Meet Farmer Al, Los Angeles’ Patron Saint of Community Gardens
“It belongs to the community– we get tagged, we have downed fences, the homeless come over and steal from us, but nothing is really majorly done to discourage us from coming in,” Al Renner, the Outreach Director for the Los Angeles Community Garden Council, tells us of the Solano Canyon Community Garden, which he built from scratch twenty years ago. The garden hugs Los Angeles’ infamous 110– so close as to almost be under the overpass– and is easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it. All that separates the space from the rush of traffic is a chain link fence and low cement wall. The latter is embellished with a mosaic recounting the history of the 5-acre lot, and prominently features a UFO, a reference to the garden being an Urban Farm and Orchard. (The hull of the ship is made with platinum tiles– exactly the kind of unexpected detail that makes the garden such a treasure.)
Today, the garden is very much a community project. As we tour the space, Renner, aged 77, points out various art pieces he’s been gifted with (often unexpectedly) over the years: an ornate pair of wrought-iron gates at the front, a mosaic work table, a garden throne. The unorthodox, all-embracing style of the gardens speaks to Renner’s own personality; his favorite saying – “There’s no such thing as a weed, only a misplaced plant!” Renner is a true character in the best sense of the word, full of entertaining stories born of an instinctual tendency to forge his own path.
“I grew up on a farm, told my parents, ‘I’ll never be a farmer again!’, and now I teach it here in the city!” Renner laughs. “I always tell my kids– everybody’s a kid to me now– what goes around, often times comes back around, and you never know what’s going to make a liar out of you. So don’t say never, or ever. It doesn’t work.”
Renner’s journey to becoming Los Angeles’s patron saint of community gardening began almost thirty years ago. “We lived in Los Felis, my partner and I, and we had a wonderful place,” Renner recalls. “I worked for the government– quality control, rocketry, the whole bit. And I had a heart attack. I wasn’t going back. That was in 1989. Around 1993, I was still walking with a cane. My heart just did not work. I walked by where Santa Monica and Sunset run into each other over there, and there were these kids in an empty lot…I looked at ’em maybe two weeks. They just dug holes, and moved these huge rocks all over the place. But they didn’t really seem to do anything. One day, I decided to say, ‘Hey, what are you guys doing?’ and it was this way–” Renner hooks his thumbs into his front belt loops and puffs his chest out. “‘We’re buildin’ a community garden! Why?’ and I said, ‘Well…don’t you think you’re doing it kind of hard?’ and it was a little more–” Renner lifts his chin even higher, hooks his thumbs even lower and more firmly though his belt loops. (“If the kid could have pulled ‘em off his pants, I think he would have!” Renner laughs.) “And the kid said, ‘If you think you can do a better job, why don’t you come and show us, huh?!’” Renner imitates being taken aback by the confrontation, “Pshew! I wasn’t well. And I said that. And he said, ‘That’s okay, mister. We know we’re throwaway kids.’ Oh my god! He drove a stake in me! I changed my route for walking, I didn’t go by there. It just bothered me so bad that that 13-or-14-year-old kid would’ve said that,” Renner recalls, even now looking taken aback. “My partner said, ‘Al, we don’t need you to work. Why don’t you go volunteer?’ And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean? I get paid for my time!’”
“I went and volunteered. I found out they were being punished. They weren’t building a garden at all. So I said, ‘You know what guys, you be the brawn, I’ll be the brains. Let’s build ’em their garden.’ We had the best time…and we ended up with this beautiful garden. Then the program ended. I was stunned. I was standing in my garden and this little lady poked her head up over the back wall and she said, ‘I’ve been watching you work with those kids. They loved you. I’m with the historical society and we would like to put a garden in at Echo Park. Would you like to do that?’”
The Echo Park garden in question– today the Solano Canyon Community Garden where Renner spends most of his time– was a kind of reparation for Dodger Park, an attempt on the part of the Dodgers to make amends for all the evictions that took place during the construction of the now iconic stadium. The garden was Renner’s first official community garden project, but was by no means his last; besides setting up a garden at the prison in Santa Clarita, one of his more memorable projects was a garden in South Pasadena.
“In South Pasadena, they would not allow a garden,” Renner begins, with the pleasure and relish of natural-born story teller. “I didn’t know this. I didn’t know South Pasadena felt that way about everything. I went there, and it was just a tirade of everything from just this one little group. I went to a meeting, and there was an old guy there– we were both old guys, okay? So we sat next to each other. He’s Joe, and I’m Al– just two good, old, common names. So we sit there, and we talked, and I said, ‘What do think about a garden?’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’d love to have a garden in South Pasadena,’” Renner recalls. But throughout the rest of the meeting, Renner’s new friend remained silent. “The meeting was just at that point where I said to the lady, ‘Maybe we aught to just call it because we’re not going to get anything done,’” Renner pauses for effect. “Then Joe did this–” Renner imitates standing up slowly at a table, and pitches his voice to a flatter intonation. “‘My name is Joe, and I want a garden in South Pasadena.’ And he sat down.” Renner pauses again, delighted. “There was a garden in South Pasadena the next day. I said to one of the women [from the meeting], ‘Who was that guy? He just stood up and said that?’ And she said, ‘Well, that’s Trader Joe! That’s the real Trader Joe!’” Al laughs. “We’d just been blabbin’ away…Isn’t that fun?”
Renner is full of similarly entertaining stories, from a convict showing off an apple seed he’d sprouted between the pages of a Holy Bible to Bette Midler stopping by unexpectedly and handing over a $15,000 check. The garden is an ever-evolving space; it even has a plot of land above one of the 110’s tunnels that will one day house an orchard.
In short, Renner is still building.
“That little guy– the one that was the challenge to me– he was just unreal,” Renner says, referring to the kid back at his first garden, back on Sunset and Santa Monica. “He had a talent for art that you would just not believe and was just convinced he could not draw. I hired him for a mural. He came up with this magnificent design of a brook running by our offices. And I said, ‘Wow! You are good. Did you know that?’ He said, ‘No I’m not.’ So I said, ‘Well now I’m going to bring a pro in here to help you.’ And I brought a friend of mine who showed him how to graph it, and then put it on the side of the building. Pieces of it are still there, after 20 some years. And he went to school– U.C. Berkeley– in art! You don’t learn those things for 20 years later…That little guy– he changed my life. I was maybe 56-57. I’m 77 and still going! I never would have thought that.” With a mix of pride and gratitude, Renner repeats, “He changed my life for me. Now it’s my turn to do likewise.”
To learn more about community gardens in Los Angeles, visit the Los Angeles Community Garden Council’s website.