Author Alice Sebold said, “I like gardening — it's a place where I find myself when I need to lose myself.”
During long weeks of social distance and separation, many people built planters and created backyard gardens. Seedlings sprouted, leaves unfurled, and vegetables grew. It was a passing phase for some, but others were captivated by the process and committed to continue.
In Long Beach, gardening is not just a trend. The Long Beach Community Garden, which now has 300 plots in El Dorado East Regional Park, was started in 1976. A variety of smaller community gardens are now sprinkled throughout the city, with rental fees and regulations that vary by location.
Michelin star chef Gary Menes, who lives in Long Beach, spent years growing produce for his restaurant, Le Comptoir, at the Gladys Avenue Urban Farm. When the Gladys property sold, Menes began using his yard as a garden. During the shutdown, he has been selling sourdough bread and sourdough crust pizzas, topped with homegrown, seasonal vegetables.
“I love the seed-to-plate process,” Menes said, “knowing exactly where the food comes from. It’s a hands-on, tactile connection.”
Menes said that good soil is the key to good produce. Fellow Long Beach resident and home gardener Melissa Nicolai agrees. Inspired by Jo Robinson’s book "Eating on the Wild Side," Nicolai began a backyard farm seven years ago.
“When I started my first garden, I didn’t invest in good soil and that was a mistake,” Nicolai said. “We moved just over two years ago and started our current garden. We invested in high quality soil and it has made such a difference.”
Nicolai now cares for five raised beds, several potted plants, and citrus trees. Her 4'x12' beds are filled with tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, melons, peppers, herbs, and greens. She gets lots of assistance from her 2 1/2-year-old daughter, who loves sowing seeds, watering, harvesting, and handling bugs.
“She loves being on pest control and looking for green cabbage worms, horn worms, and digging for grubs in the dirt,” Nicolai said. “One of her favorite things to do is release beneficial insects into the garden (ladybugs and praying mantis).
Long Beach local Katie Snyder grew up gardening with her mom and wanted to create similar special memories with her own daughter. After having a small, raised bed for a year, her family decided to get a plot at the Long Beach Community Garden. Since then, they have added three more beds to their backyard. She said her 4-year-old daughter loves to help and is willing to eat anything that comes from their garden.
“It has some serious magical power over her,” Snyder said. “If she knows it’s from her garden, she will eat it.”
Snyder said there is a different intensity of flavor in food from the garden. Recently, her daughter tried a store-bought strawberry and said “yuck — I don’t like those, they picked them too early!”
Kristy Frontiera’s family is new to gardening. The Frontieras had just planted a variety of fruits and vegetables in backyard beds when the COVID-19 shutdowns started.
“It has been such a fun quarantine activity for the whole family to enjoy,” Frontiera said. “We did some research, reached out to some avid gardener friends, and our garden is thriving! Our zucchini and golden squash are producing more fruit than our family of four can eat, so we have been sharing with family.”
Like Snyder and Nicolai, Frontiera is including her children in the process.
“Both boys help prune the plants and their favorite part is, of course, picking everything once it is ready to be harvested,” Frontiera said. “Our biggest challenge is keeping tiny toddler hands off of the produce before it has fully ripened.”
Chef Clint Wilson does not have toddlers, but he gets a lot of gardening help from his employees, wife and parents. The owner of PRIME by Shenandoah, on Fourth Street, has two large raised beds in the back of his restaurant. The site’s rotating list of vegetables includes herbs, chiles, lettuce, tomatoes, and cauliflower, produce that can be used with the most popular menu items.
Although others tend his garden, Chef Wilson loves having crisp, clean, quality items in the kitchen. He said he would rather run out of an ingredient than use something that is not fresh.
Snyder and Nicolai share similar thoughts on the subject. Snyder said the produce she grows herself is fresher, more flavorful, and lasts longer than anything she buys at the store.
“There’s truly nothing better than home-grown veggies!” Nicolai said.