrubio , now 63, came with his hand in a bandage, and left “with a big smile” after farmer Corinne McAndrews told him he was welcome anytime.
McAndrews remembers the encounter, too.
“I saw a man coming towards me, from out of the field and the drainage basin, carrying a bushel of wildflowers. He was bandaged up pretty well, as he had recently been admitted to the healthcare part of the shelter with a rare flesh-eating bacteria,” she recalls.
“When I asked about the flowers, he told me that taking long walks to pick wildflowers has been a hobby of his since he was young. I was a little surprised he was making the trek in his current health condition, but he assured me that he knew what he was doing. I instantly knew that we would be good friends. It must have been his warmth, his sweet smile, and his generosity as he handed me some Mexican sunflowers.”
Cobarrubio, courteous and kind and smart, became well-known at the farm for his artistry with found branches that he turned into elegant walking sticks that plenty of people who show up at GrowGood now use.
“I’m an artist at heart,” says Cobarrubio, who has a smattering of freckles and a Fu Manchu-style moustache.
Already retired from a career in construction, he started making the canes to keep busy and to restore the strength to hands and arms. And the tools he needed were not allowed in the shelter. So the picnic tables at GrowGood became his workshop.
And for everyone else, Cobarrubio’s presence became a source of joy and interesting conversation. That includes Daryl, McAndrew’s dog who happily joined Cobarrubio on walks and sat at his feet.
He often brought his lunch to the garden and stayed the afternoon.
He vowed that he “was not going back to where I was living and what made me homeless.” Before the hospital, he had a rough run. He lost his right index finger in an accident working on his mother’s house and then his hand was smashed in another mishap. He had no feeling in the hand and finally ended up in am ambulance.
But it turned out that his real health scare turned out to be a flesh-eating disease on his side; it put him into a coma, prompted the loss of 80 pounds and left a dramatic scar.
“The doctor told me, ‘You are the luckiest man I’ve seen. The person who called 911 saved your life,” Cobarubio says. That person was a friend’s girlfriend.
A high school wrestler and football player, and a drummer, Cobarrubio gave up college and music to help support his family when his father got cancer.
He had started playing music at 7 and “practiced all the time.” His parents supported his music, even when he wasn’t very good. “I don’t know how my parents put up with it,” Cobarrubio says.
Perhaps they knew how much practice it takes to develop proficiency. “They danced swing like you wouldn’t believe,” and often would bring the band home with them when the clubs closed. Everyone would jam till dawn.
In that atmosphere, Cobarrubio became good enough that he started getting fill-in work while still a schoolboy.
But that’s also how he began getting high – in cars during band breaks. Cobarrubio says he came close three times to making it as a musician, but drugs got in his way.
Work did, too. By 28 he had a wife, two kids, a dog and house with a picket fence. Their marriage eventually broke up, and after 14 years clean, Cobarrubio returned to drugs. “Like every drug addict, you go back to where you left off.”
But by the time he was taken away in that ambulance, Cobarrubio had been clean for a week and was determined to stay that way.
On the gurney outside the ambulance, he says, “I knew I was right at death’s door. I said, ‘Lord I don’t want to go like this.’”
And he did not.
Early this year, Cobarrubio moved to his own apartment, in Long Beach. He cooks for himself, and often for his neighbors. He has become close to his younger sister and her daughter.
On a visit to GrowGood recently, he says, “It’s like I’m coming home.”
Joe Cobarrubio says tacos were his favorite meal as a child, and here' s how his mother made them. With rice and bean to accompany them.
by Mary MacVean
At the Veterans Administration in West Los Angeles, there’s work afoot by the Westside Food Bank to restore at least 15 acres to agriculture – a fraction of the 150 acres that were farmed after World War I, but a start.
Community Healing Gardens has put 80 garden beds around Venice, in an effort to bring together a community that seemed indifferent. After school programs, and a partnership with St. Joseph’s have followed.
Kiss the Ground also works in Venice, offering young people a 12-week program in growing, including soil, ecology and job placement. And Taking the Reins near Griiffith Park grows food with the girls who take part in its healing programs that use horses as part of their therapy.
Food is something they clearly have in common. But they, and several other projects, also were all awarded grants through the office of L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl. They gathered at the Salvation Army Bell shelter on June 3 to share their efforts and take a tour of GrowGood farm.
Molly Rysman had worked at Skid Row Housing Trust. When she joined Kuehl as a deputy, she proposed spending some of the supervisor’s discretionary funds for a program called Food for the Soul.
Its aims, Rysman says, are to increase food security, provide a therapeutic environment and break the social isolation that can come with homelessness. “When your hands are in the dirt,” many differences among people dissolve, she says.
The 2-year-old Food for the Soul project awards grants of $5,000 to $20,000 to nonprofit organizations in the Third District for programs that engage people who have experienced homelessness, in agriculture, nutrition and cooking to improve food security and community.
The Westside Food Bank put in a couple dozen raised beds at the VA as a test project. Since October, the food has gone to about 150 veterans, distributed from a tailgate each week. Often, the veterans who work the land eat the food, said Bruce Rankin, executive director of the Food Bank. The goal is to add more beds and to work with the teaching kitchen on the VA campus, Rankin says.
Other organizations receiving grants included Kiss the Ground, Safe Space for Youth, Step Up on Second, the Center at Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood, The People’s Concern and the Teen Project.
“We don’t have the most efficient garden. But it’s the most efficient for creating relationships,” says Kelvin Martinez, program facilitator at the Center at Blessed Sacrament in Hollywood.
After a meeting in the shelter building, participants walked around GrowGood, led in part by Sharon Pregerson, whose son is one of the farm’s founders.
“I just let all my problems go when I’m out here,” Velva told the group. He recently completed the GrowGood transitional employment program and has stayed on as an employee.
Taylor, a young woman who takes part in the gardening program at the Teen Project, understood that sentiment. “When the garden grows, I feel myself grow too. It’s a beautiful process.”
The meeting ended with lunch, including herbal tea and salad – both made from GrowGood produce.
By Mary MacVean
Like the salads on millions of American dinner tables, the salad on mine growing up was iceberg lettuce. With cucumbers and tomatoes my dad grew in the yard. That’s it. When my mom went wild, there might be a sliced radish, also from the garden.
Seems like another world ago. But even now, there are very few bowls of salad greens, even in fancy-pants restaurants, that compare with the one usually on the salad bar at the Bell Shelter.
Credit Corinne McAndrews, the GrowGood farm manager and lettuce wizard. In late May, for example, there were 15 to 20 varieties of lettuce in the ground at GrowGood farm, with a broad range of tastes, appearances and names — Drunken Woman, Quan Yin, Okayama Salad, Outredgeous, crisp mint, Ear of the Devil, Frank Morton’s Secret Lettuce Mix, and my personal favorite: Grandpa Admires.
There’s a GrowGood mix, too, which changes with the seasons. But the specifics are secret.
Lettuce is generally a cool season crop. And in our Mediterranean climate, McAndrews says, there are some classic lettuce varieties that don't grow well here, including iceberg and Romaine.
“I can’t grow lettuce all year round, but we try” without using too much water and avoid too many pests, McAndrews says, noting that July to October is the toughest time for it. But Quan Yin, for example, grows well in summer. It’s crisp, with a good flavor and is disease-resistant, says McAndrews, who compares it with a sturdy workhorse like a Toyota Camry. By comparison, she calls Forellenschluss lettuce the 1969 Porsche 911 of lettuces. That one is truly beautiful, an heirloom from Austria with romaine-shaped green leaves splashed with red.
GrowGood has both head lettuces and leaf lettuces; the latter often are called “cut and come again,” because the leaves are cut for eating and the plants grow new leaves. Those lettuces can supply five to 10 cuts; head lettuces are thinned two or three times, making room for the remaining heads to grow.
The farm has been able to supply much of the lettuce for the shelter, which uses about 10 pounds a day, says Amie Carillo, the head of the shelter kitchen.
From all the possibilities — and there are dozens — McAndrews looks for lettuce varieties that “are abundant and grow quickly, and something that’s going to taste good.” She also considers the risk of disease and pest resistance. And the seeds planted at GrowGood are always open-pollinated, meaning they are pollinated by bees or birds rather than in labs. GrowGood also often grows heirloom varieties.
Once all of those criteria are met, McAndrews says, “then I start having fun” looking for lettuces that are beautiful and delicious, “lettuce that makes people want to eat it,” lettuce that bears no resemblance to the bits served next to many sandwiches or sold in supermarket produce aisles.
Among the looks and textures, McAndrews says, she considers frilly greens and reds, speckled leaves, stronger leaves and more delicate ones. Also added to the lettuce bowl are purslane, mustards, arugula and flowers.
Some people complain that lettuce takes too much water to grow, but with right varieties, GrowGood’s no-till policy and shade cover, lettuce uses no more water than zucchini or tomatoes, McAndrews says.
On harvest days, we pick lettuces as early as possible, before they start feeling the heat of the sun. They go directly into a tub of cold water for a first washing, then onto a second tub, where they are carefully cleaned a second time. Then into a spinner and into the kitchen, perhaps for that day’s salad bar.
Reviews from the diners have been positive. Come try a bite.
By Mary MacVean
Like all farms, GrowGood is a busy place. There always is some chore that needs doing. So it might seem out of place to hear these words among the native plants: “Be still. Just be still a moment and listen to our breaths and the birds.”
The speaker was Millie Huer, a naturalist and mindfulness teacher. The moment was the mindfulness class held each week for Bell Shelter clients in a clearing. That and other classes are part of GrowGood’s Food for Life program. Think of it, perhaps, as a companion to growing food, this one growing people to live their best lives.
On this particular warm Thursday morning, 15 people gathered to hear Huer's calm insistent voiceHer session is a combination of quieting the mind, learning to sit still to pay attention to “what grounds us to the Earth,” and movements that stretch the body and prompt us to feel more flexible. She counts the breaths, a beat of three to inhale, a beat of four to exhale. She reminds the group to hear the sounds of nature, feel the heat of the sun. When someone’s phone goes off, Huer counters: “Disturbances come and go and try to get your attention, just like that.”
Esteban, a client at the Bell Shelter for the last six months, says the Food for Life sessions have broadened his mind. He had never heard of mindfulness, but it's had a deep impact on him. “It was so quiet, really serene. I couldn’t believe the peace there was,” he says. He’s now more attentive to his breathing and able to calm himself to focus better.
In the native garden, the only possible silence can be interior, not only because of phones or birds. GrowGood is surrounded by busy freeways, truck routes and plane paths. And not everyone feels inclined to move much; not everyone stretches their arms toward the pure light blue sky or the mulch-scattered ground when Huer directs them to.
But that’s OK. She seems to get everyone on board to repeat her words: “May I be well. May I be happy. May I be free of suffering and all the things that cause my suffering. May I have a feeling of well-being.”
Viviana Vallin, another teacher who comes to GrowGood from the Relational Center in Culver City, says her goal is to integrate movement with nature. On one rainy day, when class is held indoors, participants talk about the meaning of happiness; they mention serenity, being at peace, contentment.
Vallin has brought some wet sages and bark in from the farm to pass among the participants to make a connection to the aromas and feel of the natural world even indoors. She says she thinks of the rain as nature taking care of itself. “We all need self care for survival,” she says.
Jayne Torres, an original GrowGood employee, runs the Food for Life program. Torres has organized speakers and discussions on a variety of topics, including resume writing, acupuncture and nutrition.
David Butler, a clinical therapist at the shelter, says he has learned a lot from Food for Life and uses the mindfulness ideas in his therapy sessions. “And I know it’s helpful being in the garden,” he says. Those classes, he says, can help prepare clients to be in the world.
The native garden was planted in 2014, with more than 300 plants. It’s become a playground for GrowGood’s chickens. The meeting spot was helped by a donation of benches from The Salvation Army. Now the “classroom” is an appealing spot even to sit alone and read.
by Mary MacVean
2016 was a pivotal year for GrowGood. We launched a host of new programs, created real jobs for people experiencing homelessness, and reached unprecedented levels for fundraising.
Read the full story in our 2016 Annual Report.
Going forward, we need your support more than ever. Help us expand our impact by making a one-time or recurring donation at the link below.
Have you ever been to a salad party? Not a party where you ate salad. But a party where the salad was the point?
GrowGood threw just such a party on Feb. 9 in the Pregerson Dining Hall at the Salvation Army Bell Shelter.
About three dozen Bell Shelter staff and residents joined in the festivities. Earlier that day, we harvested a variety of greens and brought them inside, labeled them and put them in separate baskets so everyone could taste the components of the mix we’ve been providing for the salad bar that’s part of every lunch and dinner.
Farm manager Corinne McAndrews, along with farmhands Eric Tomassini, Katie Lewis and James Washington, passed around the baskets of arugula, speckled romaine, green leaf, rapini, chard and other kinds of greens for tasting.
“They have a lot of flavor and different textures, so a simple vinaigrette is a nice way to dress the salad,” Tomassini, who also is a chef, told the group. Then he demonstrated just that dressing, with a three-to-one ratio of olive oil to lemon juice or vinegar. The lemon juice was squeezed from GrowGood Meyer lemons.
People who wanted to make their own dressing did so by shaking the ingredients in Mason jars. Tomassini suggested adding herbs, such as cilantro and substituting lime juice for the lemon or vinegar. “That’s a good combination,” he said.
Many thanks to Amie Carrillo-Wolfe, food service manager at the shelter, for publicizing the salad party and providing space and equipment.
GrowGood hopes to have regular food demonstrations. Next up is likely to be beets.
by Mary MacVean
If you went into the kitchen a couple of hours before GrowGood's first farm dinner, you'd see stacks of dozens of glass and plastic containers, many of them baffling little collections of fermented this or pickled that, dried this or fresh that.
Over the course of the evening, chef and GrowGood farm hand Eric Tomassini used all of them and more for a multi-course dinner that challenged and delighted the tastebuds of everyone lucky enough to be in the rustic room at Cottonwood Farm, a homestead in Panorama City that hosted our feast.
In dish after dish, GrowGood's produce shined. Onions, greens, herbs used to their best advantage. Guests were greeted on the farm's patio with a soda made from blood orange and bear lime juice, before heading into the dining room.
The meal began with “small bites” and beer donated from LA-based brewery Dry River Brewing and wine from Foot of the Bed Cellars. The “small bites” included a complex rice chip with fermented and charred Tohono O’ogham L’ltoi onion dip, a rye, citrus and radish tart as well as a farm crudite, featuring lettuce, carrot, nasturtium, rapini flowers, red-vein sorrel from GrowGood.
Next, Eric served a “turnip both” from Golden Ball and Shogoin turnips, which were dried and smoked to create an intense broth. Sitting half-way submerged in the broth were orange slices and cooked turnip pieces as well as a green strawberry providing a sweet bitterness that wonderfully complement the richness of the dish.
Eric’s “Farm Salad” followed. The salad, dressed with a nasturtium vinaigrette and featuring a seven different greens from GrowGood’s farm was given a crunch and an additional kick of flavor with roasted romaine roots in a romaine root miso sauce and lettuce capers.
Following the salad, Eric served his “Carrot Curry.” The dish showcased GrowGood's carrots that were roasted, poached, and fermented and then placed on top of a beautiful bed of green fresh herbs with a curry made with citrus and almond milk.
The final entree was a pork dish featuring pork from Peads and Barnetts, a farm that raises free-range heritage English Berkshire pigs in North San Diego County. Eric prepared the pork with braised red cabbage, a sauerkraut salad, and pine oil. The dish was accompanied with shaved turnips and wilted cabbage from GrowGood’s farm.
Finally, dessert! A refreshing yogurt and citrus palate cleanser sweetened with wooly curls oil from GrowGood was served with a tea prepared by Farmer Corinne featuring dagga and blue lavender. A chamomile caramel cookie accompanied the tea providing a perfectly sweet end to a wonderful evening.
Stay tuned for the next GrowGood dinner, which will likely be in early May. :)
By Brad Pregerson and Mary MacVean
As we come to the end of a tumultuous year and move toward a 2017 full of uncertainties, it seems a good time to consider GrowGood’s future. Though it may seem the cycles of seasons and harvests, pests and plantings are constant, we are part of a changing ideal: How can we create a viable urban farm that grows regionally relevant, open-pollinated crops and employs our neighbors from the Bell Shelter across the parking lot?
It is clear to me that our task is to find a way to bridge the world of one nonprofit farm off the beaten path with the world of gourmet cuisine in Los Angeles. It may seem like a bizarre model, funding food for homeless people by selling specialty produce to those with the most to spend, but it might be our best chance at making urban food mean something lasting.
Just how would that work? It's not hard to find people in Los Angeles who say they want to buy food that’s as local as possible from “responsible” purveyors. What keeps that from happening might be about reaching the people with good intentions and helping them make better choices. But it might also be true that the ways we talk about responsible food culture – “sustainable,” “local,” “organic” and others – have lost their meaning. The consequence can be that projects like GrowGood get swept up in “locavore” culture.
How are we different, after all? Our intention is to be part of a transition to a LosAngeles where we can support one another through a more conscious commerce and purchase goods that truly make this place better. We are thrilled that we have sent more than 7,000 pounds to the shelter’s kitchen this year. Providing jobs is also part of that. Funding those jobs with the sale of high-end microgreens is one way to do it, but it might be better to look for more responsible high-end crops, such as regionally adapted herbs and flowers.
But there’s larger goal, one that GrowGood is only a part of: growing crops that thrive here and that bring in a fair price. A price fair enough to pay a living wage so people who want to farm can support themselves and their loved ones. It’s no surprise that farming is back-breaking work. Hundreds of hours, joules of energy, even lives (adios, gophers) went into to that head of cabbage you might be chopping for kraut tonight. But you likely paid just a fraction of its true cost. And why? Because we are told that food should be as cheap as possible; as a percentage of our income, Americans pay less than nearly every other country for food. To us, that seems to contribute to our culture’s sense of separation – and in turn that separation inspires many people to look for connections with farmers and cooks and in sharing food.
So how do we sort all that out? The next step is to reimagine urban food as a real option. It may not be the most efficient, or the most cost-effective, but it provides a chance to heal ravaged parcels of land and the people who spend time there. We waste less fuel transporting produce, prioritize water conservation and responsibility, and look toward resilient seed-saving practices to grow crops that can stand up to the Los Angeles of tomorrow. This is the new urban agriculture: a way to make cities truly livable. A way to connect those of us living in lofts downtown to the soil -- what's beneath us no matter where we are. Connecting to urban food is not just a financial commitment, but that does matter a great deal. It's also a process of reclaiming the conversation about food. We hope you’ll join that conversation.
By Corinne McAndrews and Mary MacVean
Working among the rows of daikon radishes pushing out of the ground or the lacey carrot tops bending in the breeze that comes many afternoons at GrowGood, or planting seeds for new crops (more than 1,000 on a recent Saturday) has been a respite from the difficult election season.
And that’s made me think about the people who ask me why I’m so happy to be there. Here are a few there things I love about the farm.
Unexpected wonders. If you pay attention, nearly every day brings at least one. Like the giant egret that landed among the fruit trees. Another day we put our ears to a container of grubs collected for the chickens; I had no idea that the grubs make such a racket. Another day, I plucked a blossom from a dagga plant and tasted the sweetest nectar imaginable.
Getting dirty. OK, maybe this particular aspect of GrowGood is not for everybody. But getting in the car at the end of the day with dirt everywhere — even embedded in my brow — feels so satisfying. After a career as a journalist, when getting dirty mostly happened only when something went wrong, it’s oddly refreshing to be really grubby. And stepping into a hot shower is all the more satisfying.
Personal bravery. All summer, I was in awe of the way Katie, one of the most experienced farmers at GrowGood, dealt with the onslaught of June bugs. She pulled them off plants and crushed them in her hands. I shuddered, and then felt a little prissy for doing so. But one recent afternoon, I came across a black widow spider on a brown paper bag among our drying herbs. After just a moment of terror, I picked up the bag and emptied the herbs before I moved it far away.
Showing up. GrowGood is one of those places that takes you in as much as it draws you in. Show up, do the work, and you are part of a community that knows its work matters, that takes pride without being arrogant. I know how corny it sounds, but it’s a privilege to listen to someone’s life story as you transplant broccoli, or tell your own story over lunch.
Change is constant. Stay away from GrowGood for as little as a week and you may return to a transformed land. A new system of rows has laid out for fall crops. The dozens of tomato plants that produced all summer are gone to the compost heap. New volunteers, new employees have arrived.
And finally, we’ve got a dozen baby chicks. Need I say more?
By Mary MacVean
GrowGood farmhand Mary MacVean writes on how she's seeing the farm differently:
I’m starting my second season at GrowGood, and it’s startling how differently I’m seeing the farm. Little seedlings I put in the ground have yielded their food and been taken out of their rows. In fact, many of the rows have been completely reorganized into beds. New crops are in the ground or being readied for transplant.
Now, about four months after I arrived, I look at unplanted ground and see potential I didn’t understand then. I’m eager for the carrots, chard, broccoli, kale and other foods that will be picked all fall.
And those tomatoes I found so completely charming as we tied the vines up fences? I’m growing impatient with them and with the melons that still are not ripe – beautiful fruit hanging on tight to vines that are drying out and crinkling up.
The changes to the rows should make the farm more productive, says the farm manager, Corinne McAndrews. We’ve been digging ditches (In all honesty, some of us have done some digging, but it’s James who gets the lion’s share of credit on that.) to create beds that are four feet by 40 feet; significantly wider than the old rows. She says that will give us more space for plantingmore diversely while preserving access for maintenance and harvesting. It might make walking around a bit harder, but the changes will feed our mission of feeding people who need abundant, nutritious food.
The June bugs, which harbor no respect for the actual sixth month, are – at long last -- very rare. But I’m delighted by the dozens of baby lizards scooting everywhere we walk. There are hawks in the air, and the days are growing shorter, though mid-September is leaving us with Southern California’s usual late-summer heat.
That heat seems to have contributed to a sad moment at GrowGood. Germana, one of the four chickens who amuse everyone who comes to the farm -- and provide eggs – died. She was found on a Sunday morning and buried that afternoon. She is missed.
In preparation for next year, we’ve saved seeds for next spring from many plants, but there’s still one tomato plant, a Cherokee purple, that carries a sign not to pick it to preserve the seeds.
We’ve picked the first of the chard, and we’re beginning to send acorn squash, a hard-shell variety, into the kitchen at the Salvation Army Bell Shelter.
McAndrews says she’s always thinking three or four months ahead, so in June she was thinking about our fall harvest. Unlike my backyard garden, GrowGood doesn’t run on a whimsical choice of what seems appealing in the shop. In the summer, she talked about what crops had to be in the ground by early September, what will grow in October, when the temperature may stay high but the light will be diminished – spinaches, chiles, late-season tomatoes.
Also ahead are bunching onions, Chinese cabbages and heat-tolerant lettuces. And of course we will have root vegetables: carrots, beets and radishes. I planted two rows of purple queen garlic recently; it won’t be ready until next summer.
One morning this summer, workers picked more than 100 pounds of tomatoes at GrowGood – big squat red ones, yellow and green striped ones, cocktail tomatoes and more. Along with basil, cucumbers and other food, they were rinsed and then wheeled in a green garden wagon across the parking lot to the kitchen at the Bell Shelter.
That tomato bonanza day also happened to be a day I was volunteering in the kitchen, and soon after the farm delivery, we were at work on a simple but stellar summer salad for the shelter clients.
Amie Carrillo-Wolfe, the food service manager at the Bell Shelter, says she appreciates being able to use food that comes from just a few steps away from the kitchen. And she believes that also has an affect on those who eat it.
“The No. 1 thing is that it’s really about knowing what you can do on your own. Who knew you could grow this food here?” she says. And she hopes the clients see it this way: “This is your home, your back yard.”
GrowGood also encourages the shelter residents to think of the farm as their back yard. They are welcome to visit, enjoy the peaceful atmosphere or volunteer.
The kitchen, staffed with six full-time employees plus volunteers, serves 450 to 480 meals a day in the Pregerson Dining Hall, starting with a 4:30 a.m. breakfast for people who leave the shelter for early work shifts. That means the staff begins work at 2 a.m. to put on coffee and start the first meals.
Carrillo-Wolfe came to the Bell Shelter from the world of high-end catering.
“It was a very big culture shock,” says Carrillo-Wolfe, who had decided it was time for a more satisfying job and heard about the Bell job through an aunt who works for the Salvation Army. “My whole theory was that God sent me here.”
It was a sometimes-rough transition. “I was learning to adapt to staff members without any culinary training,” she says. “I did question myself.”
The mother of 3-year-old twins, she returned three years ago for a second stint at Bell after five years at the Salvation Army camp in Malibu. It’s been a long time now since her haute cuisine days.
“It’s a spiritual journey,” she says one recent morning, sitting in her little office off the kitchen. “I’m losing my experience, but it’s really not about that.”
These days, she says, she’s bolstered by the thank-yous from diners.
GrowGood supplies about half the produce for the kitchen from its 1.5-acre plot. Much of the produce is used in soups, sauces, stir-fries and other dishes – all of which are made from scratch, she says.
In an effort to make sure the produce gets used as soon as possible, Carrillo-Wolfe and the farm manager, Corinne McAndrews, made some adjustments this summer. In the kitchen’s walk-in refrigerator, there’s a set of shelves dedicated to the farm produce. Food gets put into bins marked by date. What isn’t used in a week goes to a “farmers market,” where shelter residents who have kitchens can take whatever food they’ll use.
By Mary MacVean
Volunteer Mary MacVean on saving seeds:
The other day, I took a bucket and headed toward the green bean plants. But I left all the green ones alone, instead poking through the vines looking for the pods that had dried out and turned from deep inviting green to a yellowish color.
It’s part of the effort over the summer at GrowGood to save seeds for next year’s sowing. A few weeks earlier, we had inspected the bean plants — mostly bronco and Maxibel — and decided which ones looked strongest, fullest, healthiest. Those, of course, are the kinds of plants we want to grow again next year. So it would be those plants from which we would harvest seeds.
Using small flags, we marked those plants to keep anyone from picking the beans until the pods were completely dry in the persistent, hot sun of Bell.
The dried pods are opened, and healthy-looking beans are saved in brown paper bags. (It’s fun to find some interlopers, volunteer pods holding multicolored Christmas beans or favas; we save those too.)
Beans have what are called perfect flowers; they self-pollinate within the flower before it opens. Things are not so simple for saving seeds from summer squash.
GrowGood has also been harvesting several varieties of summer squash: Ronde de Nice (a spherical pale green squash), zucchini, yellow crookneck, painted serpent and others). To save seeds from these plants, the pollen must be transferred by hand from a male flower to a female flower.
The easy part is telling which ones are male and which female; the latter are atop the young squash. I taped small brown bags over 10 unopened female blossoms; the idea is to ensure that no bees or other creatures pollinate those flowers. And when the flowers blossom, we’ll pollinate them with a male flower.
My first batch was an unmitigated failure. I waited too long – several days – to check back in with my little ladies. All the blossoms had either rotted or dried out in the bags.
So I tried another 10. This time, four were OK. So with a cotton swab, I transferred pollen from male flowers to the center of the female flowers. Then I taped the flowers closed and marked them with flags to make sure they don’t get picked. It’s still no guarantee of seeds – animals or other problems could still interfere. And I’ll start the process with some new plants, too, because we hope to get plenty of seeds.
Why go to all this trouble? GrowGood could easily buy seeds next spring.
Corinne asks. “Why would we buy seeds over and over from Vermont, Northern Europe, Taiwan, South Africa, when we can witness the process of nature here on our farm?”
Volunteer Mary MacVean on her experience at GrowGood:
The first day of my summer internship at GrowGood, I worried I would get lost. It’s a small farm, 1.5 acres, but the land is fully used – an orchard, four areas for vegetables and herbs, a small spot for the chickens and a serene natives garden, as well as a hoop house, a shed and compost areas. And I live an urban life measured in square feet, not acres.
I know my way around now, a few weeks into the summer, and each time I walk from my car toward the table that acts as the hub for the farm workers I feel more in awe. It’s not unlike a baby you haven’t seen for a couple of weeks. You can’t quite grasp how much she’s grown.
To experienced growers the pace of change at this time of year may be routine, but for the uninitiated, it’s remarkable that the tomato plant I put into the ground from a four-inch pot needs to be staked to a fence so soon. Or the squash vines bearing only blossoms suddenly carry gorgeous, deep green zucchini.
Of course this is nothing unusual.
It is, however, one of the points of urban farming. In just a few generations, people have lost the everyday knowledge of how their broccoli gets into that shrink-wrapped package. Those of us who live in cities and buy our food in stores have to make an effort to know more, and reading labels is only a very small part of the story.
Anyone who comes to GrowGood – to work, as a volunteer, from the Salvation Army shelter or just to look around -- has the chance to see five kinds of squash on the vines, strawberries on low-to-the-ground plants (some tasted by creatures), Aztec spinach, amaranth, a swarm of “volunteer” tomatoes and so much more. The purslane grows where it wants to, which seems to be everywhere. There’s a grapefruit tree whose blossoms smell so sweet they remind me of the flavor and aroma factory that operated next to my elementary school. Rabbits, lizards, gophers, butterflies and bees act like it’s their world.
As lovely as that is, does it matter? As Corinne McAndrews, Farm Manager at GrowGood, asked during one lunchtime conversation, “Are we a necessity? Why are urban plots popping up all over?”
The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University considered the questions in a recent report called “Vacant Lots to Vibrant Plots.” The researchers include nearly every sort of city growing imaginable, including school and community gardens.
They conclude yes, urban agriculture matters – though perhaps as only a part of the solution for inequitable access to healthful food and environmental degradation. Instead, they say, endeavors like GrowGood improve the connections among people and promote “agricultural literacy” and civic engagement.
As Corrine also said, “My relationship with plants saved me from cynicism.” Not bad for a little plot of land.
You can find the full report here:
From Farmer Corinne:
A warming system is moving across the western United States bringing an end to Spring. The cool, overcast mornings and warm, breezy afternoons characterize a fifth season in Los Angeles - “June Gloom." On the farm, we spend the foggy mornings harvesting the last of our turnips, carrots, beets, and kale. In the afternoon, we plant our summer crops. Now, as temperatures rise, the watermelon, tomatoes, and eggplant will get the warmth and solar energy they need to thrive.
Now that almost all of our crops are in, our job now turns to maintenance to ensure our crops grow. The greenhouse is full of microgreen test trays and medicinal herb starts. In July, we will harvest leeks, broccoli, and Asian greens. Our interns have been an amazing help keeping us on our planting schedule and helping with trellis training, pest management, and compost applications to get these long-season crops off to a great start.
I almost forgot, in the month of May, we provided 541 lbs of produce to the Shelter's kitchen!
I couldn’t be more excited for what’s to come.
With the help of volunteers, GrowGood installed a pH injector in order to reduce the pH of the water going to our hoophouse. Currently, GrowGood's water is very basic, which is hard on some varieties of baby plants. The pH injector will keep the pH of our water at a consistent, healthy level for all our plants - saving us time and making GrowGood a more efficient operation.