Natalie ‘Sunshine’ Flores is building a green-thumb army to convert vacant lots into urban farms
Story by Joe Piasecki
Seeds of a movement are growing in a fenced-off empty lot on the unflashy south end of Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
Natalie Flores, 27, passed by the space a few doors down from Washington Boulevard — then a trash-strewn mess of dry grass and a handful of dying trees — during a meditative barefoot morning walk in February.
“I’m looking at all these empty plots, passing them one by one. Eventually I started exploring and noticed the fence in back of this one was open. I just started pulling weeds, thinking ‘here goes my insecurity, here goes my doubt,’” recalls Flores, who was working at Groundwork Coffee Co. on Rose Avenue at the time. “A neighbor came by and asked if I was building a garden. I said ‘sure’ and he brought me some tools.”
Flores and friend Sarah Klein, 35, began to enlist the help of others through a series of weekend gardening parties that, over the past 10 months, have given rise to vegetable plots, avocado and banana trees, a patch of succulents and an herb garden of basil, oregano, rosemary, sage and thyme. The wooden skeletons of two abandoned couches have been repurposed as planters for an upcoming crop of “couch” potatoes.
The gardeners don’t have permission to be there. They didn’t ask.
“The space was open and we just kind of took it over,” says Flores.
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Flores and Klein have extended their efforts to spaces in Mar Vista and Santa Monica, though in those cases by invitation, under the name Sunshine Partnerships.
“The main idea is to take over empty lots and bring neighbors together to help them realize they can grow their own food,” says Klein, who works with special-needs kids.
In keeping with that initial rebel spirit, Flores and friend Pete Maziak, a 38-year-old groundskeeper and web designer from Culver City, say they frequently “seed bomb” other Westside vacant lots, with Flores often leaving a spray-painted bee stencil as a marker of reclaiming space
In organizing their garden parties —
the next one on the 2700 block of Abbot Kinney Boulevard happens Sunday — Sunshine Partnerships has tapped into a strong pre-existing network of urban garden enthusiasts who’ve developed their green thumbs less as a hobby than a transformative lifestyle choice.
Working with Flores at the Abbot Kinney garden last Sunday were Maziak, professional gardener George Liebel, 34, and painter Charlotte Vanhaecke, a 29-year-old French transplant who’s lived in Mar Vista for the past four years.
Vanhaecke met Flores through Transition Mar Vista, a grassroots community-building group that spearheads a Good Karma Gardens Project — a pay-it-forward network of neighbors who help neighbors tear out their lawns to install vegetable gardens. She found Transition Mar Vista through Good Karma Gardens organizer Matthew Van Diepen, a Venice-based entrepreneur who grows and sells seedlings at the Mar Vista and Santa Monica farmers markets.
“There are a lot of young people who grew up with climate change on the radar and our looking for other ways of doing things,” says Van Diepen, 29. “We like the idea of the front-yard garden. It creates a conversation piece for the neighborhood.”
Julie, a co-founder of The Learning Garden at Venice High School, swapped her front yard on Luella Avenue for a vegetable garden in March with the help of the Good Karma group.
“It takes way less water, and you’re getting food. This summer I was giving cucumbers out to people walking by with their dogs. That builds community,” Mann says of the result. “It’s important that we re-educate ourselves on how to do this. We’ve forgotten.”
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Reconnecting with the Earth and working to replenish its life-giving soil is an existential issue for the health of society, says Ryland Englehart, founder of Café Gratitude, a locally sourced and organic vegan restaurant on Rose Avenue.
Englehart is a founder of Kiss the Ground, a Venice nonprofit that coalesced volunteers to convert the barren landscape outside Beyond Baroque on Venice Boulevard into an “ecology literacy center”: specifically a food forest of 25 fruit trees and 10 raised garden beds watered through drip irrigation as well as reclaimed wood furniture and a cob earth oven.
On Saturday, Kiss the Ground hosts a Venetian Garden Raising party and fundraiser to celebrate and continue their efforts. So far, more than 300 volunteers have already taken part in the work.
“The intention is to weave local food systems into the fabric of the cool, hip, eco-conscious culture of Venice,” says Englehart. “The way Abbot Kinney has become such a trendy space, we need to remain grounded and connected to simple, quality things.”
It’s a sentiment that’s catching on. Demand for public garden space has reached a fever pitch among Westside residents.
Ocean View Farm, a city-sponsored six-acre public garden in Mar Vista, offers 500 15’-by-15’ public garden plots. Each is currently occupied, and 620 people are already signed up for future openings — a list “about four years long,” volunteer garden manager Christy Wihlelmi says.
“We’re big, but there’s a huge waiting list of people who really want to garden but are living in apartments,” says Wilhelmi, author of the book Gardening for Geeks. She lives in Mar Vista, blogs at gardenerd.com and designs edible gardens for a living.
Community garden space only got tighter in January with the closure of the Venice Community Garden, a vacant lot on Mildred Avenue that had contained
50 plots, to make way for development after sale of the land.
In only 1,200 square feet of space, a community garden at Holy Nativity Church on 83rd Street and Dunbarton Avenue in Westchester yields hundreds of pounds of fresh produce for the LAX food pantry each year, says founder Joanne Poyourow.
“That’s a lot of vegetables for a skinny ribbon of land nobody had thought much of,” says Poyourow of the environmental and social justice project that also spun off into the Emerson Avenue Community Garden at Orville Wright Middle School.
“A lot of the silver-haired generation think of environmentalism as just a concept, but it’s a changing world. You have generations coming up looking at sustainability very differently,” she says.
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“There’s so much work to be done, but it’s all so possible. We’re celebrating, digging in the dirt and remembering where we came from,” Flores says while at work in her guerilla garden on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
When the work is done, she lays in the dirt triumphantly. This has become a habit, her friends say.
“For some people it’s a kind of healing process. They never get their hands in the soil, never do this type of work I take for granted. I love to see what the newcomers get from it,” Liebel says.
“What is great about this is it gets the neighborhood involved. People walk by and come back with their kids. I’d like them to take the next step and come on their own to take care of the garden,” says Vanhaecke.
Even if that means taking over private land without permission?
“I don’t want to ever have to ask to make the world a better place,” answers Liebel.
“You don’t need to ask!” Flores fires back.
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Kiss the Ground’s Venetian Garden Raising party and fundraiser is from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday outside Beyond Baroque at 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Visit kisstheground.co for more information.
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Sunshine Partners are hosting their next garden work party from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday in the lot on the west side of the 2700 block of Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Visit sunshinepartnerships.org.