Saving the World, One Garden at a Time

Stanford Alumni volunteer with L.A. Green Grounds to put a garden in at a home in Leimert Park

If you want to save the world, what’s the best way to go about it?

The question plagued me all through grad school and sent me off to track relief and development efforts and organizations of all sizes in Colombia, Malawi, and elsewhere around the world. Across the board, it was clear that bigger was almost never better.  Smaller, more flexible, organic efforts were the ones most likely to be sustainable and have a genuine and transformative impact in a community.

I was therefore intrigued to learn about L.A. Green Grounds, an informal organization dedicated to “changing turf into edible gardens in South Los Angeles,” that seemed to embody the organic, smaller-is-better approach.

Leader Craig Dietrich describes the effort as a “labor of love.”

He created L.A. Green Grounds with his wife, Vanessa Vobis, and other gardening activists in 2010. They sought to build a corps of volunteers willing to set up gardens for those in South L.A. who wanted them. Volunteers come together at monthly “dig-ins,” where they spend up to six hours digging up a neighbor’s yard and planting edible crops and herbs. Whenever possible, the gardens are put in front yards so that people in the area can see them as they walk by and, hopefully, come to view gardens as beautiful and appropriate replacements for lawns.

First-timers are not always aware of how challenging it can be to start a large edible garden. Said Dietrich, “Until you get a garden, it is tough to see [what it entails].”

The organizers decided that those that wanted Green Grounds to put gardens in their own yards would be best served by first participating in a dig-in for someone else. This way, participants could get a better sense of not only how it would look and what it would produce, but also the commitment it takes to maintain a sizable garden.

The commitment of the new garden owners is essential to the success of the project.

Reason being, L.A. Green Grounds has not, to date, formalized their organization to seek out grants. The seedlings planted in the new gardens come from Craig and Vanessa’s own garden or that of Florence Nishida (a master gardener and one of Green Grounds’ founders).

The tools are also their own. The mulch and compost brought to the dig-in site are free from the city, but require that one of the organizers make the effort to transport it to the site. The only thing the homeowner is responsible for is sourcing any fruit trees that they would like to see planted and inviting their neighbors to join in the dig. In short, the organizers have invested a lot of themselves in making their vision a reality in the hopes that those entrusted with new gardens will carry that vision forward.

They seem to have been fortunate in that regard with at least two of their garden recipients.

I observed the May 12 dig-in at Judy’s home in Leimert Park and was struck by how thrilled she was to have a new garden. She had attended Florence Nishida’s master gardening classes and decided she needed one for herself. She and previous garden recipient (and nearby resident), Maggie, talked about how beautiful Maggie’s garden was and how many neighbors had stopped by to ask about the new front yard.

When others listening in to our conversation asked about whether or not it might be “tacky” to have a front yard replaced with compost and herbs, the women immediately countered the question with a resounding “No!”

For Judy, it’s all about “mind change.” Having gardens out front and accessible to neighbors, she said, “gives them good ideas…and shows people that it’s do-able. Even if you can’t do all of it, [you can] do part of it.”

Better yet, she said, “it gives the neighborhood a nice smell.”

For more about L.A. Green Grounds, please visit their website.

  • This is a great story of a green project that is truly distributed rather than centralized. I hesitate to call LA Green Grounds “grass-roots,” since it’s about replacing grass lawns!

    In her writing about permaculture, Joline Blais cites this quote about lawns from Bill Mollison:

    “The lawn and its shrubbery is a forcing of nature and landscape into a salute to wealth and power, and has no other purpose or function. The only thing that such designs demonstrate is that power can force men and women to waste their energies in controlled, menial and meaningless toil. The lawn gardener is schizoid serf as well as the feudal lord, following his lawnmower and wielding his hedge clippers, and contorting roses and privet into fanciful and meaningless topiary.”

    The sweat that goes into dig-ins is anything but meaningless, and as your article reveals the results can be beautiful as well.

  • Virginia Kuhn

    Green grounds rocks indeed!! It resonates on so many levels and while I’ve enjoyed my own garden (was a Dig In recipient last year–a current image of one bed is here), it’s also just cathartic to volunteer in ways that feed body and spirit. The politics are also key; there is way too little access to organic foods in this area and way too much fast food. Growing food in South Central is an act of intervention and resistance to structural inequity.  

  • Florence Nishida

    We really do care about our gardens and that they survive!  The garden feeds the family, the spirit, and the community.  So we go back and do a follow up in 4 weeks to teach some more, and to catch problems.  Then, we go back in 5-6 months for the change of season, and teach how/when to harvest, and to save seed.  We want to plant the seed of the idea too!

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