Returning to the Huntington's Roots
A different kind of urban cowboy evokes Henry Huntington’s interest in agriculture at the new experimental Huntington Ranch.
By Noela Hueso 03/01/2011
Looking at the 15-acre Huntington Ranch, it’s hard to imagine that not too long ago, a large portion of it was a gravel parking lot. This demonstration garden and outdoor classroom, which opened in November 2010 on the western edge of the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, is now a lush landscape, replete with a cornucopia of native plants, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs. The successful transformation of the lot — which required tractors, rototillers and some old-fashioned sweat equity to create a hospitable environment for growing plants — is a showcase for the ranch’s mission: leadership in ecological urban agriculture education and research. On a more philosophical level, the site exists to explore the relationship between food and community.
“We’re exploring what noncommercial urban agriculture might look like in Southern California today — what people who want to integrate some amount of their food production in their own lives can do, the vast majority of whom work full time and have lives outside of growing food,” says project coordinator Scott Kleinrock. “And we’re specifically looking at our Mediterranean climate, at water conservation and how you can get the most out of a small space, because gardening in Southern California is very different from gardening in other parts of the world.”
The concept of urban agriculture — growing food crops in a village, town or city — isn’t a new one, of course. Records of such endeavors date back to ancient Persia and Machu Picchu, the 15th-century Inca site in Peru’s Urubamba Valley. Allotment gardens (subdivided land cultivated by various individuals or families) have been in use throughout Europe since the 18th century; and victory gardens, planted in both public parks and private residences, sprang up to help reduce pressure on the public food supply during World Wars I and II in the U.S., Canada, Germany and the U.K.
The seeds of the Huntington Ranch — quite literally — began in another verdant garden, L.A.’s South Central Farm, one of the largest urban farms in the country. When the 14-acre property, which had been cared for by 300 families, was forced to close in 2006 (the city took the land by eminent domain), the Annenberg Foundation funded the boxing up and transportation of dozens of fruit trees and bushes — fig, guava, apple, banana, cherry and mulberry — to The Huntington, where they were to be stored temporarily until appropriate permanent homes were found.
It soon became evident to Jim Folsom, the director of The Huntington’s botanical gardens, that the plants had already found suitable turf. After all, when Henry Huntington purchased the San Marino Ranch (now the library and gardens) in 1903, it was home to California’s first commercial avocado grove; it also boasted citrus crops, pineapple guava, peaches, nuts and grain. For all his renown as a railroad magnate and collector of rare books and fine art, Huntington cultivated yet another identity: gentleman farmer. Folsom conceived of the ranch and submitted a proposal to the Annenberg Foundation, which funded the project with a $1.1 million grant in 2008.
Now, thanks to the dedication of Kleinrock, 28, who came onboard in 2009, the ranch is yielding information that will help urban farmers get the most out of gardening in the region. He shares his findings during scheduled one-hour tours of the ranch (not otherwise open to the public) and on his blog, huntingtonblogs.org/theranch. Both children and adults can get their hands dirty by signing up for gardening workshops. Training classes for teachers and symposia for professionals on sustainable urban agriculture are also offered.
“We’re trying to put together a garden that speaks to a lot of different people but still is a garden that’s nice to walk through and that speaks to what people might do in their own spaces,” says Kleinrock, sporting an omnipresent wide-brimmed hat as protection against daily sun exposure.
Among the experiments and types of gardens on the ranch:
Intensive Vegetable Production
“This is how you plant if you want the most production out of your space,” Kleinrock says of the traditional row garden that sits in the center of the property. “There’s a simplicity to this if you want to be able to get into your garden, do your work and get out.”
With the 100-square-foot block of vegetables — including gourmet garlics, fava beans, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, arugula, snow peas, sweet sugar snap peas, carrots, radicchios, endives, potatoes, collards, bulb onions, broad beans, Italian dandelions and bulb fennel — Kleinrock is luring beneficial insects by interspersing herbs such as parsley, chives and fennel between the rows of vegetables; doing so confuses pests who would otherwise hop from one plant to the other in a single crop block. He’s also exploring methods of building up soil fertility over time, so that gardening gets easier with each passing year.
Edible Landscape Gardening
A vegetable garden doesn’t have to be confined to a traditional row pattern. It can curve or swerve if that serves the landscaping needs of your home. At the ranch, chard, kale, lettuce and broccoli form edible swaths of “pattern and texture” that give shape to the surroundings.
In addition, Kleinrock has built a circular raised planting bed, made from chunks of broken concrete recycled from past projects, that serves two purposes: It’s not only a place to grow vegetables; it doubles as a gathering place for guests to sit on during tours and lectures. On a practical level, it’s a space saver: It doesn’t take up a lot of room. “This is a way to do triple duty in the landscaping to make it all work together,” he says.
Is it worth it? That’s what Kleinrock set out to discover when he planted the “salad factory,” a checkerboard of 48 plastic storage tubs used for growing various salad greens and herbs, including lettuce, kale, chard, mustard, mizuna, nasturtiums, salad onions, cilantro, endive and escarole. The answer? If you’re short on space but still feel the urge to exercise your green thumb, the container method is relatively simple and the vegetables thrive.
Raised Beds: Redwood vs. Douglas Fir
Raised beds, essentially self-contained gardens within wooden boxes, are easy to set up, Kleinrock says, and good for those gardeners who don’t want to take the time to add nutrients to the soil in their backyard (they would, instead, purchase nutrient-rich loam). But is one type of wood better than another? Redwood has traditionally been considered the best for raised beds.. It lasts longer and holds up to moisture well, but it’s also expensive. So Kleinrock built two beds for endive, radicchio, fennel, chard and kale — one out of redwood, the other, Douglas fir, which costs about a third as much. Time will tell whether the latter holds up and is cost-effective.
Kleinrock and his team (an intern and some volunteers) are examining the efficiency of various irrigation techniques. Taking a cue from commercial irrigation systems and adapting them for noncommercial use, “we’re able to talk about how they perform and what can be adapted to different kinds of landscaping you do at home,” Kleinrock says. “We talk about where to get them and show how to use them.”
Experimental Food Forest
Kleinrock’s favorite garden doesn’t look like a garden at all. Taking up the back portion of the ranch, the three-acre experimental food forest is a wild ecosystem built with “useful and edible species” to be self-sustaining. To the casual observer, the food forest looks uncultivated. In reality, it’s the result of careful design and planning based on a solid knowledge of crops sown (i.e., scattered) into it. Once established, it needs very little input from its owner.
“Some people love it and some don’t, but the lessons we learn in there can then be extrapolated and used in our more curated gardens as well,” Kleinrock says, noting that plants may even grow better in such a system. He recalls the transplantation of a pair of plants — one to the container garden and one to the food forest. The container garden plant was babied with top-of-the-line organic potting soil, while the food-forest plant was left alone. The results were surprising. “The stuff in the food forest grew far better with less pest pressure than the stuff in the containers,” he says, “all because we built this resilient system.”