Friend Nguyen takes care of the tomato plants at the house of Greg Fuller along with other homeless volunteers on Saturday morning. Fuller has been working with the OPCC in order to give the homeless of Santa Monica self-reliant skills for their future. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SUNSET PARK — There’s a hearty vegetable garden in Greg Fuller’s backyard with seemingly enough vegetables to fill the produce section of a small grocery store, teeming with zucchini, corn and tomatoes.

Tending to the small farm is a team of men and women who come without fail every Tuesday and Saturday morning for about three hours, pulling weeds, tilling the soil, and taking some of the ready-to-eat crop at the end of the day.

The gardeners are clients of OPCC’s Safe Haven, a shelter that serves the needs of chronically homeless individuals who live with mental illnesses, and for the past year, they have sought solace and purpose in a blooming plot of land on Cedar Street.

“The garden is very therapeutic to me and the rest of my members,” said Felix Garcia, a Safe Haven resident who not only serves as the team leader, but also the shelter’s chef, using the garden’s vegetables in his menu.

With a dozen chickens and even more worms fertilizing the soil in his backyard, Fuller saw a golden opportunity to build a vegetable garden, posting an advertisement on Craigslist for a gardener.

But rather than pay, Fuller proposed a deal — he would provide the land, water and seeds while the gardener would perform all the work but receive half of the crop.

The first response came from Todd Cosper, who was back then the activities coordinator for Safe Haven, asking if Fuller would be interested in taking on a group of homeless clients.

“He told me he had a few people in his gardening class and wanted to have them come over,” Fuller said. “I said sure, let’s do it.”

They started planting corn in late August last year, but it was already too late in the season to yield a good crop. The team came back again in the winter and started planting cauliflower, corn and zucchini, finding favorable results the second time around.

Today the gardens — which sit in the front and rear yards — are packed with fresh fruits and vegetables, from watermelons to eggplants to tomatoes. While the agreement entitles the gardeners to half the crop, Fuller said he usually gives them about 75 percent.

That produce is used in the Safe Haven kitchen.

“It’s delicious,” Luther Richert, the project director at Safe Haven, said. “I always eat here when we have vegetables from that garden.”

Leading the team is 55-year-old Garcia, who has been homeless for about a decade, suffering from both bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Having studied permaculture, he is the only member of the team who always comes to the garden twice a week, assuaging Fuller’s concerns that it would deteriorate without enough attention.

He also comes on days when there are no OPCC staff members available to give the clients a ride to Fuller’s home, instead walking the mile or taking the bus from the shelter on Cloverfield Boulevard. On those days, Garcia tells his team to stay behind, concerned for their safety.

“I don’t want anything to happen to my peers along the way,” he said.

During the week Fuller does his part to maintain the garden, watering it every morning. To ensure optimal soil, he feeds the chickens and worms old produce donated daily by nearby Bob’s Market.

In the months since they started working together, Fuller said he has come to know the gardeners well, such as Garcia, who he learned is a master at handiwork.

“They’ve been very good,” Fuller said. “Their behavior and everything has been great.”

There are hopes that other property owners will be interested in similar partnerships with OPCC.

“We are very interested in activities that would help (our client’s) well being,” Richert said. “I would guess the majority of our clients would similarly find this therapeutic, something that is healing.”

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