Venice High modernization means cutting down mature trees in The Learning Garden

By Gary Walker

Community members, activists and volunteers bid adieu to about a half-dozen trees designated for removal from Venice High’s Learning Garden with a traditional Japanese Shinto ceremony
Top left and bottom: Photos by Maria Martin / Top right: Photo by Gary Walker

For nearly two decades, The Learning Garden at Venice High School has transformed what was once empty space on campus into a hands-on teaching tool and community resource for budding botanists and master gardeners alike.

Now that the 1935 campus is getting some long overdue attention from LAUSD, the garden that volunteers cultivated out of prior neglect is about to gain new classroom space but lose several of its beloved mature trees.

The popular $111-million renovation plan for the next three years will upgrade facilities throughout the campus and create more than 40,000 square feet of brand-new learning spaces. But at least a half-dozen trees in The Learning Garden have also been targeted for removal during the upcoming winter break, according to school district officials. These include a roughly century-old western sycamore tree and a silk floss tree that have become favorites of garden keepers and visitors alike. A section of mature cacti will be uprooted as well.

Master gardener David King, who heads the volunteer effort to maintain The Learning Garden for students and the public, said he and supporters tried to negotiate with district officials to save the trees, but to no avail.

King and about 60 garden supporters gathered in November for a traditional Japanese Shinto ceremony to celebrate and honor the trees that will be lost.

“We’ve had to make a compromise. As much as I dislike the compromise, the ramifications could have been much worse. We could have lost The Learning Garden,” he told the crowd. “You cannot imagine what it feels like to lose a loved one if you haven’t lost one. But that’s what we’re doing here. We’re going to figure out how to make it through this great spiritual loss and how to hold our heads high.”

Venice resident Andrew Dove said he was deeply moved by King’s words and proceeded to embrace the sycamore’s massive trunk.

“When I’m feeling down, I hug trees,” he said. “It’s grounding and it’s healing.”

LAUSD spokesman Samuel Gilstrap confirmed that some trees are slated for removal over the winter break, but said new trees will be replanted as campus modernization proceeds.

“Two trees at the east side of The Learning Garden will be removed in order to make way for a new classroom building being constructed as part of a large-scale comprehensive modernization project at Venice High School,” Gilstrap said. “The new classroom building will include, among other things, a horticulture classroom which will be located directly adjacent to The Learning Garden for a hands-on learning experience.”

Last Friday, Venice resident Shirley Vernale led a small protest in front of The Learning Garden in hopes that LAUSD might modify construction plans to save the trees.

“We’re here to say [removing these trees] is inconsistent with our fight against global warming,” asserted Vernale, an environmental scientist and educator. “They provide an invaluable education to the students. … Trees have a right to live, just like we do.”