The history of Solano Canyon Community Garden is one of service and redemption. It first came into existence in 1996 when future LACGC co-founder Al Renner – himself a bit of an outlaw – petitioned to the Department of Rec and Parks to take over an area of Elysian Park prone to erosion and general neglect. He had helped supervise a group of young gang members on a garden project in Silver Lake, and knew first hand the benefits of putting forgotten people to work with forgotten land.

He got the property, nearly five acres of it, and a grant from the EPA to stop the persistent erosion that was clogging the nearby LA River. In the process, he also put a dozen men to work who were homeless, in recovery, or both. The project succeeded in rehabilitating both the land, and many of the former inmates (a recent study has shown the recidivism rate of ex-cons who worked in a garden project at 24%, compared with 55% for those who didn’t), and laid the groundwork for what would become a landmark community garden in Solano Canyon.

Twenty years later, he’s bringing the basics of that model back to where it all began – in a program he’s calling the Lavender Hill Farm.

In this latest iteration, Al recruits a sponsor for each person formerly incarcerated or others facing other social obstacles to provide funds for the plants, seeds, tools and water they will need. Then he puts them to work, putting into practice the five basic skills of successful gardening: design, soil prep, propagation and planting, harvesting and composting. With his 30 years of gardening experience, and the enthusiasm of the participants, the program has already generated 1,700 pounds of food in less than a year. The sponsors get something besides just a warm feeling – they can take a portion of the food, or donate it to local charities. Of course, the growers get as much food as they can use as well, and experience to last a lifetime.

Al tells the story of a young man he found on a hot day, his face nearly in the dirt. Al rushed to him, worried that he’d fainted in the heat. Instead he found the boy breathing deeply, his nose to the soil: “I can smell the dirt,” he said. All he’d known before was concrete. “That’s why I do this work,” says Al, “to change people’s lives.” And he’s doing it, one carrot, cauliflower, and large helping of compassion, at a time.

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