Community Garden Story Has a Compelling Plot

South Pasadena Community Garden board members Sandy Eckel, Margie Whalen, Steve Friedman, Carrie Owens and Erin Mascho recently enjoyed a day of working at the Magnolia Street oasis. The garden has been a key resource for two local food banks.
Photo courtesy Matt Dwyer

South Pasadena has seen scores of fixer-uppers come and go from its vibrant real estate market, but one of the most impressive properties in town boasts zero bedrooms and bathrooms, and there’s no kitchen in sight.
Its grounds, however, are among the best-kept around, thanks to the 39 lease-holders who call the place home, or perhaps home away from home.
It’s the South Pasadena Community Garden, an acre-plus oasis on Magnolia Street that until five years ago was just “a deserted, barren, trashy lot,” in the words of Margie Whalen. She would know: Whalen has lived on the street for 15 years and remembers when the now-burgeoning plot was just an abandoned Caltrans lot strewn with refuse.
“It’s a miracle,” Whalen said matter-of-factly-during a visit last week.
If anything, or any place, has transitioned from “abandoned” to “appreciated,” it’s the Community Garden. And though Whalen was instrumental in its renaissance, she is the first to say that it was the ultimate group project.

“This was a long-held dream that was shared by all sorts of people,” said Whalen, who never stopped picking one of these or squeezing one of those as she flitted about the property. Mayor Pro Tem Diana Mahmud researched the legalities of the matter, a group quickly assembled to plan and raise funds, neighbors were polled and before you could say “summer squash,” folks were up to their elbows in peat moss.
“Everyone said yes,” Whalen said of the survey process, “even if they are not gardeners. They said we should go for it.”
There is certainly no lack of gardeners, or going for it. The garden includes 39 plots, with all but a couple currently spoken for. Several gardeners have been temporarily unable to garden due to the pandemic. Rather than let those plots go unused, volunteers have converted the plots to support one of the Community Garden’s more passionate though unofficial projects: providing fresh fruits and vegetables for local food banks. Once a week, gardeners harvest and deliver their yield to St. James’ Episcopal Church in South Pasadena and Friends In Deed, a northwest Pasadena nonprofit, for their outreach programs.
A reporter dropped by on a recent Friday as the two food banks were about to receive at least 20 oversize zucchinis, 60 ripe, red tomatoes and a smattering of green beans. Gardeners are especially numerous on those days and there is even a drop-off area where they can leave extra donations for those in need. One of the food banks had requested canned tuna and it magically appeared as if out of the ground.
“The produce we receive from South Pasadena Community Garden helps us in our mission to provide as much fresh fruits and vegetables to our community,” said Tim Nistler, the food pantry program director of Friends In Deed. “We distribute between 1,700 and 2,000 pounds every week. The leafy greens and squash that we normally receive from them helps us to also provide variety to our roughly 400 families every week. We look forward to a long and great partnership with South Pasadena Community Garden.”
South Pasadena’s is one of about 40 community gardens throughout the Los Angeles basin that belong to a council. Each of its 39 plots are “rented” for $70 per year, which includes a one-time $35 deposit, with two-year terms, which allows for a turnover.
“That allows people who have been on the waiting list a chance to garden,” Whalen said. “There are gardens in which people have waited a lifetime for a plot. Ours is designed to give everyone a chance.”
The garden is open from dawn to dusk and is populated by a diverse clientele, including parents and children, apartment dwellers who lack sufficient space to create their own gardens, and people who just want to garden with others. A gated children’s garden is located in the northeastern corner of the property and the Community Garden has been a hotbed for Eagle Scout and Gold Scout projects — yielding the children’s garden, two compost bins, a kiosk and benches that are placed throughout the lot.
Gardeners typically meet once a month, at least in non-pandemic times, and frequently hold workshops on such topics as the mitigation of insects, offer tomato tastings and share recipes for the current harvest.
“COVID has put a damper on our normal monthly gatherings, potlucks and workshops,” said Erin Mascho, who along with Whalen serves as co-chair of the Community Garden’s citizen committee. “We’re trying to keep the ‘community’ in community garden by hosting Zoom meetings and rallying around the food bank donation initiative.”
The pandemic has changed other aspects of the gardening experience as well.
“We have been led by guidelines from the Los Angeles Community Garden Council and L.A. County,” added Whalen. “Because our garden provides food for our families and for the food banks, we are an essential service. Gardeners are asked to wear masks and gloves in the garden, to maintain social distancing, and to limit the number of people in the garden at any one time.”
Besides Mascho and Whalen, committee members include Lorrie Dieckmann (“she has the greenest thumb I know of,” Whalen exclaimed), Steve Friedman, Karen Veitch, Jack McCarthy, Sandy Eckel and Carrie Owens.
“The city has also been incredibly supportive from the outset, and we work closely with them,” said Whalen, who asserted that 20 fellow gardeners have served on the citizen committee in its five years of existence.
Mascho told The Review that she had never gardened before joining the fun four years ago.
“Gardening and food bring people together in such a special way,” Mascho said. “In the community garden, we have young families, retirees, professionals, and teens all working together and sharing food. It was through the garden that I met people and connected to the community when I moved to South Pas.”
She also stated that the experience has changed her “relationship with food.”
“Now when I shop for groceries, I can’t bring myself to buy a tomato in January or an apple from Chile,” Mascho said. “When you know where your food comes from, you make healthier choices.”
The aptly named Community Garden takes that designation very seriously, and has been involved in South Pasadena Beautiful, the South Pasadena Arts Crawl and the Music Festival.
“We try to do all we can to be a part of the community,” said Whalen in a master stroke of understatement. “This place defines the statement ‘It takes a village.’ It is a miracle.”