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Against Tide of Antiquated City Ag Laws, Sustainable Urban Flower Farm Flourishes In Los Angeles

February 10, 2012 |

Valentine’s Day finds most romantics dashing to the neighborhood florist for a fresh bouquet of flowers for their sweetheart. But roses that have been doused with toxic pesticides and shipped half way across the globe, hardly inspire romance, especially for the environmentally conscious consumer. Thankfully, Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms in Los Angeles, dedicates herself to growing and selling locally-grown, organic flowers for those who like to keep it green even when they’re wearing red.

Kolla’s commitment to growing flowers sustainably, and the obstacles she has faced in doing so, has even helped change gardening laws in Los Angeles to allow more people to grow and sell fruits and flowers.

By eliminating the cost of long-distance transportation and reducing the number of people and places typically involved in distribution of flowers to market, Kolla found that flowers grown locally and organically are “better for the planet, and cheaper for the valentine.”

Beginning in 2003, Kolla began growing organic cut flowers on her half-acre backyard garden in the hilly neighborhood of Silver Lake. After clearing out the previous occupants’ neglected landscaping and testing the soil, she found that she had the ideal growing conditions for a small flower farm. Tara’s husband, Beat, helped to design and install a rainwater harvesting system by redirecting water from their downspouts, as well as installing drip irrigation. He also built a large open-air greenhouse covered by aluminet, a reflective shade cloth from Israel, enhancing the already desirable growing conditions of Southern California.

Silver Lake Farms

To enrich the soil for Silver Lake Farms, Tara and Beat utilized crop rotation, companion planting, homemade compost and teas, and locally sourced manures. Much of their sustainable practices have been inspired by the biodynamic philosophy of Windrose Farm in Paso Robles, California, and the Soil Foodweb developed by Dr. Elaine Ingham in Corvallis, Oregon. In addition to the work on their own property, Beat and Tara also began designing and installing vegetable and flower gardens for clients around Los Angeles.

In the years to follow, their small urban farm began to flourish as Kolla and her husband added herbs, vegetables, fruit trees and cotton to the property. Kolla also began growing loofah, a tropical fruit grown on a vine, that when ripened and dried can be used as a natural body scrubber. Among the numerous flowers grown at Silver Lake Farms, Kolla harvests calendula, ranunculus, ornamental grasses, snapdragons, Bishop’s lace, amaranth, nigella, broomcorn and strawflowers. Once cut and arranged, the flowers are brought to neighboring farmer’s markets on the Eastside of Los Angeles to be sold.

Beginning in 2008, Kolla expanded her growing space when a generous neighbor offered a portion of her estate for planting.

Tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac in a quiet residential neighborhood, Silver Lake Farms is a charming secret garden, practically invisible from the street. Visiting this bucolic oasis, one could hardly imagine that a couple nosy neighbors, let alone the city of Los Angeles would take issue with Kolla’s bouquets. Unfortunately, after six years of taking her flowers to market and proudly standing by the other farmers as a certified producer, Silver Lake Farms was ordered to halt their operation. If she continued, Kolla would have to pay an enormous fine and potentially serve jail time.

In 2009, the city of Los Angeles’ Department of Building and Safety informed Tara that growing and selling flowers was not considered “Truck Gardening”, and therefore illegal. Originally drafted in 1946 and one of the city’s numerous antiquated agricultural laws, the Truck Gardening ordinance is interpreted by the city’s Planning Department to exclude growing anything but vegetables on residential property for sale off-site. This narrow definition prohibits the sale of fruits, nuts, seedlings, and most importantly for Kolla, flowers. The legal stumbling block was a devastating blow to Silver Lake Farms’ burgeoning business, but thankfully Kolla didn’t have to face the battle alone.

Gathering the support of friends, supportive neighbors and fellow urban farmers, Kolla helped launch the Urban Farming Advocates (UFA). The group is dedicated to legalizing urban farming in the face of outdated agricultural ordinances and promoting sustainable growing practices in Los Angeles. The UFA found a strong ally in Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, who on July 8, 2009, introduced a motion to clarify the Truck Gardening ordinance and allow for the cultivation of flowers, fruits, nuts and vegetables for off-site sale. Dubbed the Food and Flowers Freedom Act, the motion won the approval of the City’s Planning Commission with support from the Commission’s president Bill Roschen. Then, following a series of procedural delays, The Food and Flowers Freedom Act was finally passed by Los Angeles City Council on May 21, 2010.

Garcetti, a passionate backyard gardener himself, explains the importance of updating the Truck Gardening ordinance: “I believe the act will promote urban farming by clearing away outmoded red tape that has stood in the way. And it sends a message that the City of Los Angeles believes in urban farming. Los Angeles is blessed with a climate that lends itself to growing, and we should take advantage of that opportunity.”

Mr. Garcetti is also not shy on praise for Kolla’s dedication to sustainable urban agriculture in the city: “When people buy locally-grown produce, we support our local economy, strengthen our communities and help the environment — for example, by reducing emissions caused by long distance deliveries. I want to thank Tara Kolla and the Urban Farming Advocates for being major catalysts in moving this issue forward.”

Like a hardy perennial, Kolla found her business rejuvenated following the victory of the Food and Flowers Freedom Act. The temporary shut down had led to an increase in the Silver Lake Farms garden design business and after partnering with other local farmers, Kolla launched a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, which continues to operate. The Food and Flowers Freedom Act allowed Kolla to employ one person to work outside on her property, as opposed to the previous indoor limit, which didn’t help much with a gardening business. The revised ordinance also allows her and other urban farmers in Los Angeles to host one client per hour from 8am to 8pm, enabling Kolla to teach private gardening classes in addition to the off-site workshops she leads.

Flowers from Silver Lake Farms

Kolla is now connected with a larger community of sustainable advocates and garden volunteers. “Diversifying happened naturally,” Kolla attests, “By being responsive and adapting to what’s coming my way I’ve found so many amazing, enthusiastic people who say ‘I want to get my hands dirty!”

Silver Lake Farms recently expanded to include a larger growing ground for flowers in neighboring Glassell Park, a “functional, productive and pretty” property, affectionately referred to as “Groovy Canyon”. And the farm’s blossoming growth doesn’t end there. Following a temporary setback due to the powerful Santa Ana winds, which recently wreaked havoc on the original half acre, Kolla and her team are already hard at work rebuilding and improving the property, adding a prep station for market-bound flowers, and eventually new greenhouse boxes to accommodate mushroom propagation.

A few years down the road, Kolla would like to see Silver Lake Farms expand to a larger property, perhaps five acres, but nothing bigger as she still wants to remain an urban farm. “Anything I can do to survive as a farmer in the city, I’m going to consider,” Kolla admits.

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