LOS ANGELES — Before Micheltorena Elementary School built its community garden, the majority of the schoolgrounds was a vast, empty parking lot adjacent to the noisy West Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.
Thanks to a few committed neighborhood volunteers, this public school is now the prideful home of a beautiful and productive community garden.
The Micheltorena garden is a real-world testing ground for students to apply ideas and values learned in the classroom, and a cherished community space that brings the neighborhood together.
When you volunteer at the garden — as I have done twice — you get a genuine sense of the value it offers to the school and community.
From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, various people come and go from the garden not just to offer a helping hand, but to learn, to mingle, and to enjoy the harvest with fellow volunteers. Some are students, some are neighbors; some are younger, some are older.
Last Saturday’s workday consisted of turning the compost, watering, weeding, and fertilizing the garden with compost tea, all tasks endowed with much meaning and purpose after enjoying the resultant harvest.
The workdays are organized by Leonardo Chalupowicz, who has led the garden project throughout its one-year existence. The experience inspired him and others to co-found Enrich LA, a non-profit organization whose mission is, “A Garden in Every School.”
The group manages 11 school gardens at various stages in the Los Angeles area.
The Micheltorena Garden Compost
Like most sustainable gardens, the Micheltorena school garden develops compost as the primary foundation of the soil.
For the compost contents, the Micheltorena gardeners receive surplus fruits and vegetables donated by the Silver Lake Farmers’ Market, which takes place twice-weekly just three blocks away.
The school uses a four-stage composting system:
- Food scraps are initially placed in a black plastic bin provided by the city.
- After a week, the semi-decomposed contents of the first bin get moved to a second wooden bin.
- A third wooden bin is filled with the contents of the second wooden bin.
- And the final heap is moved to a chicken-wire cylindrical container.
This multi-stage process is an efficient, flowing system that provides tons of compost, especially during the summer months when the heat helps accelerate the decomposition.
Alongside the school’s composting setup is a vermicompost bin, a system where worms work with bacteria to digest food waste and produce a potent “worm manure” fertilizer. The finished vermicompost is dissolved in water in a trash bin, and then used to water the plants.
Seeing that vermicompost is a primary fertilizer for this garden reaffirmed my faith in vermicomposting as a way to develop a sustainable, local fertilizer. Vermicompost is a foundational medium also used heavily at Our School at Blair Grocery in New Orleans.
Soil quality at the Micheltorena garden is monitored by Frances Tran, a Silver Lake resident and PhD student in Biology, who is the garden’s resident soil tester. Frances occasionally brings pH strips from her lab to determine the garden’s soil quality and amend it accordingly.
After the workday — which was leisurely overall, given the shared workload — volunteers worked to harvest and chop fresh carrots, beats, cucumbers, green tomatoes, peppers, beans, and more.
Half of the produce went into a salad, while the other half was reserved for the day’s pickling project. Neighborhood volunteer Jason Jones brought the materials for the pickling, including a brine recipe adapted from his home state of Alabama.
Student Workdays & Garden Classes
Each Wednesday during school hours, the students have a workday in the garden with help from parents and community volunteers.
The Wednesday workdays are a chance for students to engage in positive work in an “experiential, cooperative classroom,” while reaping rewards in the form of fresh garden produce and knowledge acquired from the classes on food and sustainability that are taught in the garden. In the evening, children and their families are invited to a garden potluck.
School gardens like Micheltorena’s are an asset to the communities they serve. While schools across the country struggle with funding and political problems, volunteers nationwide are building sustainable school gardens in what is literally a grassroots approach to positive educational reform.
I stand wholeheartedly behind Enrich LA’s mission to put “a garden in every school.”
Micheltorena Garden Mission
“The Micheltorena Elementary School garden will be shared with the Silver Lake community and will provide numerous opportunities for teaching and education, as well as plenty of food and flowers for both students and community members. Ongoing garden projects include a garden of drought-tolerant and native plants, a rose garden, and a reading garden on the patio outside the new school library. Planned education activities in the garden include participation in the Harvest of the Month and Farm to School programs, permaculture classes, cooking classes, canning and preserving classes, and composting classes taught by local experts.”
See my photo album of Micheltorena School and Community Garden on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.251150344903430.67581.245417525476712