Thomas J. Story

A small experimental farm shows what’s possible when sustainability pioneers work together to turn dormant soil into a source of food and community.

Christine Lennon  – October 1, 2021

If you stand quietly in the middle of Little City Farm, next to the tall bamboo tripods heavy with climbing bean stalks and the rows of tomatoes, peppers, chard, and onions, you can tune out the sounds of chickens clucking and children playing just long enough to hear the roar of cars speeding down Olympic Boulevard.

Look up, and beyond the 100-year-old palm trees that stand at attention on the neighboring streets, you might spot an LAPD helicopter crossing the blue sky.

It’s so easy to forget that you’re in the literal center of sprawling Los Angeles when you arrive at this urban homestead, surrounded by hay bales, backhoes, and pitchforks. It’s such a wonderland of edible, growing things that guests (and magazine writers) spend the first few minutes on the grounds a little dumbfounded by the abrupt change in atmosphere.

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“Now imagine that all of the houses on the street were like this, growing different types of vegetables and fruit, and they were sharing it with their neighbors,” says Ben Hirschfeld, the founder of 3R Garden Design, who created this small-but-mighty farm with the homeowner, sustainable design entrepreneur Jenny Silbert, and chef David Kuo, owner of the West L.A. restaurant, Little Fatty, using reclaimed materials, many donated plants, and hours of hard labor.

“I want this garden to be an example of the future, of how hyper local food could be,” says Hirschfeld.

Garden area at Little City Farm LA

Thomas J. Story

Silbert lives in the house at the top of a flight of stairs on the double lot with her husband, Aengus O’Neil-Dunne, and their three kids. Silbert is an architect, a designer, a self-described “master scavenger,” and the founder of Rewilder, a company that upcycles waste, turning the banners advertising the Hollywood Bowl that hang on street lights across the city into tote bags, and foam scraps from the mattress industry and discarded industrial fabric into outdoor furniture. When the family bought the property back in 2016, the main house occupied one lot, and a tennis court and a smaller bungalow and a patch of yard was on the other.

A chance meeting with Hirschfeld changed everything.

“I was at a sustainability pop-up market at the Google headquarters in Venice for Rewilder,” she says. “Ben was in the booth next to mine selling furniture he made from reclaimed materials, and we just started talking.”

Hirschfeld described his passion for planting edible landscapes to Silbert. Silbert shared that she wanted to plant a garden at her home, using the sizable lot they had, and to have her kids experience harvesting their own food. Within months, she’d hired him to plant a small orchard that was irrigated with gray water from the house.

It was a modest success, but Hirschfeld had bigger plans.

For years, he had been talking about his urban garden dreamscape—a fantasy world where the city offers rebates for edible gardens in the same way it rewards people for planting drought-tolerant natives and no-water lawns— with anyone who would listen. His business creating school and community gardens, and maintaining smaller residential gardens, was starting to thrive. And he was trading his produce for free meals at restaurants like Little Fatty, Kuo’s popular Taiwanese restaurant.

“I would show up with a wheelbarrow full of vegetables, and I would take all of the women I met from the dating apps there for dinner,” says Hirschfeld, who grew up in Beverly Hills and is a self-taught farmer. “I was kind of a VIP.”

Hirschfeld’s goal was to partner with a restaurant and supply food for seasonal dishes on the menu, as an example of what truly local farm-to-table dining could be. After years of preaching about his vision to Kuo, the chef’s interest was piqued.

Little City Farm's Ben Hirschfeld, Jen- ny Silbert, and chef David Kuo
Hirschfeld and Silbert pictured with Kuo, who shares his favorite recipes using Little City produce, including egg rolls made with a bounty of chard, a crowd-pleasing tofu dish, and his addictive Little Fatty special: Midnight Noodles.

Thomas J. Story

Silbert, meanwhile, wanted a farm partner to help defray some of the costs of maintaining the orchard and planting a larger garden. So the three of them sat down over brunch to hatch a plan: They’d take a jackhammer to half of the tennis court and plant a full-fledged vegetable plot, a kind of backyard garden partially maintained by Kuo as a way of navigating current laws around agriculture and farms that supply food to restaurants.

Kuo, for his part, has been patient with the process. He describes growing up as a first-generation Angeleno, in a house known in the neighborhood for “growing weird plants in the backyard,” before the Asian veggies his mother wanted to eat and cook with were widely available at local markets. And he’s excited to see how the relationship grows.

“I still have to order ingredients from larger suppliers, because we’re never going to get 200 pounds of onions from Little City,” says Kuo, who worked with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and in a Wolfgang Puck kitchen before opening his own restaurant. “But it’s been a great partnership. We have been selling the vegetables at a sandwich shop and market next to the restaurant, and people are really into the idea.”

When the coronavirus hit, it seemed like there was nothing but time to spend outside, and the mood was ripe for radical, life-changing ideas.

People drinking cocktails at Little City Farm LA
Little City Farm: Cocktails at the Mural

Thomas J. Story

“No one can believe that this land was a tennis court for almost 100 years, until March of 2020,” says Silbert, who hired Elle Street Art to paint a vibrant mural across the remaining sports court. “It’s astounding, actually, when I think about the timeline. We spent a month digging out rocks. Everything about this land was literally the polar opposite of what is here now. It’s extraordinary to see how it’s grown. It feels really profound.”

“We had to till it, and truck in some soil, and amend it until it was rich enough to grow plants,” adds Hirschfeld, who works 16 to 20 hours a week at the farm. “Everyone I talk to is excited about our progress. The owner of C&S Nursery will just give us flats of seedlings. He wants this to succeed.”

Little girl picking vegetables at Little City Farm LA

Thomas J. Story

The experiment appears to be paying off. Silbert is using the garden and the smaller house to host events, as an educational garden, and as an urban farm rental on Airbnb. She’s hosting the “Women in Green” forum on the property, and is organizing a gathering with Good Is the New Cool: The Principles of Purpose author Afdhel Aziz.

The dinner they hosted for Sunset, with a Yolo mezcal cocktail and a family-style meal by Kuo, featuring produce from LCF, was an example of how thoughtful, local, sustainable entertaining can also be beautiful.

“For Ben, it’s about farming. For David, it’s about food. But for me, it’s about community,” says Silbert. “Living in harmony with your values in a city like this is a hard thing to reconcile. The farm has made it easier for me.”

Little City Farm dinner attendees toasting wine glasses

Thomas J. Story

Favorite Recipes from Chef Kuo

Chef David Kuo, owner of the West L.A. restaurant Little Fatty, shares his favorite recipes using Little City produce.


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