Cultivating Community with Eco Urban Gardens

The team at Eco Urban Gardens (EUG) in Los Angeles partners with schools and their surrounding communities to cultivate edible, educational gardens and neighborhood green spaces. The nonprofit is dedicated to teaching people how to grow food organically using regenerative agriculture practices and culturally responsive programming. “In all of our gardens we incorporate crops from the cultures of the surrounding community, and incorporate indigenous plant species to build a balanced ecosystem,” says EUG Program Manager Elizabeth Christy.

Student-Led Sustainable Agriculture

EUG does the bulk of this work through farm to school and farm to table programming at gardens called Farm Labs the organization has been establishing at local schools for the past eight years. Their farm to school program currently serves around 8,000 students across three high schools, one middle school, two elementary schools, and one K-12 charter school. “Farm to school is an investment in our future. We’re training the next generation of sustainable-minded citizens and urban agriculturalists,” Christy says. “The Arroyo High School Farm Lab in North El Monte is our flagship garden, the first to be installed in spring of 2016 and our largest site. Students participate in garden design, installation, maintenance, soil conditioning, irrigation, organic pest management, seasonal pruning, and plant identification.” Garden education at the Farm Labs often overlaps with classroom learning. “Math, science, design, nutrition, physical education, and entrepreneurship are all subjects incorporated into building a viable Farm Lab. The garden lessons interface with classroom lessons and standards-based curriculum.”

Three high school students tending to a huge bed of kale

Rosemead High School students harvest kale to share with the community.

Each site has a different growing capacity based on the size of the campus and available growing space, but they share a focus on sustainability. “All of our Farm Lab gardens incorporate some element of regenerative environmental practice like sheet mulching, intercropping with flowers and herbs for pest control, and seasonal crop rotations,” explains Christy. “Our Farm Lab gardens also incorporate the use of indigenous plants to both support native pollinators and educate about the history of the land we are cultivating. It is important to acknowledge the source of our bounty when teaching regenerative practices since many of them were learned from the Nations who have been cultivating this land for thousands of years.”

The Arroyo High School Farm Lab currently includes vegetable beds, a foraging knoll, grape vines and sugarcane, bioswale, a pollinator garden, an Eco-lab that mimics how natural materials break down in a forest ecosystem, insect hotels, composting area, and a young fruit orchard. Eco Urban Gardens founder Marianne Zaug hopes to expand Farm Lab food production soon using new techniques. “We have established all of this, and the only thing that is still missing is the aquaponics,” Zaug says. Each Farm Lab can currently produce about 1,200 lbs. of organic produce per year, but Zaug hopes to increase this with the construction of a greenhouse at two of EUG’s high school sites. “The greenhouses will use hydroponic and aquaponic growing technology to produce 30,000 lbs. of produce each on a closed loop system, meaning it uses very little water and produces little to no waste,” Christy explains.

Confronting Food Insecurity

Zaug and Christy look forward to sharing that future bounty through EUG’s farm to table programming, which serves all ages and works with communities surrounding the Farm Lab gardens. “Our program has hosted over 1,500 community volunteers in Farm Lab workshops since the summer of 2021 when schools reopened for in-person learning,” says Christy. “Our mission is to combat food insecurity with urban greening and regenerative agriculture. Students and community volunteers at the Farm Labs learn the important connections between environment and health.”

Currently, the food grown at Farm Labs is shared with the community in a variety of ways. Produce goes home with students and volunteers who help on weekends. Food is used for cooking demonstrations in the culinary arts classroom. EUG gives produce away at community events and to the Farm Pantry at Cyber Yogurt, EUG’s community partner committed to distributing organic produce to the greater El Monte community. “Teachers and staff at the school are also encouraged to spend time in the Farm Lab and take organic fruit, vegetables, and herbs home,” Christy says. EUG even transforms some of the Farm Lab’s produce into pantry products like herbal teas, spice blends, jams, and pickled vegetables and distributes them at local businesses around the San Gabriel Valley.

High schoolers stacking up tree stump parts in a mound.

Arroyo High School students build the base for a new hügelkultur mound.

Culturally Responsive Programming

In 2022, Eco Urban Gardens was awarded a GroMoreGood Grassroots Grant from The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation and KidsGardening. The plan was to use the funds from the grant to create a Global Culinary Herb Garden for the Arroyo High School Farm Lab, and Christy is happy to report that it’s nearly finished. “This project is the final element of our Foraging Knoll where students can forage for berries, medicinal herbs, and edible flowers.” The garden features herbs from North, Central, and South America, South Asia, and Central Asia. Once established, students will use the herbs to create culinary dishes and connect to each other's culture through food.

So far students have planted lemongrass, echinacea, mint, lemon balm, holi basil, tarragon, Mexican tarragon, lavender, and guava. They have also recently seeded additional South American and South Asian herbs into seed trays, and will be able to plant them before the 2022 holiday break. The Global Culinary Herb Garden is being planted on a Hügelkultur mound, which is a water-conservation technique that uses layers of logs and mulch to create humus-rich soil. “The mound has been sitting building healthy soil from decomposed plant material for the last year and is ready for planting,” Christy says. “Saturday, January 14th, we will host a workshop at the AHS Farm Lab with the Vietnamese American Cancer Foundation to teach methods for harvesting and cooking lemongrass for Lunar New Year!”

A teen hangs a colorful paper lantern on a tree of colorful lanterns

A Rosemead High School student stands next to lanterns made with flower and leaf rubbings for Lunar New Year.

The Global Culinary Herb Garden is just one aspect of the culturally responsive programming that Eco Urban Gardens provides. “Many of our students have gardens at home with their parents or grandparents, and are encouraged to bring plants and seeds from home or request specific plants from their Farm Lab teacher,” Christy shares. “Some of the recipes we have made in the garden include vegan kimbap, basil pesto, golden beet hummus, agua fresca, ponce, herbal tea, lemon tarts, and much more! Students are encouraged to take home produce from the garden and share recipes with their friends and families.”  

“Student interest has only increased since we started, and we saw a huge jump after the pandemic,” explains Christy. Throughout 2020 and the beginning of 2021 EUG continued programming online and maintained the Farm Labs with volunteer and intern support. Christy has filmed a number of videos focused on different aspects of gardening with kids for EUG’s YouTube channel. “We also have a high return rate with alumni students,” Christy says. “Many of our students who graduate come back and visit the garden, volunteer, or join as interns. We encourage students to return to their communities and continue expanding farm to school programs.” 

Eco Urban Gardens’ partnership with the El Monte Union High School District has also led to a Career Technical Education Pathway for students interested in horticulture, agriculture, and regenerative studies to pursue higher education with Cal Poly Pomona or other certification programs. “We recently started working with Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles Education Partnership, and LA Works in East LA and Elysian Valley to build and expand farm to school programs. We plan to expand access to as many schools as possible throughout East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley in the coming years.”