During one of the hottest weekends of the summer, I found myself driving up the 5 freeway to Arleta with my mask and thermos filled with ice water ready to go. I found myself in a residential community just a half mile away from the freeway exit. Nestled in the corner of the neighborhood, SOW Collective’s community garden welcomed me with valley heat, flowering basil, and summer’s last batch of glorious tomatoes.
It was my first time finally meeting the badass SOW team in person after I interviewed them several months ago before we knew how long COVID-19 would impact our lives and our work. Despite the sweltering heat (it was a ripe 90 degrees at 10 AM), there was a small army of female volunteers ready to help shovel dirt, weed out intruders, and harvest the last peppers, tomatoes, and squash. I was instantly jealous of this community- how lucky they are to have a garden smack dab in the middle of their neighborhood! How wonderful would it be to spend a Saturday morning walking down the street to pick some fresh fruits and veggies, volunteer some time to learn about gardening, and also get to know my neighbors?
Does anyone else suffer from this type of community garden envy? Have you wondered what it would take to have a community garden in your neighborhood? And most importantly- have you considered what the obstacles are to having one? If you’d like to admire/envy SOW Collective’s garden in person, go here for hours and directions, and you may also want to check out what other projects they have going on. It turns out the garden is just the beginning for SOW!
Hi there! I recently had the privilege to (virtually) meet the brilliant, all-female team behind Sustain Our World, a community garden program in the Valley that has turned into so much more than just green urban space in the Covid Era. The lovely ladies of SOW took some time to chat with me about their garden, how they got it started, and the importance of sustainable public-private-partnerships. She Grows Cities looks forward to partnering with SOW in future programming, events, and, of course, growing more gardens!
Garden name: Sustain Our World (SOW)
Location: While our garden and Homebase is in San Fernando Valley, our mission takes us all over LA County and beyond!
Current members:Madison Jaschke, soil and water scientist; Haley Feng, biologist and urban planner; Stephanie Gomez, educator and policy advocate; and Christina Jimenez, mechanical engineer and marketing professional.
Social media: find us on IG @sustainoworld; website coming soon!
How did you decide to start a community garden?
Madison: SOW Community Garden began as a program developed to engage and provide for the community, especially as an educational space for children. As soon as the pandemic hit and food security was being compromised, the SOW Team kicked into high drive. We had to get this garden planted now in order to support local families, and we did just that. We put together this garden in just one month, utilizing resources and partnerships within the community and repurposing almost all materials. We now have plants in and actively growing!
Christina: When there was an emergency declared March 11th, I foresaw the garden being a huge resource for folks who would be economically impacted in the coming months. The very next day I rallied the SOW girls and my bestie Cindy Villasenor to start transforming the ~5,500 sq. ft lot into fertile ground.
Haley: [We envisioned] a community garden where we host our youth and community programs and harvest fresh, nutritious produce has always been part of SOW’s business plan.
Stephanie: We knew this space would exist as our headquarters, but we responded with the intention to bring it to life quickly to ensure we could provide our communities with access to food as we viewed this time as vital to feed families in need.
How can cities build safe, inclusive urban farms for all communities?
Madison: Utilize empty space! Look into parkway strips and if you are allowed to plant along your sidewalk. If you see a vacant lot overgrown with weeds, contact your local councilmember to see if they can connect you to the landowners or offer any incentives for food gardens. Many politicians will be in support of your efforts. The SOW Team set up a lease agreement to rent the land to grow food, mutually benefiting both parties as gardens and landscaping raise property value. It’s all about finding an underutilized space and turning it into something productive and sustainable.
Stephanie: Cities have the platform to spread awareness on the importance of building urban farms and integrating them as the norm within neighborhoods. Gardens can be added as a section in parks. Cities can also help provide funding for the maintenance of residential community gardens. This would provide residential home owners to comfortably build garden beds that are 4 by 4 on the empty piece of grass on the sidewalk.
Haley: It all starts with policymaking to create the ideal environment for these programs to thrive. One of the most effective things cities can do is to make land affordable and accessible to urban farmers. Additionally, farmers are always in need of supplies. In terms of providing supplies to community gardens like ours and urban farms, the City of Los Angeles is such a good place to be. We were able to obtain compost and mulch fairly easily through the Bureau of Sanitation. I want to urge cities to consider incorporating farms into general/community plans as well as design guidelines. Our City as it is… is not built for farming. We need to work on transforming it into a place where, if you wish to grow food, farmable land is accessible and compatible with the rest of your community. Sometimes this means being creative with where you designate land as farmable – like parkway strips, as Madi mentioned.
Christina: Cities should consider the cultural and economic background of their neighborhoods that would be benefiting from an urban garden. What do these communities eat and would they know how to prepare produce that is new to them? Also, people care about what they put their time into. Integrating involvement through volunteering or resource donations for a shared space like an urban garden, can shape a well-rounded community of people who care about the purpose.
Who is someone who inspires you to grow more gardens?
Stephanie: I am inspired to grow more gardens by my grandparents. I cannot wait to share the fruit of our labor with them. My grandparents allowed me to form a wonderful relationship with the fruits and vegetables from Mexico. Food has always been our common language as I watched my grandparents care for their nopales, guayabas, mandarinas, frijoles, manzanas, and so much more all in a tiny plot of land no more than 100 feet.
Madison: To echo Stephanie, we are inspired by our elder mentors, especially the women in our lives who have been the conduit for our connection to nature. To the grandmas who have brought us along on their gardening chores: thank you for showing us how you do everything so carefully. I have learned so much from you. The teachers who we’ve had along the way who have strengthened our love and knowledge for the natural world. And each other, really.
Christina: My daughter Camila. I want her to grow up with a different perspective of the food/economic system we’re thrown into. She has immense empathy for people who are treated unfairly or have less, and that makes me want to support a basic need for people.
Haley: I am also highly motivated by food, so just day-dreaming about turning fresh ingredients into gourmet food gets me super motivated 🙂
Where is your favorite urban space?
Christina: Little Tokyo has some awesome spots. The Arts District corridor is my go-to hangout spot to get some fresh air and beers. Venice Boardwalk is a close second.
Madison: Interesting question. In Los Angeles, we have a concrete jungle with trees uprooting sidewalks and birds and lizards passing through. My favorite urban space is whenever I’m walking or longboarding down the sidewalk, and I come across a little slice of heaven – someone’s abundant, biodiverse, thriving front yard. I always stop for a second to smell the flowers and listen to the bugs and birds in the bushes, and to just admire the beauty this person has chosen to create.
Stephanie: My favorite urban space in LA would be Echo Park where you can find bookstores down the strip, a beautiful park with a huge lake, vegan taco trucks and restaurants like Sage Bistro, or if you are looking for some delicious deep dish pizza, Masa is the place to visit. The Sunset strip has it all from bars, to taco trucks, a park, dance clubs, fashion boutiques. Truly a great place to spend the day.
Haley: Palms/Downtown Culver City/Ballona Creek is my favorite and where I feel at home. I hope it stays this way. I am biased towards the Westside though, having lived here for the past 5 years. I do want to second all of above too – Los Angeles is amazingly diverse in urban forms and urban personalities.
What’s ahead for Sustain Our World?
Madison: Big things! The SOW Team is composed of four very passionate and motivated women who want to be that conduit for a healthy, sustainable future.
Stephanie: Where do I begin? Currently, we are planning out our blogs that will share a piece of each of our interests within sustainability. We each share the same value to bring awareness to a more eco-conscious lifestyle, however our individual journeys will all look very different and that is what we’d like to highlight about the road to a reduced-waste lifestyle. Our other programs include environmental equity advocacy work to make sure we aren’t only taking physical action to improve our environment but also being part of the conversations when it comes to implementing long term ordinances that affect our natural resources for years to come. A few other pieces that SOW is working on is a podcast and live IG videos that focus on tips and tricks on How to live a more waste-free alternative lifestyle.
Haley: For the time being we are focusing on laying down a strong foundation for SOW.
With the safer at home order, we have been taking turns to take care of the garden while working on developing our online presence. There have been many long, late night Zoom calls, but our passion keeps us going. We want to see our garden thrive, with an abundance of produce, herbs, teas, programs, and events; we will also be launching a zero-waste service program targeting farmers markets and eventually, we hope to tackle bigger events such as music festivals and concerts. In addition to events, we want to work with policymakers to bring zero-waste or zero-plastic to restaurants and businesses.
Christina: We are working on so many things other than the garden at the moment it’s crazy. Keep your eyes peeled for Co-founder Series blog, handmade products from our garden, SOW advocacy chapters at universities, and the launch of other sustainable programs we’ve been holding out on because of the pandemic.
Any individuals/vlogs/projects you would like to plug?
Madison: @cerowastecindy does amazing garden consultations! She helped us start the garden off with a no-till, sustainable method called lasagna layering. I highly recommend following her inspiring cero waste journey. Also, @generationpermaculture and @girl.plants.world, our global friends who share this passion for sustainability and who are spreading and sharing stories of inspiration. Thank you to Michael for the salvaged soil and Daniel for the composted cow manure. Also, @ask_mr_list is a great resource for gardening wisdom, and we are so grateful for the garden beds!
If you want to support the garden, here is our GoFundMe:
Christina: My sustainable lifestyle brand. Working on a couple of quality pieces of clothing right now. Part of the proceeds will be going to SOW.
Cindy Villasenor has started her garden consulting business to help you start your own urban garden. People with small spaces (apartments/porch only) are encouraged to start. (@cerowastecindy, email@example.com)
Stephanie: Currently, I am planning a SOW Spring Closet (Virtual Yard Sale/Thrift Shop Fundraiser- Using Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Poshmark to sell clothing it will be a Bid Style-Highest Bid Will Take the item) All proceeds will be going to the programs and events that will take place at the Garden. I am re-starting a Youtube channel as I’d like to share my journey towards sustainability. Stay tuned for that I used to only post covers of songs now I feel comfortable sharing the challenges of changing my consumer habits.
Haley: As an urban planner concentrating on Economic Development, I am always keeping an eye out for business opportunities in communities. While nothing is concrete yet, I hope to create a line of products made out of recycled materials, starting with plastics. Stay tuned!
…or so the Voltaire quote goes. Kind of. I’m sure something may have been lost in translation. While this quote refers to tending to one’s “garden” in a philosophical sense in response to all the hardship and suffering that exists in the world, I don’t think the philosophy perfectly fits our world’s current pandemic. I am an optimist, and believe that the tide will eventually turn back in humanity’s favor, but I disagree with our society’s hustle culture being applied to all of us stuck at home.
There is an immense pressure and expectation applied on us all to come out of this fitter, smarter, better, healthier, etc. This moment should be considered a chance to maximize productivity, master new skills- you have no excuse not to! I don’t have any problem with those who want to do just that, but I want to acknowledge the vast majority of people who are currently in situations where they cannot boast of new achievements because, well, life is kind of crazy right now.
If you wake up early to take a walk, that is great! If you sleep in and treat yourself to pancakes, that’s great too. I don’t want people to think my post is pointing fingers at anyone who is NOT growing their own produce. I recognize that I am privileged enough to have a backyard large enough to start one, and I have the means to buy good wood and tools to help me get started. If you find joy and relaxation from gardening and all things urban farming like I do, then I look forward to seeing YOUR gardens, too! If not, I hope you fill your day with things that make you happy and you find meaningful- I think that’s what Voltaire ultimately meant, anyway.
So, the garden. It is a teeny tiny bed I started with green onion, tomatoes, and lettuce. On the side, I decided to plant some lavender, thyme, and oregano in hopes of warding off mosquitos. We moved my baby aloe vera to the back of the garden bed just ‘cuz (and she’s now about to bloom! More pics of this next time).
So far, not much luck on the thyme and oregano. The green onions are coming along nicely, although the heat waves we’ve been having in LA are concerning. Tomatoes tend to do well in this spot so we’re leaving them alone for the most part. The lettuce is getting attacked by pests- any tips on preventing this?
Also tried soaking ginger and garlic and getting them started in pots- no luck on this end either. I think I did not soak them long enough. Will try again in a few weeks. A neighbor was giving away rosemary so I am trying to grow a few sprigs in a pot as well- another scent that mosquitos hate! We’ve had an awful case of ankle-biters that last few summers.
Finally, Mr. Cheese, my beloved monstera, has been replanted after outgrowing his first home. I tried to propagate him as well- will share status update next time. If you have a garden or urban farm and you want to share yours, feel free to comment or shoot me an email!