Walking into Vermont Square Community Garden, you almost miss Makadu Labeet.
Which is strange, because he's 6-foot-10 and has dreadlocks that go down to the backs of his knees.
Labeet, a 40-something-year-old native of the Virgin Islands, sets up shop every other day from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. in one unassuming corner of the garden, near the east side of Vermont Avenue, selling trinkets that he knows he probably won't sell. (VHS tapes, for one.) He's not paid to be there, but is in fact the garden's unofficial caretaker – unofficial in that everyone who's got a plot in the garden is supposed to pitch in and help out, but that doesn't always happen the way Labeet would want it to, so he begrudgingly-but-not-really steps in to do it himself.
The garden has been there for about 30 years, and was started by Helen Johnson – "Miss Helen Johnson," as Labeet always refers to her – a woman beloved for her efforts to revitalize her neighborhood. It sits on the 4700 block of Vermont Avenue, and the street sort of runs between two halves of the land. Funded by the S. Mark Taper Foundation, both halves provide a startling natural contrast to the urban landscape it's set against.
Kind of like the massive Labeet provides a startling contrast to the chard, tomatoes, avocado, grapes, peaches, plums, zucchini, garlic, onions and rose bushes among which he stands.
"This garden has helped the neighborhood," he said. "We need more community gardens. Compton is full of empty spaces, and all they're doing is putting car lots in there. We don't need cars. We need cars like we need a hole in the head."
Then, to clarify: "And we don't need no holes in our head."
Labeet describes himself as a Rasta Christian ("But I don't smoke weed," he says) and isn't very good at remembering dates: He can't remember when he moved to the U.S. ("It was a long time ago"); he doesn't remember what decade he met Helen Johnson ("in the 70s or 80s"); he doesn't even know how old he is ("47, maybe," with a little laugh). But the man says he's always had a green thumb, and if you ask him about gardening, he'll straight-up wax poetic.
"Planting is something we need," says Labeet. "Even if you don't have a job, you still have food, so it helps people to have a community garden."
And then there's the kids.
"Gardening teaches the children a culture that they should know," he said. "Plus, an idle mind is the devil's playground, so they'll have something to keep them busy. And when you're teaching kids something, you have to let them do it themselves. Because these kids don't even like it when they get their fingers dirty. The thing of it is they have to recognize that this is the way we eat."
Labeet is of the firm conviction that more gardening means more togetherness and less trouble – he points to himself as an example of that.
"If it weren't for this garden, I'd be going crazy," he said. "I was on drugs for 21 years." And he was in rehab for six – when he met Johnson (back "in the 70s or 80s") he was three months clean, and was astonished at her willingness to trust him with the keys to the garden, right then and there.
"This was a privilege. This was a godsend," he says. "Every day I would come here and work for her." The garden, Labeet will repeatedly tell you, gave him a place to go.
"When you come out of rehab, you don't have nobody," he said. "You burn bridges. You've stolen from your mother, your father, everybody – so you don't have no friends. Your best friend is Jesus."
(Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)
"A garden is a place to relax your mind and to get away from everything else," says Labeet. "I sit right there" – he pointed to his spot where he sells his "merchandise" – "and the baddest thing can happen out there and no one knows I'm in here. It's like a sacred ground. A community garden is a sacred ground."
And even though Labeet will get philosophical about gardens at the drop of a shovel, the practical benefits of planting your own food aren't lost on him: He says it's healthier, far cheaper and tastes better. In fact, he sort of recoils at the thought of buying produce from a store.
"I wouldn't even call what's in stores decent produce, because they sell it so expensive now," he said, a note of incredulity in his voice. "I don't see how people could refuse to want to plant. This is a natural thing God put us here to do. This is not something we made up, like making cars. This is natural."
Douglas Burton-Christie, a professor of theological studies who specializes in spirituality at Loyola Marymount University, isn't at all surprised by Labeet's reverence for the garden.
"The most basic thing for anybody who starts gardening is, the first time you put your shovel in the soil, the first time you put your hands in the soil, the first time you plant something, you see it grow and it creates something beautiful – food, flowers, it attracts butterflies, birds – and you feel like you're part of the life of the world in a way that you can't ever really feel if you're locked inside your house," he said.
"So it gets you outside, it gets you into the sunshine, it gets you working, it gets you close to the earth, it gets you close to yourself and eventually it gets you close to your neighbors," the professor added. "It's enlivening."
One of the several classes under Burton-Christie's belt at Loyola Marymount is called Sacred Place, which, true to its name, explores the sacredness of places that traditionally may not be perceived as such, and what is required of people in order to see that.
"People talk about 'tending' their garden – I think that's the right word," he said. "It takes a kind of care and even tenderness to look after these beautiful plants that are going to flower and fruit and get fragrance and color. They're going to do that on their own to an extent, but it also requires some care from the gardener. And I think people feel great about that. It's great to be depended on in that way."
You can certainly see that in Labeet: He's genuinely thrilled to be in the garden, and speaks lovingly about his craft and everything related to it – except one garden pest.
"I hate them snails," he says, rationalizing his decision to crush all the snails who cross his path as a means of defending his plants, and, by extension, himself. It's all part of the passion he has for tending to his sacred ground.
"Food is good for you," he says. "And it's a place where you can be together with the one and only one you wake up with every morning. And that's God."