Tuesday, April 24, 2012


By MARY MACVEAN, Los Angeles Times …but from the Kansas City Star! | http://bit.ly/JmBHVe

Tue, Apr. 24, 2012 07:05 AM -- LOS ANGELES  ::   It's not easy to keep pace with the youth gardening evangelist Mud Baron - in the real world or the virtual one.

To keep up, you need to relentlessly advocate for schoolyard gardens full of food and flowers. You need to be a constant presence on Twitter. (He has more than 24,000 followers.) You need to schlep all over Southern California to collect seeds. And you need to be willing to make people mad, to push teenagers to get dirty and to nudge companies to make donations.

A bearded, baggy-pants-wearing Baron might quote Cicero, Lou Reed, Jonathan Swift or Wynton Marsalis to make a point. But he's also not above poop jokes born of the manure that feeds the gardens.

Rarely without pruners in his pocket, Baron is a rabble-rousing master gardener with a florist's touch. Or, as he likes to say, he has tattoos of Cornel West and Martha Stewart on his behind. (His girlfriend says that's not literally true.)

No school garden should fail for lack of stuff, he says, so he rustles up seeds, worm castings, compost, bulbs. Black plastic sheets from a film set become mulch liners. Last year, he says, he raised $5 million in in-kind donations.

Essentially unemployed - or at least without a regular paycheck - he works a few days a week with students at John Muir High in Pasadena, Calif., building a garden on 11/3 acres. He also spends time at a Los Angeles Unified School District science center in San Pedro, in one of about 300 district gardens. His students sell their flowers at the Hollywood Farmers Market. He got the cooking class at Santee Education Complex to cater for Occupy protesters before getting detained himself.

Baron, 42, sees his work in a broad context, calling school gardens "the engines of environmental empathy." His mantra: "Kids who grow broccoli eat broccoli."

Mud's real name is Matthew Anthony Baron, one of two children of a Mercedes-Benz dealer in Ohio. When college didn't suit him, he became an apprentice cabinetmaker while living on a farm run by the late peace activist Art Gish, a place Baron calls "a radical Christian intentional community." He later worked as an assistant to Sierra Club founder David Brower, who taught Baron to "be audacious and bold."

In his down time, he coaches youth soccer and takes his 12-year-old son, a Japanophile, for ramen.

He got his nickname long ago, for Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted of conspiracy in President Lincoln's assassination for treating John Wilkes Booth but was pardoned for waging war against yellow fever in the Florida Keys. Baron says he and Booth are distantly related, and like the doctor he is fighting for what is right.

Julia Cotts, executive director of the Garden School Foundation, which runs a garden at the 24th Street Elementary School near downtown L.A., says Baron is willing "to just stick his neck out when it's dangerous to do so. He has gotten bitten on the (behind), and it doesn't seem to deter him."

Ernest Miller, chef at the Farmer's Kitchen at the Hollywood Farmers' Market, describes Baron as a slightly chaotic force of nature. "I sort of hate this metaphor, but he's planting a lot of seeds."

Getting the plant donations has tremendously increased teachers' ability to have gardens, says Yvonne Savio, manager of the University of California Cooperative Extension master gardener program. He can be "too much of a loose cannon," she says. "But that's what you have to do if you're passionate."

Sometimes Baron's impatience with government wins few friends among the groups working with LAUSD ("5,000 acres of asphalt - that's how they interact with nature, and that's obscene," he says).

"Mud says things that I certainly think but don't say," says Megan Hanson, a longtime advocate for better school food and founder of RootDown LA, which works to get kids to eat vegetables.

Baron was let go from LAUSD but saw no reason to stop. Over the last year he's organized an intensively planted garden in San Pedro, shaded by cypress trees and full of birds and butterflies. One morning, he works with culinary students from Carson High, ignoring the tentative way they bend over to plant ranunculus bulbs or sunflower seeds, one hand holding up their jeans. He takes aside a boy using his cellphone and, without a reprimand, partners with him to pick flowers and herbs.

"Watching him work with kids is really, really inspiring," says Michele Grant, co-owner and chef of the Grilled Cheese Truck. "If I can help, I'd put my money on Mud any day without a doubt."

At Muir one chilly morning, Baron and retired science teacher Doss Jones roam among students in the garden. There are piles of cast-off shoes and work gloves, so teenagers wary of dirt have no excuses. Baron prompts students to try mizuna straight from the ground or to spread compost. He jokes with boys who tell him they use cologne after his class to cover up the smells.

"He talks to you more as a friend than a teacher," says Luis Santacruz, a Muir senior. "He talks about gardening and life and not straying myself too much, how to work."

Like an evangelist, Baron tells stories for effect. One such "story" might be filling a garden bed with flowers that could make Pasadena officials that much happier to support the garden. Another is about nutrition, he says: "How do I teach kids about Flaming Hot Cheetos? We grow radishes."

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