The sound of bustling traffic on nearby Interstate 5 seems hard to ignore, but Luna Espinoza says tending to the Boyle Heights garden a few times a week is relaxing.

Luna Espinoza tends to her garden at the Mott Street Urban Farm.

“I found my little piece of heaven in this garden.” says the 18-year-old gardening enthusiast.

This little hidden green space–called the Mott Street Urban Farm–is located on a lot on the corner of Fickett and 7th streets.

The farm is part of a trend in community gardening that can be seen in urban areas across the nation. Urban agriculture is a way for people to take control of what they grow and eat, as well as their overall health. According to the National Gardening Association, gardening in urban areas increased 29 percent from 2008 to 2013.

 Not all Boyle Heights residents have access to a green space of their own, and community and school gardens allow people of all ages and income levels to become involved in this national movement.

For over a year now, Espinoza has been gardening at this community farm. When she’s in this space, she’s definitely in her element. As she walks from plot to plot, she repeatedly leans in for a closer look, brushing dirt off her knees afterwards. She can’t help but reach for the brightly colored fruits, vegetables and herbs and marvel at the array of natural aromas.

After breaking off a piece of kale and bringing it under her sun hat for a better look, she talks about the gardening techniques needed to get the best out of this vegetable.

 School-based gardens

Although gardening is often thought of as mostly popular among older generations, introducing gardening to children and young adults has become increasingly more popular. Funding for gardening projects in schools has expanded, encouraging children to learn about health and connect with their environments. According to a research project called Cultivate LA, school gardens accounted for 761 out of 1,261 agricultural sites in Los Angeles County in 2013.

In communities like Boyle Heights, it's important that residents grow their own food.
In communities like Boyle Heights, it’s important that residents grow their own food.
In communities like Boyle Heights, it’s important that residents grow their own food.

Espinoza benefited from a school garden while growing up. Her passion for agriculture began with her mother, but she didn’t become involved in gardening until she joined Roosevelt High School’s garden club two years ago during her junior year. The garden project was organized by Enrich LA, an organization that taught gardening techniques and provided a space for hands-on activity.

Today, Espinoza gardens a few times a week at the Mott Street Urban Farm. The LA Conservation Corps leases the land to the Los Angeles Community Garden Council, which oversees many community agriculture sites around Southern California.

Richard Tom, volunteer manager of the three-year-old farm, says the goal of the project is to engage the community with agriculture and its benefits.

“In a neighborhood like Boyle Heights, having people interested in urban agriculture and growing their own things is important. It connects people to their food and will hopefully break this food desert,” says Tom.

The Mott Street Farm differentiates itself from other communal gardens because plots don’t belong to a single person or family, but are shared among community members. Tom says it operates more like a farm, with people sharing the harvest.

While in the past farming was restricted to more rural areas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that 15 percent of the world’s food in 2013 was grown in urban areas.

Research by William McCarthy, an adjunct professor of public health at UCLA, has found that many people in East LA were already growing some sort of edible crops in their backyards. A study done between August and December 2014 found a little more than a quarter of East LA residents grow cactus, a traditional food in Latino cuisines.

Honoring their roots

Many local residents are descended from farmers. Ana Holton, 67, who arrived on the Eastside six years

Ana Holton says that gardening helps her reconnect with her roots.
Ana Holton says that gardening helps her reconnect with her roots.

ago, remembers growing up in Zacapa, Guatemala alongside crops and learning about the family farming tradition. When she found out about a community garden opening up in East LA, she jumped at the chance to participate, which allows her to get back to her roots alongside a new generation of gardeners.

“I came from a poor family from a rural area who loved the earth, and that love and passion was instilled in us,” says Holton.

Today, Holton gardens four to five times a week at the Eastmount Community Garden in East Los Angeles. The garden, which opened in May, is one of the first in the area.

“You have no idea how happy this garden makes me feel,” says Holton. “I have a space for me where I can see the growth of my seeds.”

Holton has also introduced gardening to those around her because of its benefits. Her 32-year-old stepdaughter, who had health issues, decided to also get a plot at the garden. Holton says it has opened her eyes, and her stepdaughter now eats the food she grows.

In communities like Boyle Heights, it's important that residents grow their own food.
In communities like Boyle Heights, it’s important that residents grow their own food.
In communities like Boyle Heights, it’s important that residents grow their own food.

The benefits of gardening range from better health to access to fresher food. But residents don’t need to be involved in a community garden to get these same advantages. Vegetables can be grown in yards or in pots.

“As a strategy to evolve low-income residents of East LA, who live around stores that don’t offer much vegetables, we should get them to capitalize on what they have access to already,” says McCarthy.

In March, an ordinance was passed that allows Los Angeles residents to use the strip of land on the sidewalk to grow fruits and vegetables. Previously, residents could be fined $400 if they did so.

“Guerilla gardening”

Because Espinoza didn’t have space to garden as much as she would have liked, she says she did a lot of “guerilla gardening.” In this type of gardening, gardeners plant seeds on public property or private property that they don’t have legal rights to.

“I took it upon myself to be my own revolutionary person, start planting as much as I can,” says Espinoza. Espinoza also used her friends and neighbors’ spaces to produce compost and grow produce.

McCarthy says this agricultural trend is bound to increase because younger generations are now choosing to eat fresher foods. “The rest of us should be emulating the millennials because environmentally and nutritionally, we’re better off following their example,” says McCarthy.

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