You may have encountered city farmers, where you live. In some places in greater Los Angeles, ‘wanna-be’ farmers are allowed to garden a small plot of land on which they can grow lettuce and tomatoes, corn and cabbages, irises and roses. There doesn’t seem to be much of a restriction on what you may grow, but there generally are rules about tending your plot, keeping it weeded and tidy.
When a girlfriend showed me her little garden plot, I reached out to pick a tomato from a neighboring plot. She stopped me with a small smack. “That’s a big no-no” she explained. (A pity…the neighbor’s tomatoes were overripe and begging to be picked!)
We were, until 2008, city farmers of a different breed; in the sprawling city of greater Los Angeles, where houses are squeezed together, as many crowded onto a plot of land as possible, with spacious homes giving way to apartment buildings, condos and townhouses – our old house rested placidly on three-quarters of an acre. There used to be many such houses as that one, in the San Fernando Valley—gradually, they’ve disappeared to be replaced by four or five houses crammed together on the same plot of land (where you can hear your neighbor’s toilet flush), or worse—by several large apartment buildings. I have lived here long enough to remember when there were far fewer apartment buildings, and huge oak and eucalyptus trees lined many of the wide main thoroughfares across the valley. Like the many sprawling ranch-type houses on big lots, the trees have disappeared as well, to accommodate the every-growing traffic congestion.
Still, there we were. We were blessed, for many years, to have a whole-sale nursery running along one side and behind our yard; years ago, you could go to sleep to the sound of automatic sprinklers watering their plants and trees. Oleanders (now in danger of being destroyed by some kind of virus) covered the front entrance, hiding us from street traffic. Visitors often got lost trying to find the house, which was fairly hidden by the bushes and trees. The nursery is gone, now, replaced by a large and sprawling assisted living facility. Shortly before the assisted living facility was scheduled to open – we discovered that we, too, had days that were numbered in Arleta.
But before I get to the Great Move, I want to share some thoughts about our former residence. Some of the trees were there when I first moved into this house in 1974; many were planted by Bob and me over a 20 year span – and several, incredibly – were volunteers; trees that simply took root and began to grow. We had nectarine, peach and loquat trees that were all volunteers. (Does a seed float through the air and say “This looks like a good place to light?”)
Out front, we had the following trees: 2 fig, 1 tangerine, 2 olive, 2 nectarine, 1 dwarf avocado, 1 three-in-one fruit tree, 1 Valencia orange, 1 kumquat, 2 large and old mulberries, 1 big fichus that is now towering over the roof, 3 smaller fichus trees, 1 huge pine (we brought the seedling home from the L.A. County Fair in 1990), and several smaller pines. (At a friend’s wedding, I met the minister who was searching for a home for his apple, nectarine, and kumquat trees. I offered them a home—but my youngest son, whose truck brought the trees home, took the apple tree. The other two have taken root in the front yard.
In the back yard, there were 1 apple tree, 2 orange, 3 lemon, 1 peach, 1 loquat and 1 very large and old avocado tree which desperately needed to be pruned. There were also 3 ancient pomegranate trees and a huge old eucalyptus. Additionally, there was a huge old macadamia nut tree from which we never once harvested any nuts—the squirrels get to them first.
I can tell you that it was a job making sure all those trees got enough water during the hot summer months, and my water bill sometimes looked like the national debt.
Along the fence, in the back, we also had a grape arbor. There were vines already there in 1974, but Bob built a proper arbor and we would harvest enough concord grapes to make jelly and juice, and every few years, Bob made some stabs at wine-making.
Years ago, loganberries and a few raspberries grew along the fence but they disappeared long ago.
From May through October, I was in a constant frenzy trying to convert the harvest into jams, jellies, preserves, conserves, cordials, liqueurs, chutneys, juices, sauces, pickles, vinegars, and relishes…unquestionably far more than we could consume, so my sons and their families, and all of our friends could expect to receive jars of all these things throughout the year.
Now, in 2010, we are adapting to a new home and a new kind of life in the Antelope Valley, in a little place called Quartz Hill, which used to be covered with almond orchards. The house, built in 1955, and land were obviously neglected for a long time. A new roof and some coats of paint were a step in the right direction. We have planted fruit trees – the kind of fruit trees that do well in the high desert; one tree died last winter and our cherry tree was eaten bare by birds before we could pick any of the fruit. Bob has reconstructed the Secret Garden (a gazebo he built in Arleta, then took apart to bring with us when we moved) and has begun installing pipes for an automated water system. Much needs to be done before we can expect to plant lettuce, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables. Meantime, some of Kelly’s neighbors have given us surplus squash and he and Ethan planted a vegetable garden last spring. We are waiting for the pumpkins to ripen, even as I write this. Kelly brought over 20 ears of corn one day, which I blanched, cut from the cobs, and then froze for the holidays. I used the cobs to make a batch of corn cob jelly, as a novelty.
We have planted a small pomegranate tree (more like a bush at this point) and I am crossing my fingers that it won’t freeze this winter. Cultivating land that is – above all else – desert, is a challenge. But we look around us and see a neighbor’s healthy pomegranate tree, producing huge beautiful fruit, and another neighbor has an apple tree. It may take a few years for our little trees to begin producing fruit and it may become a battle of wits between us – and the birds. We remind ourselves often that our paradise in Arleta didn’t happen overnight – it took almost two decades of planning, tending, weeding, watering—and coaxing—to get our trees and gardens where we wanted them to be. It’s all a labor of love…even for city farmers.