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Let’s Grow An Air Pollution Garden Together
We’re launching a community science project and we want you to participate!
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A view of the Los Angeles city skyline as heavy smog shrouds the city
(Jacob Margolis)
(Jacob Margolis)
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When it comes to well worn L.A. cliches, the region’s awful air quality is right up there with bad traffic and how everyone on a laptop at a coffee shop is a “screenwriter.”

Like our reputation for bad traffic, being known for bad air is well earned. Just this week the American Lung Association released its annual “State Of The Air Report,” which includes a ranking of the U.S. cities with the worst air.

Of course, L.A. was at the top. Specifically for ground level ozone. A notoriously bad for our health pollutant that’s a byproduct of the sun and heat baking all of the toxic emissions we pump into the sky.

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Highrise buildings in downtown L.A. on a hazy morning on September 21, 2018.
(FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP)
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Unless you have a respiratory conditions, there’s a good chance that it’s not something you think all that much about.

Thing is, bad air has an impact on all of us.

Knowing all of this, and how hard it can be to connect with the issue, we wanted to figure out a way to make the problem more tangible. Possibly turn it into a learning opportunity for kids.

Turns out, a great way to do that is by planting something called an ozone garden.

Let's Plant An Ozone Garden

Humans aren’t the only ones that air pollution impacts.

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Plants suffer as well.

See:

In fact, there’s a whole list of ozone sensitive species, including different types of trees, potatoes, flowers, and beans that, when exposed to the pollutant, show damage. They’re called bioindicators in that they clearly tell you if there’s an air quality problem.

Much like us, ozone hurts them from the inside out.

When plants take up carbon dioxide through tiny little holes in their leaves called stomata, they end up taking in the air pollution around them as well. Once the ozone enters the plant, it acts as if it’s being attacked by some sort of pathogen and works to drop the impacted leaves (usually the oldest), to stop the problem from spreading.

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Ozone damage on an ozone sensitive bean plant.
(Danica Lombardozzi)

If the plant’s exposed to chronically high levels of ozone then the problem will obviously be more widespread.

That browning and dropping of the leaves is what we’re going to use in our ozone gardens to tell just how bad a problem we have where we live.

This concept of ozone gardens has been promoted as an educational tool by NASA for a while, as well as by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Shoutout to scientist Danica Lombardozzi at UCAR, an expert on ozone gardens who spent quite a bit of time explaining to me how these projects should work.

Whereas Danica has a whole bunch of different plants that she uses in her projects, we’re going to use one type of bioindicator: phaseolus vulgaris. AKA green beans.

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But these aren’t just any green beans you can pick up in the store. They’re special beans that’ve been bred to show ozone damage.

What Are Ozone Beans?

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Ozone sensitive green beans from Kent Burkey over at the USDA.
(Jacob Margolis)

For our experiment we’ll be planting two types of beans that are identical, except for the fact that one shows ozone damage and one doesn’t.

This’ll be useful, because if it’s just the ozone sensitive bean having problems, then it’s a pretty good indication that ozone is the issue. If both beans are showing damage then it might be a problem with the soil or some other factor. The ozone tolerant bean acts as a sort of control.

They have fantastically creative names: S-156 (ozone sensitive) and R-123 (ozone tolerant). And they were bred back in the 1990s by Richard Reinert at the USDA who crossed a whole bunch of beans until he got the two stable varieties. They’re designed specifically for farmers who want to know if they have ozone issues.

Ozone can reduce crop yields, making them less productive and causing plants to die earlier than they otherwise would. It can also stress them out, making them more susceptible to pathogen and insect attacks. Since not everyone around the world has access to expensive ozone monitors, these beans can act as an important tool.

Kent Burkey, a plant physiologist with the USDA and a professor of crop and soil sciences at North Carolina State University, has taken up their conservatorship. A big thanks to him, because not only did he speak with me several times for this project, he’s the one who enthusiastically provided us with the seeds for free.

Thanks Kent!

Assuming you want to join us on this ozone bean journey, let’s walk through very simple steps involved with planting your beans and keeping them alive.

What Do I Need?

If you’ve ever grown plants from seed before it should be pretty straight forward. Plant the seeds, water them, and you should be good to go. You can jump down to the final section about how to get a hold of the beans.

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Fill a pot with potting soil so that you can plant your beans. This is a 10 gallon fabric pot, which takes 1.5 cubic feet of soil.
(Jacob Margolis)

If you’re new to gardening, let’s go over what you need:

  1. A sunny location – I’d recommend at least eight hours of sun a day.
  2. Water from your tap.
  3. Our magic beans – which I’ll tell you how to get for free.
  4. Potting soil – some sort of bagged mix that says “potting soil” from a home improvement chain or garden center is fine.
  5. Pots – You’ll need a couple so that you can separate your ozone sensitive and ozone tolerant varieties. You don’t want to mix them up! I’m going to be working with ten gallon pots. Don’t go smaller than five gallons. You can pick up cheap fabric pots online.
  6. Extra credit: all purpose vegetable fertilizer or composted chicken manure.

All in all, this project should cost you around or less than $20.

How Do I Plant The Beans?

If the idea of keeping plants alive is intimidating, I get it. That said, I think that we all have green thumbs. You can do this!

Starting plants from seed is pretty straightforward:

  1. Get your pot with soil.
  2. Dig a half inch to inch deep hole.
  3. Place your bean inside the hole.
  4. Cover it with soil.
  5. Space your beans a foot apart or put them in separate pots.
  6. Water the soil. Keep it moist, but not drenched, until they sprout.
  7. They should pop up in five to ten days.

Once your beans get going you’ll want to keep them well watered, especially as temperatures heat up.

Keeping Them Alive

When I talk to people about gardening I find there’s a lot of anxiety about watering.

A lot of it’s trial and error. The more you do it, the better you’ll understand it.

All you need to do is stick your finger an inch or so into the soil and see if it feels dry. If it does, water the soil. If it feels wet, don’t. There’s more leeway than you’d imagine when it comes to watering plants.

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This soil is dry! It needs to be watered.
(Jacob Margolis)

Over time you will need to fertilize if you want your plants to grow well. Follow the instructions on the back of the package if you want to be precise about it. I’ll usually just take a small handful of the all purpose vegetable fertilizer and sprinkle it around the plant every month or so.

If you can’t fertilize, don’t stress about it. We’re planting these beans pretty late in the year, so don’t worry if they don’t bear fruit (beans). We’re growing them for the leaves.

It will eventually get so hot (90+ degree days) that it’ll just be too much for your beans no matter how much you water them. Their growth will slow and they’ll start to die.

These are bush beans, meaning they shouldn’t need any sort of trellising or support.

If your seeds don’t sprout or all of your plants die early on, I’m sorry, but it happens. You probably didn’t do anything wrong. You’re wonderful and should continue to give gardening a shot. You’ll get better the more you do it. I’m in my fifth year of gardening and I still kill plants.

What Am I Watching For?

Look for reddish brown spots on the leaves, which could grow in size. The leaves can yellow and drop as well. Particularly on the oldest leaves of the plant.

That’s an indication of ozone exposure.

For the technically minded, you should expect to see some level of damage when ozone levels are at or above 40 parts per billion for a few hours. The federal government says that the “healthy standard for ozone” is 70 parts per billion for eight hours. That said, if you see stipples start to come up, maybe the air’s not as clean as you hoped it would be.

I highly encourage people to check air quality monitors as well. See if, within a week after the AQI reaches unhealthy levels, problems start to show up on your plants.

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Ozone damage on Danica Lombardozzi's beans.
( Danica Lombardozzi)

Again, if your ozone sensitive beans are looking rough and your ozone tolerant beans are fine, odds are you have an ozone problem.

If both types of beans look bad then it’s clearly another issue.

We'd Like Your Updates

I want weekly updates about your beans!

Yes, really.

Post your photos to Instagram, #OzoneBeans, and tag me @JacobMargolis.

Your photos should include:

  1. Your general location (neighborhood would be great).
  2. Age of your plants.
  3. Which one is the ozone tolerant variety and which is ozone sensitive.
  4. If the problem’s getting better or worse.
  5. If you’ve noticed the air quality’s been good or bad (maybe your asthma symptoms are acting up).

Make sure to capture a few different perspectives in your photos. Close up shots of the damage and wide shots of the plants works great.

If you’re not on Instagram, you can email me at JMargolis@scpr.org with the subject line “Bean Update,” and the above information.

Why do I want the information?

One, I like connecting with our audience.

Two, I’d love to collate the data from across our neighborhoods to see if this experiment worked. Maybe we’ll build a map with different people’s bean experiences and contrast them with air quality records over time. I’m not sure! It depends on how much feedback we actually get.

At the very least you’ll have an enlightening experiment to do with your kids.

How Do I Get The Beans?

Update: We are out of beans at the station!
  • Looks like our awesome audience rushed to get their hands on our ozone beans pretty quickly, so we're out of beans at the station for now. We're distributing the rest to community gardens around L.A. Some have beans available to be picked up - see below for details. If that option doesn't work, and you'd still like to participate in the project, email me at jmargolis@scpr.org. No promises, but we'll see what we can do.

We have 500 packets of beans to hand out for this go around, and there are a couple of ways to get them.

1. Drive over to KPCC
2. Go to a participating community garden

For KPCC: (We are all out, please don't make the trip!)

We're located at:

474 South Raymond Ave
Pasadena, CA 91105

  1. Park in our lot.
  2. Walk up the ramp to the main entrance.
  3. You will see a table with two boxes.
  4. Each has packets of seeds in it.
  5. The seeds marked with a number 1 are ozone sensitive.
  6. The seeds market with a number 2 are ozone tolerant.
  7. Please only take one packet of each bean type per household.
  8. Drive over to Guisados around the corner for some cochinita pibil.

You’ll find that there are four beans in each packet. Pay attention to which one is which. Again, you don’t want to mix them up.

For community gardens:

Mott Street Urban Farm (Boyle Heights/East Los Angeles)
1020 S Mott Street
Los Angeles, 90023

Moonwater Farm (Compton)
544 W Raymond St
Compton, CA 90220

Email info@moonwaterfarm.net to schedule contactless pickup from our little library, or visit on a Saturday morning between 9-1 and check out the farm.

Vermont Square Community Garden
4717 South Vermont Ave, Los Angeles, 90037.
South of Vernon between 47th and 48th

By Appointment Only: Contact Tamiko Nakamoto at 213-399-1476

LA Green Grounds
Carmona Ave. & Boden St, Los Angeles 90016. (Because they're under LADWP power lines, there's no street address. However, if you Google those streets, you'll see it on the map. Or, they're across the street from 5501 Boden St. You'll see the sign at the entrance.)

Enter the LA Green Grounds teaching garden, from Boden Street. Enter the path alongside the sign, go about 15 ft, turn left into the garden. The seeds are in a box on a light green table. Email: growtips@gmail.com.

Over the next week we’ll be distributing them to a few more community gardens across the city, so check back here for a list of places as we get commitments. I’ll also share updates on Twitter and Instagram.

If you run a community garden, feel free to reach out to me at jmargolis@scpr.org with the subject line “Community Beans.”

Good luck! Stay in touch!