Dr. Sherridan Ross wasn’t ready to take it easy when he retired from medicine. He was, rather, determined to get his hands dirty and clean up some issues at home. Compton, California has a rich history – a past that sleeps in the soil. It’s not that easy to see it today, amidst a farrago of car exhaust, blaring sirens, eye-blight vacant lots and nutrition-deficient fast-food restaurants. Obesity is a crisis in food deserts like Compton. Dr. Sherridan knew that a big piece of the answer was hiding beneath their feet.
Compton was once an agricultural mecca of the U.S. It is still today one of the few cities permitted for agriculture – where you can raise horses, chickens and pigs, if you have enough land. When the city was being developed, no one tore up the soil. The houses and concrete were just strewn on top. Dr. Ross, who is a master gardener, knew just how to “wake the soil up,” with something as simple as egg shells (calcium) and banana peels (magnesium). So, he rallied some volunteers, convinced the owner of a vacant lot to come on board, and in just two weekends created the Compton Community Gardens.
The Fire Department was the first to sign up for having their own garden beds at the Compton Community Gardens. Locals pay $50 every six months for their own box, which can feed a family of four for that entire period of time. Dr. Ross points out that folks with a yard could get rid of the grass and sow their own lettuce, tomato and zucchini seeds instead… Once you wake up the soil in Compton, you’re in for a rich yield. There are free gardening classes available to get anyone started, regardless of whether they have a bed in the community.
Why Gratitude is Important
One of the first things you’ll see when you visit the gardens is that every bed has an empowering message painted on it. Gratitude. Rebirth. Forgiveness. According to TemuAsyr Martin Bey, a Cordon Bleu trained chef who has become an integral partner to the Compton Community Gardens, “We put affirmations all around the garden to create a more positive vibration. Gratitude helps us to operate from a higher place. Once you feel good, it’s easier to do good.”
The Compton Community Gardens team encourages seed sharing and community. They organize volunteers to help with planting and harvesting, and offer ongoing training through their free classes. The Compton Community Gardens have expanded into a second plot and into nine local elementary schools. Kids are learning where their food comes from, and just how delicious fresh produce can be.
The Gleaning Beds
The Compton Community Gardens is also dedicated to helping the neighborhood. Though most of the garden beds are rented, there are always “gleaning” beds set aside for the public good. Using Dr. Ross’ companion method, people are harvesting 70 pounds of tomatoes out of one plant in a 4’x 8’ bed – far more than any one family can eat. The food delivered by the Gardens’ volunteers was a Godsend in the pandemic for thousands of families in need, and will continue to play a role in the recovery.
Fast Healthy Organic Food
New gardeners are always surprised at just how fast food grows in healthy soil. According to Dr. Ross, a head of lettuce grows to maturity in just 33 days. Zucchini grows four inches a day in the biodynamic Compton soil. Tomatoes that have a strawberry plant next to them don’t suffer from the attack of the tomato hornworm. The guidance of a master gardener makes all the difference. As Dr. Ross told me:
We teach people how to grow their garden. Once your garden is growing, you should be able to stand at the end of your garden and not see any soil at all. When you plant a diverse garden, you confuse the insects. Now they don’t get the smell they want to attack your vegetables. You’re cutting down the water by 2/3rds. If the sunlight can’t get to the soil, it can’t dry out the soil. You have to water once or twice a month, instead of once or twice in a week.
It’s About Much More Than a Garden
Dr. Ross’ vision was to get people eating healthy food and roll back the obesity crisis in his beloved birthplace. He works with teens, not just to give them food, but also to give them hope. Temu believes that fresh, healthy, organic food creates a memory and can actually reduce crime. In fact, the inspiring messages on the garden beds were all painted by local teens, some of which are affiliated with gangs. According to Temu, “Developing a relationship with food helps us to have healthier relationships overall. When you create a healthier life, it’s easier to create a healthy community. This is life-changing. It can revolutionize and uplift our community.”As Temu speaks, someone stops their planting to say, “Amen.” Heads nod in agreement all around the garden, as everyone acknowledges the grander vision and mission of creating health and sanctuary in their city.
You can learn more about gardening in Dr. Sherridan Ross’ book Introduction to Organic Gardening. Follow The Compton Community Gardens on Instagram to learn when the next volunteer planting or harvesting day will be. (The next Harvest Day is May 28th.) You can support their work by ordering a t-shirt or tote bag at https://www.ComptonCommunityGarden.com/. Click to watch Temu and Dr. Ross discussing the Compton Community Gardens.