By: Jeff Spurrier
Community gardens dispatch No. 5: Park Drive, Santa Monica
Summer was hard on Alan Toy’s tomatoes. There wasn’t enough sun, and that led to mildew, but he’s not complaining. His herbs — mint, cilantro, thyme, basil, oregano, sage — are all doing well, and the carrots he had sown a few weeks ago are coming up thick and bushy. Now if he can keep the squirrels out, he’ll be dining on the crop through the fall.
“I have more happy Bugs Bunny moments in this garden, chewing on a fresh carrot,” he said. “Nothing tastes better than a carrot right out of the ground.”
His carrots don’t come out of the ground but out of fiberglass bins filled with compost and potting soil. They’re propped on metal legs and have a cantilevered design that allows Toy to roll up his wheelchair and tend to plants more easily. His plot is the only one at Park Drive that is specifically designed for gardeners on crutches or in a wheelchair, one of three in Santa Monica’s community gardens. The Euclid Drive Community Garden has two plots for gardeners with disabilities.
“The lip allows me to put my wheelchair in straight instead of at an angle,” said Toy, president of the ACLU Southern California board of directors and an active voice for rights for the disabled. “It does limit my capacity to grow things in the front because it’s only 5 inches deep, but in the back it goes down to about 18 inches. I’ve grown some interesting crook-necked carrots that come out L-shaped.”
The main problem is the soil at the bottom tends to stay damp while the top 5 inches dry out quickly, but he’s meticulous in maintaining his crop. He let his cilantro go to seed — “I’ve got enough coriander to last a lifetime” — and he encourages volunteers that come up under the bins. That’s where he also scatters poppy and wildflower seeds. Nourished by constant nutrients that drain down from the bins, the ground will be thick with flowers come spring and summer.
It helps that Toy has a vigorous population of worms in each bin. He reaches down and lifts an empty pot. Underneath are a dozen red wigglers, ready to be transported to the sky box. He hasn’t started his winter garden yet. There’s still one cherry tomato volunteer pumping out fruit, and the eggplants that were so slow to blossom are finally producing. But it’s about time for the garlic and radishes to go in.
Although Toy doesn’t get the yield of some of his neighbors, for him the food is icing on the cake. “The best part is being able to nurture something, grow it, have a relationship experience and be out here.”
He said he hopes other communities will be inspired by what he has at Park Drive. Container gardens accessible to the disabled also exist at community gardens in Long Beach and Venice, among other places, but they are hardly widespread. It’s not just wheelchair gardeners who can benefit, he said. As baby boomers age, they too will find bending over to dig in the dirt less agreeable.
Southern California can do more to create urban spaces for gardening, for people to grow their own food. Think inclusive, he says.
Except for the squirrels.
“I find myself at night doing Internet searches for slingshots,” he admitted. “You will grow a nice big tomato, think you’re going to let it get a bit riper,” he said. Then you come and find the nibbles. “When you find an acorn at the bottom, you’re pretty sure who has been there.”