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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Tunnel Gardens

Air Date: Week of

School kids in East Los Angeles are experimenting with planting tunnel gardens, drawing on an ancient technique that uses less water and prevents erosion. As Celeste Wesson reports, tunnel gardens use a canopy that shades plants from harsh sun and enriches the soil with nutrients.


CURWOOD: In East Los Angeles, there's a class of school kids trying their hand at an unusual method of gardening. Unusual for a major US city, that is. It's called tunnel gardening, a sustainable gardening technique used mostly in developing nations with warm climates. Producer Celeste Wesson spent a morning with seventh-grade science students at the El Sereno Middle School, and their elementary school visitors, and has this report.

(Many children speak at once)

WESSON: There's a swarm of students at the base of a gently sloping field tucked between peeling tan bungalow classrooms and a steep grassy hillside.

WOMAN: Okay. Priscilla and Louis, right here. Okay, Omar, you can go with this young man. Leslie and Hector, right here...

WESSON: Teachers pair up the little kids with the big ones, and they fan out over the garden, the seventh-grade guides clutching their notes.


WESSON: Berta shows her charges how to stomp weeds.

BERTA: There are a lot of weeds. Some of them you can step on because they, like shadow the sun for the plants that we want to grow.

WESSON: Nearby, Viviana and Freddie kneel next to a small tree planted in a bowl-shaped depression.

(Water splashes)

VIVIANA: Oops, hold the plant.

(More water splashes)

VIVIANA: And then, I was explaining to him that while holding the plant, you would have to be very careful, not really touching the leaves. As soon as you do that, you pretty much shut off their breathing system.

WESSON: What Viviana and the other students are doing looks pretty much like ordinary gardening.

(More water splashes)

WESSON: What makes it a tunnel garden?

VIVIANA: Well, there's holes all around in perfect rows, and as soon as all the trees grow up, it's going to pretty much look like a tunnel. It's going to have shade, and plants on the floor are going to have enough moisture because of these plants.

WESSON: That's the idea behind the tunnel garden. The dappled shade under the foliage tunnel becomes the garden plot. Because the area is protected from harsh sun, and because the falling foliage serves as mulch, a full-grown garden doesn't need much water. The technique was developed, building on traditional farming practices, by agronomists at the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, which promotes organic and sustainable agriculture worldwide. The Institute has started such gardens in Guatemala and Senegal to help prevent erosion and desertification. When El Sereno science teacher Richard Birmele read about the tunnel gardens, he thought they'd be perfect for L.A.'s dry climate and the school's hilly garden plot.

VIVIANA: You see that tree right there? The one that sort of looks like a pine tree? That's leguminosa. Don't step on those.

WESSON: The key to the technique is planting a particular kind of tree to grow the tunnel. Leguminosae, plants from the pea family, spread a network of roots under the other crops.

VIVIANA: They give nutrients to the soil, nitrogen penoxide -- oxide, that helps the soil grow more plants.

WESSON: The roots also hold soil in place, preventing erosion. And another virtue of leguminosae? They grow quickly. The ones in East L.A., at a rate of 5 feet a year. Three years into the project, however, there is no sign of a tunnel in this tunnel garden. Teacher Richard Birmele.

Birmele: This area behind us is an unused county park, and people go up there to do drugs and things. You can see they've torn down our 6-foot chainlink fence, and they come in and just pull plants out and throw them around for fun, I guess. When you're loaded on glue, I guess everything's fun. I don't know.

WESSON: Yet Birmele persists. He has finagled a donation from the Metropolitan Water District to start the garden, convinced the fire department reforestation project to donate native California leguminosae, and persuaded an agronomist at California State University, Northridge, to help him track down an African farm co-op to provide seeds for African crops to plant in the tunnel garden.

VIVIANA: Okay, the teff.

(Water splashes)

VIVIANA: The water on it. Another teff.

WESSON: Such as teff, an Ethiopian crop, and fonio.

Birmele: Fonio and teff are traditional African grain crops, more nutritious than wheat. But since they're non-hybridized, nobody plants them here, because nobody can make money off them in the middle.

(Children's voices, digging)

WESSON: The students have done all the labor. The weeding, the planting and replanting, clearing ground.

CHILD: We're digging up these bricks, and we're piling them up over there. In this whole pathway we're going to plant some new trees.

(Bricks falling, children speaking and laughing)

WESSON: It has taught them, says Birmele, new skills.

Birmele: TV remote, they wade through that. Video game, no problem. But most of our kids didn't know how to use a shovel.

WESSON: Of course, they're also learning the science that underlies the principles of tunnel gardening. But Birmele's purpose is not only to teach about ecology but also to encourage its practice.

Birmele: Their parents and themselves, a lot of them do gardening at home. It's a strong part of Asian and Latin culture. And it was a large part of American culture when I was growing up. And what we're trying to say is, you can have a home garden using this same technique, and in 3 years you'll have a garden that you'll never need to water, or hardly water. And you'll have a fertilizing system built in, given by nature. So you never have to add fertilizer.

WESSON: Perhaps the project at El Sereno Middle School will launch tunnel gardens across East L.A. Even if it doesn't, the students now have gained an understanding of native and exotic plants, of sustainable farming and hybridization, even a bit about the global economy. And they will tell you they've had a fruitful time doing it.

CHILD: We're just interacting with natural resources and just getting dirty and, you know, just planting stuff. It's fun (laughs).

WESSON: For Living on Earth, I'm Celeste Wesson in East Los Angeles.



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