Every piece of Emily Gleicher and Arlan J. Wood’s yard in Frogtown is used for gardening. The couple grows a myriad of produce, from white sage to sunflowers to strawberry corn to dragon fruit to the most detested vegetable of childhood: lima beans.
The bounty supplements their diet. They make popcorn, salads, citronella oil, and hot sauce, which Wood has named “Caliente Culo.” But it’s the lima beans that help support Farm LA, the nonprofit they founded in May 2015 to turn abandoned and derelict lots into urban gardens for neighbors to enjoy. They sell the legumes in mason jars at farmers markets along with recipes for mashed lima beans and lima bean hummus.
Their love for gardening started after Gleicher relocated from New York City to Los Angeles. She was happy to get away from the cramped, dense neighborhood of Greenpoint, so they took full advantage of their yard in Northeast LA. Gleicher also quickly took notice of the empty lots dotting their neighborhood.
“There are quite a bit of unbuildable hillsides, quite a bit of yucky abandoned properties. We know it’s challenging to fill those properties, because they have their imperfections,” she said. “Why not do something cool with it?”
Gleicher and Wood invited us to their home on a drizzly Tuesday morning. We sat on the porch and talked about how the city might encourage more urban farming, why they love lima beans so much, and their (sometimes emotional) quest to find more land.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why lima beans?
Gleicher: On our first Valentine’s Day, J., in cute-, fresh-, and frantic-boyfriend-mode, at the last minute went to CVS and got me barrettes, and a card, and a lima bean plant that, when it sprouted, said “I love you.” It never actually did sprout that way. That fueled our gardening mode. Our garden was in the works, and when he got that plant for me, we realized lima beans are drought tolerant. We love to grow them on teepees; they trellis up in really fun ways.
All of our lima beans are all from that one plant—every lima bean that’s in our kits. We’re probably third generation at this point.
So a lima bean plant from CVS kickstarted this operation?
Gleicher: We were already starting to fall in love with gardening and we were wanting to do something with the space we were seeing around LA. And, everyone kept telling us when we started, “You’ve got to have a product. You’ve got to have a business plan.” And we were like, “What do you mean? We’re nonprofit!” The lima beans help sustain our nonprofit. It’s not paying us. But it’s paying for snacks for our volunteers. The goal is to get larger spaces so we can grow more lima beans.
You recently spoke at a city commission meeting to advocate for the city of LA to adopt urban agricultural zones. What are those?
Gleicher: We’re a part of this urban agriculture working group that is run by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. The council is all about food justice in LA, whether it’s legalizing street vending or keeping food accessible for lower income neighborhoods.
One thing they’re trying to push forward is the Urban Agricultural Zone Act. This act would give property tax breaks to land owners in the city with nothing livable on their parcels—if they partner with farmers like us or if they themselves start using those plots for urban agriculture, which can mean different things, so we’re working to define that with the food policy council.
Wood: There are plots everywhere, plots that are empty. A lot of that is due to red tape. For the Average Joe homeowner, they’re not really usable. So this would give an awesome incentive for them to go, “Oh my gosh, yes, take my hillside for blank number of years.” It saves them a lot on property taxes, and it’s a win-win for everybody.
So you have a list of properties that you’ve been scouting to turn into small farms, right?
Wood: We’ve been going to property tax auctions for a few years now.
Gleicher: It’s usually families who unfortunately can’t pay the property tax for whatever reason, and it goes to auction. We’ve found a few and gone but got outbid. It’s a touchy subject. It gets a little tearsy.
Wood: We invest a lot of time looking for the properties.
Gleicher: There was one in October and I think the titles will be public record soon for whoever did win it, and when this act is officially on the books and we can move forward, we want to go to those people, and say, “Hey we know you purchased this property in the auction. If you’re having a hard time building on it, please think of us.”
How else are you finding land?
Gleicher: People reach out to us. Some things we’ve had to say no to, because they’re not really in line with what we’re trying to do, like a property in Laurel Canyon. We want somewhere close to us. But it’s really about trying to stay in a food desert neighborhood, in a low-income neighborhood, a neighborhood that needs beautification. It’s more Northeast LA, and Boyle Heights, and Cypress Park, and Glassell Park.
I imagine someone might contact you to say, “Hey, there’s a vacant plot of land on my street, come plant a garden here.” Great. But maybe you can’t get ahold of the property owner. What other roadblocks are you hitting?
Wood: We’ve tried to do that several times, and it’s a doozy.
Gleicher: It’s public information, so it’s not so much that as it is getting people to get out of their comfort zones and do something that feels out of the norm for them. Some people are against change, some people are against bringing beauty to a neighborhood, because they think it brings other changes, like gentrification. So we’ve experienced a touch of that, too, and understandably so.
How do you convince property owners?
Gleicher: I go for the heart strings: “Wouldn’t you rather see something that can feed a community?”
Wood: “Or beautify a community?”
Gleicher: “Or feed a women’s shelter? And enrich your soil? Nothing is permanent. We’re not planting oak trees. If you ever want to change something, which we hope you wouldn’t, this could all be relocated or transplanted.” We need to work on our elevator pitch, but each property is so unique.
Tell us about the gardens you have already and where the food goes.
Gleicher: We have 11.5 sidewalk gardens now. (The .5 is a giant fig tree at Cafécito Organico in Frogtown.)
Wood: Soon to be 12. (The 12th will be a patch of barley planted at Frogtown Brewery.)
Gleicher: In the residential areas, the food is for the block. The person providing the water certainly gets first dibs. But it’s to share with neighbors. It’s on them to take care of it. The spirit of this is, “this is for you, take it.” Eventually we want to put in signs that tell you how to take care of it and what each plant is. But for the most part it’s a little wild west right now.
For anyone who now feels inspired to start growing something, what do you recommend?
Gleicher: Herbs. Peppers. Lima beans do really well for us. I know. It sounds like we’re obsessed. But we are.