Down slope from the whooshing freeway traffic in Long Beach lie eight peaceful acres of lemon grass, cabbage, fava beans and citrus--and a community within a community that has been tending the garden for a generation.
From Hmong immigrants to affluent gay lawyers and settled seniors, 301 amateur gardeners have been feeding themselves and the needy with their bounty from the Long Beach Community Garden.
"We range from people on welfare to millionaires, from black, white, Asian, Latino, Hmong, and from every part of the United States," said Lonnie Brundage, president of the nonprofit garden's board.
"And they all come together to garden, a minimum of once a week," she said.
The Long Beach group has the largest membership of any community garden in the western United States and the third largest in the country, according to the American Community Gardening Assn. Only two larger community gardens exist, one in Dayton, Ohio, the other in Philadelphia.
Collectively, the Long Beach gardeners each year produce and donate a whopping 100,000 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables to local charities, from shelters for homeless and battered women to those serving AIDS patients.
From the garden, tucked in a pocket between the 605 Freeway and El Dorado Nature Center Park on Spring Street, the garden food bank committee makes daily deliveries of freshly picked produce to 10 groups.
One of the recipients is the Santa Maria House, which delivers hot meals to homebound AIDS patients through its Helping Hands program, and to poor women recovering from breast cancer through its new Her House program.
"We serve low-income women, many of them with children, many of whom don't have insurance, so their income has dropped to pay for medical costs," said Nancy Lamons, chief executive of Santa Maria House Corp. in Long Beach.
"We have women who are living without pain medication while going through cancer treatment. People just don't realize they are out there," she said of the population the program serves.
Most food banks donate canned or nonperishable foods, but the community gardeners supply ailing people with what often is the only fresh produce they get.
"That is so important to us," Lamons added. "They really do help us a lot; we are very grateful for them."
This time of year, the bounty may be cabbage, carrots, artichokes, beets, lettuce, lemon grass, mustard greens, beans or leeks--produce that will have been picked that morning by gardeners who pluck what they can't use from their 20-by-30-foot plots.
The garden boasts an orchard of citrus and stone fruit trees that are maintained by a grove master. Its picked fruit is put out under a gazebo, where member gardeners can have a share.
Although the community garden is 26 years old, many of Long Beach's 461,000 residents don't know it exists. Until a few years ago, it was located at what is now the Town Centre shopping area, on Carson Street.
Gardeners must be able to demonstrate, through utility bills and a driver's license, that they are Long Beach residents. Applicants typically are on a waiting list for several months before a plot opens up.
Frank Dayak, 72, lucked out.
"When I retired in 1989, the first thing I did was get a garden plot. I got right in," said Dayak, sporting a straw hat and relaxed grin. "This is the best therapy there is--this and golf. The camaraderie out here is outstanding."
Brundage and her husband, who are also retired, moved to Long Beach to be near their daughter. Brundage was recovering from heart surgery.
"It was only about two months after that, and I wasn't fully recovered, when I started my garden here," she said. "My only regret about moving here was that I didn't have any room for a garden," said Brundage, who grew up on a Florida citrus farm.
The community garden was started on what had long been an inmate honor farm that supplied the Long Beach City Jail. It was shut down after an inmate sued, charging that the farm work was forced labor, said Ernie Trait, 76, who started cultivating his plot just two months after the garden opened in May 1976.
"I'm probably the only one around that was around in the beginning," Trait said. Back in the early days, he recalled, people gardened to the accompaniment of live music from parties held at an adjacent park.
There are a fair number of older gardeners, Brundage said, gazing out over the plots on a warm Sunday morning. "A lot of people out here have had heart replacement, hip replacement, knee replacement, strokes."
As she walked around the garden, Brundage visited with different people, offering recipes for this or that crop. She knows who is in the hospital and can't make it out to water, and who just lost their job. She is the community's mother hen.
Most communities require some governance to maintain order, and the garden is no different. The orchard and other common areas require upkeep from periodic work parties, at which everybody pitches in. Members divvy up the chores through committees.
There have only been a few problem cases, including a man who chug-a-lugged a case of beer, then scared everyone as his car screeched past them in the parking lot. He got the boot.
More often, it is a breach of gardening manners--unintended though it may be--that gets someone ousted.
"Usually the rules are about things that affect other gardeners," Brundage said. "If you have weeds, those can grow into another garden, or the seeds can blow there. Also, we have a little bit of theft. If someone stole from someone else's garden, or is caught drinking, they'd be asked to leave. Some people," she added, simply "lose their garden for not gardening."
For most who spend time here, however, working in such a cosmopolitan setting offers a rich blend of culture and horticulture.
People tend their plants in different ways. The Hmong, for example, pick lettuce leaves without removing the whole lettuce head, Brundage said.
But one Hmong gardener has watched those around him, and lately he's been adopting some of their techniques, from the garden layout to mulching.
People interested in the garden can find out more by calling Lonnie Brundage at (562) 597-0926. GRAPHIC: PHOTO: 'We range from people on welfare to millionaires, from black, white, Asian, Latino, Hmong, and from every part of the United States.' PHOTOGRAPHER: BRYAN McLELLAN / For The Times