The Learning Garden Takes Root in Venice

By Frank Strasser

“Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.” ~ Rudyard Kipling

Over the past few decades, I’ve sat at a thousand red lights, gazing through a rusty chain link fence at a weedy overgrown garden patch at the intersection of Walgrove Ave. and Venice Blvd. For years, I observed a pattern. On occasion, the garden would thrive. For a few glorious months, vibrant flowers and flourishing vegetables would burst from the earth. Invariably — inevitably — the lush greenhaven withered and reverted back to a sadly neglected eyesore.

For 20 some years, waiting for light signals to change from red to green, I wondered how this neglected plot at the northwest corner of Venice High School might look with a healthy dose of TLC. Often I thought of finding out what was involved in getting involved. Like many underutilized community resources, this garden plot seemed ripe with potential. But I never took concrete action. From the safety on my side of the chain link fence, I dreamed of a greener world.

Rudyard Kipling once observed, “Gardens are not made by singing ‘Oh, how beautiful,’ and sitting in the shade.” Today, thanks to the concerted efforts and hard work of dedicated community activists and avid garden enthusiasts, the long-neglected plot is a flourishing suburban mini-farm. Through a series of life changes, fortuitous events and simple twists of fate, I am now blessed to be actively involved in supporting this vital community garden project.

The Learning Garden at Venice High School was established in 2001 after decades of failed attempts to revitalize the land. In just over ten years, the 60,000-square-foot garden has become a source of pride in this working-class community, inspiring students to connect with the earth and evolving into one of the most productive school gardens in the United States. This once underutilized eyesore has evolved into a thriving community resource, offering hands-on education in horticulture, permaculture, herbology, botany, nutrition, photography, art, and environmental science.

The importance of plants in our lives is immeasurable, yet fewer and fewer people are connecting to the earth and nature. Valuable medicinal herbs and foods are becoming extinct, along with the knowledge of how to organically grow, harvest, and use them. The Learning Garden at Venice High School – a collaborative effort of Venice High School, Yo San Traditional Chinese Medicine School, Emperor’s College, and the local community – seeks to bring this knowledge back to the people, to educate them in the use of food and medicinal plants, and to be a model for Los Angeles, the U.S., and the world.

A few months ago, I finally ventured beyond the chain link fence to set foot on the fertile soil of The Learning Garden for the first time. A local chapter of an organization I belong to, Men’s Division International (MDI), recently formed a Community Outreach Team. Our first mission was to locate a worthwhile community project to lend support. Meanwhile, The Learning Garden was in desperate need of manpower to realize some of their long-term goals. A few fruitful meetings later, a mutually beneficial relationship blossomed.

Our Community Outreach Team met with several passionately committed Learning Garden volunteers. We were given a garden tour and offered valuable insights on organic gardening from Master Gardener David King. “Remember, pristine produce, like what you see on the shelf of the supermarket, is an artificial creature placed before you in the interest of divorcing you from reality. Real food often has evidence that it is good to eat; it’s approved by other species. This stuff we have come to think of as ‘normal’ comes to our table with a tremendous price tag on the environment and the other critters on this planet.”

Hearing David discuss the growing need for a more sustainable lifestyle, while touring an impressive community-based organic garden, proved a pointed reminder of the need to “think globally, act locally.”

Learning Garden volunteer Sasha Rovin founded the non-profit organization ThisIsBetter.org (BETTER). She provided additional background on The Learning Garden for the benefit of Full Monty’s Community Outreach Team. In so doing, she made it perfectly clear precisely how our organization could support their efforts:

“One of the garden’s long-term goals is to install green infrastructure projects. We would like to accomplish this in a style that can be reproduced easily by others in their own communities or homes. One of our projects includes an installation of underground cisterns that play into a design that includes a meandering stream and water gardens throughout the space. That is our great vision, but we have to start with some basics.

We are desperate to start digging in the space we have determined is ideal for Phase 1 of this project, but we have run into a few insurmountable obstacles. Cement footings! They have been found underground and they harken back to the garden’s earlier days, rich with masonry heritage. A work day to remove these footings is a short and sweet project perfect for a crew of strong and handy men. That’s where MDI comes in.”

Our immediate mission was clear. All systems go! For the past few months, MDI’s local Community Outreach Team has been actively collaborating with The Learning Garden to dig in, get our hands dirty, and serve our community. Above and beyond meeting the primary objective of removing massive slabs of concrete from the earth, what we have in mind is no ordinary work party but a community event.

Master Gardener David King will conduct tours of The Learning Garden. Men of the Community Outreach Team will serve coffee and bagels in the morning, grill food in the afternoon, and stage a full day of musical entertainment in a festive garden setting.

We invite the Venice Community to come enjoy food and live music in a festive setting while supporting a worthy local cause. Community Outreach Day at The Learning Garden (where Walgrove Ave. meets Venice Blvd.), will be held on Saturday, June 15, 2013, 8am – 4pm, with live music from 10am – 4pm. I’ve been working with Eric Ahlberg and other local musicians putting together a kickass house band to perform a wide variety of originals and classic hits featuring special guests.

The local Venice Musical Tribe is tuning up and ready to gig.

Come visit the other side of the chain link fence, which you too may have driven past and thought about for years. Be seen! Be Green!