WILD YARD STORIES
Good Cumin Makes Good Neighbors
The Public Garden of Matthew Carnahan
BY DAVID NEWSOM
(photos by David Newsom and Matthew Carnahan)
Back in 1993, still freshly arrived from New York City, I was taken to the Venice Beach home of writer/director Matthew Carnahan by a mutual friend. “I just think you guys will get along”, she said. Pushing aside the latch on a wooden gate, we found the resident gardener- 6’4, sun-bleached blonde hair beneath a trucker’s cap- examining one of the many the stone fruit trees that encircled a tiny cabin in funky, pre-gentrified Venice. This was my first impression of Matthew Carnahan. We shook hands and traded small talk as he rounded up some herbs and greens and proceeded to make dinner. There were about 6 of us crammed into that little shack, drinking wine and eating food our host had grown and prepared. It was a heady thing, that first visit. It felt, to me, like a whole new version of an artist’s life, simple, autonomous and full, a far cry from the mad scramble of my old life in the East Village of 1980’s Manhattan. “So, this is how they do it out here”, I thought.
26 years later, Carnahan- whose day gig consists of being a highly successful show runner, writer, director and novelist – has embarked upon an urban garden venture that takes his horticultural and agricultural passions on a more ambitious, more socially oriented trajectory. No longer tucked behind a head-high fence, the new garden takes it to the street. Now, Carnahan has split his garden- equal parts native plants and edibles- between his front yard and the parking strip just beyond. The goal is to provide a vital, living dynamic between all the plants, as well as food for both people and animals alike. And the result is well, pure Carnahan: beautiful, casual and unique.
Tantalized by a litany of I-Phone images he’d been sending of massive artichokes, fresh-picked apples, fingerling potatoes, piles of mixed-greens and golden beets, all modeled against a backdrop of towering Clarkia, Lupines and swaying Tidy-Tips, I finally got my Northeast LA- ass out to the west side to see how it all was coming along:
WYP: First of all, would you mind describing where we are?
MC: I live in Mar Vista, in the “‘woods,” a series of streets just over the Venice border. A lot of old beach cottages and working/middle class bungalows, some of which—of course—have been plowed under for mini-McMansions.
WYP: How long have you been gardening?
MC: I’ve been a slightly geeky but grossly undereducated fan of the native plant movement for a while and have always grown things. My first vegetable garden, at eight years old, was planted directly under a massive Monterey Pine. Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy much of a yield that year.
“…I love edibles, but I also love insects, bees, lizards and birds, and nothing draws creatures like native plants. And then in turn, the birds and insects keep a really tight lid on the destructive insects...”
WYP: Ha! If feel you. I have junipers growing out in front of my house that have kicked my ass for 5 years now. So, as someone who has always grown edibles, what lead to introducing native plants?
MC: I love edibles, but I also love insects, bees, lizards and birds, and nothing draws creatures like native plants. And then in turn, the birds and insects keep a really tight lid on the destructive insects. I watch the praying mantises perched atop each marijuana plant, see the birds patrolling for grubs, spiders hunting wasps.
“…my hope is the idea of community…and people become a little more awake to one another…I know the block will never become a kibbutz, but maybe people will begin to share the occasional resource or at least pick up their dog shit...”
WYP: How has making edibles available to your neighborhood worked out, on both a practical level, and as a means of interacting with your community?
MC: It’s been great. Pretty sure I’ve solved the global food shortage. But seriously, it’s so cool watching my Indian neighbor (I think he’s like, a famous surgeon), using the cilantro and then, after it’s gone to seed, using the coriander seeds for his homemade curry (still waiting on that dinner invite).
WYP: What’s been most popular so far?
MC: People love the herbs and greens; chard, kale and lettuces have been big hits. I have cherry tomatoes coming in now and some small ears of corn, cucumbers, peppers. Honestly, it’s as much sharing the idea of community as it is sharing the actual food. But my hope is the idea of community is what catches on, and people become a little more awake to one another and to the potential for genuine symbiosis. I know the block will never become a kibbutz, but maybe people will begin to share the occasional resource or at least pick up their dog shit.
WYP: The native plants are really taking off out here. Frankly, I’m jealous. What’s been your observation of the benefits of bordering the edibles with natives?
MC: Life, a thousand-fold compared to when it was non-native. (And I) certainly wasn’t expecting 8-10-foot towers of yellow lupine and clarkia. During late spring I’d walk outside and as often as not, someone would be taking pictures of the remarkable flowers.
WYP: The layout is unique. Instead of raised beds, the edibles are growing on irrigated mounds, and the walkways and fountains are actually terra-cotta inlays and terra-cotta stacks. Can you talk a little about the process?
MC: It was a little bit slow and difficult and frustrating to do the actual conversion. Tearing up lawn. Taking out a non-native tree. It was scary, actually. I found myself getting mad at myself, at Andreas Hessing, the mad genius of Scrub Jay Studios who did all the heavy lifting. because I went from this showy, symmetrical, organized yard (and SO FUCKING DEAD) to something that looked almost accidental, like the family living here had picked up and left in the night.
But then it grew, and holy shit, there’s very little as rewarding as this.