Long Beach gardener composts his way to community, one banana peel at a time

“Question: Do you compost your food scraps?”

This is what 76-year-old David Cundiff has been asking those walking past his house every morning as he enjoys breakfast on his Bluff Park porch.

Cundiff has retired as a physician and oncologist, but he’s never given up gardening. He was on the original board of community gardening nonprofit Long Beach Organic in 1994 and has worked with a certain boundless energy ever since to pull those around him into the dirt. Now, that happens to be in his own backyard.

He calls himself a recruiter.

Each morning, to anyone who will listen, he offers reverent, albeit casual, insights into how harmful emissions arise from decomposing food leftovers that are deposited at landfills. About 80% of those walking by his porch have admitted that they don’t compost their scraps, he said. But he’s been able to garner around 100 commitments.

David Cundiff, right, demonstrates how he uses his tumbler to compost food scraps as Ramon Rodriguez Crespo, left, and Ahmed Bahar assist him. Photo by Kat Schuster.

He is doing the work that he says the city is lagging behind on. In neighboring Los Angeles, all residents must toss their scraps into green bins by law. This is thanks to Senate Bill 1383, a mandate that requires Californians to separate food waste from other trash to limit the production of methane at local landfills.

In Long Beach, that requirement isn’t expected to kick in until the end of 2023.

A year and a half after Cundiff launched his porch project, the buckets in front of the quaint yellow home are now brimming. In turn, his backyard garden is verdant from the fertilizer he draws from the scraps. Some days, he returns to the porch for a lunch shift.

“So it’s kind of a win-win situation,” he said.

David Cundiff’s landlord displays cherry tomatoes grown in the garden as Ramon Rodriguez Crespo works to harvest sweet potatoes behind him. Photo by Kat Schuster

But there is much more behind Cundiff’s ardent porch campaign.

“I’m looking for competitors,” Cundiff declared. “…in other backyards.”

Cundiff urges other Long Beach residents with yards to begin a similar composting and gardening operation. Those without access to a yard, he says, can apply for a plot with Long Beach Organic.

“I keep telling David, ‘You’re building community,’” Mark Smerkanich told the Post from the garden on March 2.

That day, Cundiff had prepared lunch in the backyard, with guests Smerkanich and Ramon Rodriguez Crespo, the two men who had been gathering in Cundiff’s backyard for about five years to garden. The vegetables they have harvested have been enough to help feed each of their households.

David Cundiff prepared a vegetarian soup and salad for his garden guests on March 2. Photo by Kat Schuster

“We often have more than we can eat,” Cundiff says. He does much of the cooking for his fellow roommates at the Bluff Park home, plucking ingredients from the garden. Plenty more is donated to Cal State Long Beach’s student pantry and other food banks for the homeless.

“The cold winter was not as helpful as it might have been, but we still got quite a bit,” Cundiff said, surveying the garden on what was a fortuitously sunny day in the middle of an abnormally frigid winter.

Recently Cundiff, Rodriguez Crespo and Smerkanich have been working toward growing an assortment of tomatoes, peppers and more that will be available in exchange for a donation at LBO’s PLANTS R US fundraiser on April 1 and 2. The proceeds will benefit the nonprofit’s nine community gardens in the city.

When Smerkanich moved to Long Beach from the East Coast six years ago, he found community almost immediately when he met Cundiff.

“That’s a good haul,” Smerkanich said that day, pointing to a pile of sweet potatoes pulled from the dirt just moments before by Rodriguez Crespo.

Rodriguez Crespo, an artist and lifelong gardener, moved to Long Beach from Bolivia 22 years ago.

Ramon Rodriguez Crespo demonstrates how to propagate sweet potatoes. Photo by Kat Schuster

Around the lunch table that day, Rodriguez Crespo shared stories of his lush childhood home in Bolivia where he learned to work with the soil and grow fruit and vegetables with his grandmother, who could always predict a storm on the horizon and prepare her crops accordingly.

“She had a really deep connection with nature,” he said. “She could feel many things.”

Five years ago, it was Rodriguez Crespo who dug up the patch in Cundiff’s backyard for their communal garden, which now runs about the length of a 600-square-foot yard.

“Since then, we’ve been gardening and learning and making mistakes and hopefully not making them too many times in a row,” Cundiff said.

Around the garden’s perimeter is a big tumbler for donated food scraps. On the other side by the house there are stations, some filled with red wiggler worms, which produce fertilizer.

Ramon Rodriguez Crespo harvests potatoes. Photo by Kat Schuster

“That’s good stuff,” Cundiff said, as a greenish “worm tea” liquid ran from a tap he had just pulled. It serves as an organic and highly effective fertilizer, Cundiff says in a demonstration to his lunch guests.

Also at the garden lunch that day were two men who first came into Cundiff’s orbit 15 years ago as Lakewood High School students participating in a gardening club.

“I didn’t learn enough,” laughs Ahmed Bahar, recalling Cundiff’s influence on him as a teenager. Bahar—now an avid composter and gardener—visits Cundiff whenever he’s in town from Visalia.

Those who have come to know Cundiff, whether in his own backyard or a community plot in the Zaferia district, can speak volumes of his influence. But Cundiff says, matter-of-factly, “it’s a way to get free fertilizer and meet a lot of people.”

David Cundiff sits on his porch, where he solicits neighbors each morning for their food scraps while he eats breakfast. Photo by Kat Schuster

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