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Flying over Adams

Sara Butler | Editor

Kensington Garden Angels care for community streets

Visitors of Adams Avenue, one of Uptown’s mainstay hubs, have likely noticed the trees lining the bustling sidewalk in Kensington. Yet if you look below those branches, you’ll unearth a new treasure of community commitment.

The plots that each tree resides in are also home to mini-gardens planted by a local volunteer group: the Kensington Garden Angels.

Diane Larabee (top center) and DeLayne Harmon (far right) with the other Kensington Garden Angels next to their new water truck (Photo by Bryce Harmon)

These volunteers share a desire to beautify the neighborhood. They tend to 63 plots along Adams Avenue, as well as a few side streets. There is also one big plot — coined The Big Dig — on the 42nd Street alley to Biona Drive.

Anyone is welcome to join the group. Members are assigned a few garden sites to curate with drought-tolerant plants and succulents. All volunteers are expected to water their gardens once a week; they work independently and on their own schedules.

Seeds for the organization were planted in 2013 by Kensington residents Beth Guepin and Harriet Fukada. When Diane Larabee heard about the program early on, she hopped on board and hasn’t slowed down since.

Larabee has lived in Kensington for four decades. She taught at John Adams Elementary School in Normal Heights for more than 20 years and shared a historic home with her husband Dale until his passing in 2014. When she decided to retire, she dove her hands into the work of the Garden Angels.

Bonnie New, a 35-year Kensington resident who joined the group last year,
tending to the garden she shares with her husband, Ernie (Photo by Sara Butler)

Currently, Larabee leads the group with Bev and Dennis Lauck. While all volunteers are responsible for their own plots, they serve as resources for the members and offer help when needed.

Last year, the group saved enough money for a water truck, which Dennis operates. Though some plots have water sources or spouts nearby, others don’t have that luxury, requiring many volunteers to load and lug jugs of water from their cars. Dennis now takes out the water truck and tends to these sites every other week.

Unfortunately, the trees in the plots are plagued with blight. Back in 2013, Scott Kessler of the Adams Avenue Business Association, who had been treating the suffering trees for years, proposed that they be removed and replaced.

Though that would mean uprooting the Garden Angels’ existing plots, the volunteers were open-minded and optimistic about the change. Unfortunately, the expenses were deemed too expensive. Instead, they continue to trim, water and care for the existing trees.

“No one has enough money to take down all those trees and put them back,” Larabee said. “So our goal was to save the trees, plus to make it look good around the trees. We’re still on that path.”

Though the funds didn’t come through, Larabee said Kessler has been very supportive of the volunteer group and appreciates their work. He helps maintain the existing trees and paid for the tank in the Garden Angels’ water truck.

According to Larabee, last year’s rainy season revived the trees — unfortunately, that resurgence didn’t stick. Larabee said she doesn’t know what the answer is, but emphasized the group is committed to the cause.

In the past five years, the volunteer group has grown from 30 to 40 people. Larabee said that the volunteers’ ages range from around 30 to 76 years old. Most members are retired, but some work full-time jobs.

Involved with the Garden Angels for about three years, one of the younger members is DeLayne Harmon, a Kensington native who grew up on Terrace Drive. She moved into her grandparents’ Craftsman home on Marlborough Avenue. Harmon’s favorite part of the group is the close-knit community aspect, which is reflective of Kensington.

“Kensington is such a supportive, connected community,” Harmon said. “Living for 26 years in La Mesa, which is a community also, is not the same sense I have of Kensington. I mean I feel so connected, and maybe it’s just because I’ve thrown myself into being involved [in various volunteer groups]. People care about people. People care about the neighborhood and the community.”

Larabee noted that she admires each volunteer’s dedication to the plots, plants and program. Many of them pay for plants and soil with their own money, since the group’s budget is limited.

Volunteers have complete autonomy over assigned plots and are encouraged to express originality within the sites. Larabee said the diversity of the group is seen in the gardens; each member’s creativity produces a variety of plots that are representative of the neighborhood.

“[Kensington] is just not a ho-hum neighborhood where everybody’s alike, either,” Larabee said. “There aren’t kids at every house. I like that — the diversity of the people who live here. And they choose to live here. They really choose to live here.”

(l to r) Bonnie and Ernie New with DeLayne Harmon (Photo by Sara Butler)

The next project for the Garden Angels is to enhance the entrance of the Kensington neighborhood. They have a small fund, started when Larabee’s husband died, but more money is needed before they can move past the planning phase.

Many businesses have shown support for the volunteers and their work. In particular, Ponce’s Mexican Restaurant has a donation box, and the owner of Science Fitness Personal Training and Yoga tends his own garden plot.

Both Larabee and Harmon noted that though many of the community members do not know the story of the mini-gardens, those who do notice express appreciation.

“We do get a lot of compliments by people who walk by, and that makes you feel really good,” Larabee said. “And they aren’t all my friends. I’ve met strangers who volunteer too.”

“A lot of people come by and ask you or talk to you,” Harmon said, adding that many thank her and other volunteers for what they are doing.

On May 28, the Garden Angels will participate in Kensington’s “Holiday at Home Parade,” an annual celebration held every Memorial Day that has been a staple of the neighborhood for over 35 years. The Garden Angels will be walking next to their water truck, which will be decorated with handmade tissue paper flowers and draped with a sign that says, “Caring for your Adams Avenue Tree Gardens.”

The free event is intended to keep residents within the neighborhood for the holiday and celebrate the close-knit community they have created. It features a parade along Marlborough Avenue. In addition to the parade, the event hosts a pancake breakfast, Dale Larabee Miracle Mile Relay and awards ceremony at the Kensington Library.

Diane Larabee hopes the parade will give the Kensington Garden Angels more exposure, perhaps soliciting more volunteers or donations.

“[Our goal is to] show that we have to take care of our places, because the city doesn’t have the time or the money,” Larabee said.

She hopes someone may see the float and say, “Maybe I could be a Garden Angel.”

For previous San Diego Uptown News coverage of the Kensington Garden Angels, written by Diane’s late husband Dale Larabee, visit
bit.ly/2Kt2JxN. For more information about the Holiday at Home Parade, visit ksac92116.org.

— Reach Sara Butler at sara@sdcnn.com.

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