Photo by Nate Lubben
By Mick Haven, Contributing Writer
Joe Corso looks around, then stoops down and grabs a dirt clod. Standing, he says, “This soil’s hardpan.”
The pale dirt crumbles and slips through Corso’s fingers. “But we start adding compost, lots of it,” he points at a sloping mound in the corner of the garden. A cantaloupe rind smiles a pale grin on the side of the dark heap, until it gets dark, almost black. “One of many benefits of organic gardening [is that] we enrich the soil,” he laughs.
The garden director for Long Beach Organic Inc. stands in the middle of their latest addition unofficially dubbed, “Garden Number Nine,” at its inception two years ago. The addition is the nonprofit’s ninth garden. It’s now officially christened the 7th and Chestnut Garden. Around him are neatly arranged planter boxes divided in two: one plot for each gardener and a new water spigot sprout from the ground. Redolent with the piney smell of fresh-cut lumber from the planters, the air also has a cool morning dampness, but the golden rays of the winter, Southern California sun already promise another day in the 80s. It’s the first Saturday of the month, a work day.
“A city and port gives Long Beach two strikes,” Corso says. “The port deserves lots of credit. It’s one of the greenest in the world, but all that means is the trucking and shipping they do releases the least amount of air pollution compared to other ports. So it’s less negative.”
Corso’s already organized a few gardeners, a couple of women and a man. They work in the background, wheel-barrowing loads of wood chips from a pickup parked on the street. Using pitchforks, they spread the chips over the walkways between the planter boxes.
“Living next to a port city increases all kinds of health risks — cancers, like lung, and respiratory illnesses, like asthma,” he said. “Plants take CO2 out of the air and put O2 back — pure positive. All this talk about carbon cap and trade, plant a tree for every plane ride you take, or probably a small forest, it’s hard to measure.”
He smiles. Another pickup — so full of wood chips it’s sagging on its springs — arrives and Corso helps them find a parking spot. That is tricky in this Willmore City Historic District neighborhood of mostly apartment buildings and a smattering of houses. Now there’s a crew of eight or 10 workers, consisting of gardeners with a plot here, as well as a gardener from another Long Beach Organic garden, and several interns from Cal State Long Beach getting college credit for majors ranging from Human Geography to Environmental Science and Policy.
“What’s not hard to measure are the direct benefits to the city, community and neighborhood when LBO comes in,” Corso said. They take an abandoned lot and transform it. “There was an overgrown bougainvillea here,” he points at the middle of a six foot wooden fence on the side of the property abutting an apartment building.
“That we ripped out, — and weeds and garbage. “Homeless people used the bougainvillea to stash their bedrolls, clothes, belongings. The lot was getting used as a bathroom, too. You know, human feces. We came in, cleaned it all up. “When the owner sells the lot, whatever’s built and whoever lives there will have great soil for their yard. “And we do our best to give plots to people [who] can walk or bike to them, so it really is a neighborhood garden, and gardeners are growing their own vegetables and sharing produce with others, saving on transport from far away farms nationally or internationally.”
He tells one man forking bark onto a path, “Go all the way to the top of the planters because it compresses a lot as we walk on it.” Nodding, the gardener says OK and redoubles his effort. He dips his chin at the man. “Tied up with that — and it’s beyond measure, but it’s there, and I’ve seen it — people are digging in the dirt, growing their own food, sometimes for the first time, and it can be transformative,” he said. “What I always hear from a gardener harvesting their plot the first time is, ‘Wow, tomatoes from the store don’t taste like this!’ Or fill in peas, carrots, squash … nothing from the store tastes as good, — not even organics from Whole Foods because it’s business to those organic farmers. They’re making a living. And this (he holds up his arms and looks around the garden), this isn’t about business.
“LBO’s community gardens are micro. A labor of love not profit. We can’t sell any of what’s produced from our gardens. You can give it away; you can donate it; but nothing can be sold. It’s illegal. LBO’s not licensed for it. We’re not farmers. We’re gardeners. “And community garden, that’s the best of my job, as far as I’m concerned. Seeing people meet their neighbors. Folks from different generations and ethnicities get to know each other because they’ve joined a garden. It’s about enjoying their neighborhood, which contributes so much to quality of life.”
Corso turns his talk to 7th and Chestnut’s genesis.
“The Pacific and 6th plot had a really long waiting list, a backlog from Pacific Towers Retirement Center and MHA [Mental Health America] Village. LBO’s been partners with both for a long time and loves the relationship, so the only option was to find another lot for a new garden, which was what I decided to do three years ago, and I started to look around.
“I talked to Lena Gonzalez, field deputy for Vice Mayor Robert Garcia, first district’s representative. I’d scouted a couple lots. She suggested another, 7th and Chestnut, and gave me the info for all the owners.
“After I mailed the three letters, about two years ago, the only owner that responded was Eric Bueno from 7th and Chestnut. “I met with Eric, showed him around some of LBO’s gardens, and he got interested. When we met, I explained what LBO offers property owners: we cover the insurance for the lot and maintain the property, and when the lease is up, we move on, no questions asked if the owner doesn’t want to renew it.
“About 18 months ago, Eric agreed. LBO took a big leap of faith because we accepted a three-year lease. I wanted five. In the beginning we had a couple of rough learning experiences. “For instance, in the ‘90s, before I was involved [with] LBO, [I] found a plot on Anaheim, east of Cherry, and got it all ready: fence, water, planters. Just before it was about to open, the owner got an offer he couldn’t refuse and sold the property. Now we lock in a lease — minimum three years.
“With Eric on board, we raised funds and signed the lease October 2013.”
Corso looks at the fence: a cool sea-foam green and graceful Victorian-inspired steel affair topped in ornate spear heads. “Our biggest delay was the fence — totally unanticipated. LBO’s never gone for a lot in a historic district before — had to get a Certificate of Appropriateness. When I picked up the forms, I was told three feet was maximum height, so I thought that was the end. We’ve got to have security. I know it sounds like a contradiction, community garden and security, but people will come and take the food grown or vandalize the plots, grounds or structures. And our gardening equipment is locked in a shed, but the extra security of a fence provides another safeguard.
“Luckily, I was told we could get an exception. More forms we had to send through zoning for a zoning modification. We got two more feet, although I’d asked for three. After considering it, I decided five was enough.
“The process took nine months. Like giving birth (he smiles), which explains why we’re opening about a year behind. “After the fence, we took the funds we’d raised and put them to work. I’d gone for a Grant thinking I’d never get it. It was an online form. I filled it out and got it, $16,000. That’s huge to us.
“The city had already given us a Neighborhood Improvement Grant through the Neighborhood Partners Program. That’s where Long Beach matches labor and money up to $5,000. We managed to nearly max that one. Timothy Collier, The Green Plumber, donated the labor; the city picked up the tab for materials. We needed a water source and meter.”
Corso holds up his arms.
“It’s a lot of work,” he smiles. “The board is all volunteers except for the garden director; the only paid position. So, we’re going to take a break and enjoy the fruits of our labor. No more new gardens for a while. Not until we get another paid position.”
Long Beach Organic Inc.: www.longbeachorganic.org The Green Plumber: www.callthegreenplumber.com