By Gary Walker
In its five-year existence, the Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase has blossomed from a small neighborhood tour of ecologically sustainable homes and gardens into a regional event attended by thousands, prompting both lawmakers and environmental scientists to take notice.
Many Westsiders mark their calendars in anticipation of the annual springtime event that put Mar Vista on the sustainability movement’s map.
But the showcase may soon become a relic of its former self, a victim of its own rapid success and the incredible amount of work involved in managing a roster of 100-plus homes.
Run by volunteers, the showcase requires months of recruiting homeowners, enlisting guest presenters, scheduling the actual tour and marketing the event, says co-founder Sherri Akers.
Due to changes in personal and professional duties, the showcase team’s creative core — Akers and committee co-chairs Melissa Stoller and Jeanne Kuntz — say it’s past time they handed over the reigns.
Who will take them, however, remains to be seen.
With the future of the showcase in doubt, the Mar Vista Community Council’s Executive Finance Committee is meeting Monday night at the Venice Grind coffeehouse to size up what this year’s tour will look like.
“The tour really is about community-building, neighbor to neighbor, and it has certainly contributed to positioning Mar Vista as a highly desirable place to live, work and play,” said Sharon Commins, chair of the Mar Vista Community Council. “We sure don’t want to lose such an opportunity.”
From root to shoot
Initially planned as a onetime event in 2009, organizers were inspired to carry on by overwhelming community interest.
“The success of it caught us all off guard,” Akers said. “It has become such an incredible part of the Mar Vista culture.”
After the second year, representatives of environmental groups such as Tree People, Surfrider Ocean Friendly Gardens, Los Angeles County Master Gardeners and the Seed Library of Los Angeles served as event presenters. In 2011, the American Solar Energy Society linked the event to its national tour and former investment banker Austin Beutner, then running to become mayor of Los Angeles, visited several of the featured homes. Last year’s event drew more than 2,000 people, including state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), then an assemblywoman.
During a presentation at a Dec. 10 community council meeting, Stoller said the event has grown from a simple garden tour encouraging water conservation into a broader exploration of sustainable living, including preservation of native plants to sustain natural habitats.
“We were able to speak to why these things matter and show how they could be done,” Stoller said.
Kuntz said the committee has been trying for months to convince the council that she and Stoller are no longer able to commit the time and effort the undertaking requires.
Both Stoller and Akers used the same phrase to describe how they view the countless hours that they have spent organizing and designing the tour: “a labor of love.”
Although satisfying, organizers say the work has begun to take a toll.
“I wish that recruiting gardens was as easy as writing down an address,” said Akers, “but it’s not.”
Looking for ‘champions’
The target date for the next garden showcase is April 26 — Earth Day — but perhaps this time in a much smaller form.
Stoller and Kuntz have proposed a less-structured community event focused on sustainability, tossing out ideas that include volunteer opportunities at local schools, tree plantings, nature walks and building a demonstration garden.
Kuntz said a focus on other components of leaving a small ecological footprint may be part of the tour’s natural evolution.
“I think many people are ready to get into the finer points of sustainable living instead of just gardening,” Kuntz said. “The gardens were initially a lure to get people to think about sustainable living.”
In that way, Kuntz said the showcase won’t so much come to an end as it would be reduced to a manageable effort.
But Commins is imploring neighbors to help pull off this year’s event, which is a little more than three months away.
“We’re hoping some champions will step up to the plate and help run a lighter tour for 2014. We’re looking for about 12 dedicated volunteers to spread the workload out,” she said.
Christy Wilhelmi, who owns Gardenerd, a food garden design and consulting firm in Mar Vista, said she plans to attend Monday’s meeting.
“If no one steps up to pick up the reins, [the garden showcase] may go away for a while, and I would hate to see that happen,” Wilhelmi said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what the next iteration of the showcase will look like.”
Akers said she would like to stay involved with the event in some capacity.
“We would be thrilled if the 2014 tour could still take place,” she said. “We are not walking away, but we can’t accomplish a tour with the current structure.”
Whatever happens, the cause remains the same.
“If a qualified leader steps up to continue the garden showcase, that’s wonderful. If not, we are ready, and excited, to move on to a somewhat different Earth Day celebration,” Stoller said.
The meeting on the future of the Mar Vista Green Garden Showcase takes place at 7 p.m. Monday at Venice Grind, 2224 Venice Blvd., Mar Vista. To volunteer, attend the meeting or email gardens(at)marvista.org.