Story and Photos by Simona Carini
Once upon a time there was a traffic diverter. It was a sad handkerchief of dirt hemmed in by red concrete, its only decoration a “Do Not Enter” sign addressed to drivers, with the promise of a $75 minimum fine for violators.
There lived in the same neighborhood in Berkeley a garden-loving woman named Rachel. Rachel’s own garden lay mostly in the shade, which made growing plants somewhat challenging, while the traffic diverter basked in the sun most of the day. Seeing that the small plot was left to a sorry fate of wood chips and dirt, Rachel decided to plant some Kabocha squash to brighten it. The neighbors liked the plants a lot, but they were hesitant about using the unfamiliar product, so the following year Rachel planted corn and made a lot of people happy with tall stalks and golden ears. The third year, one spring day while she was busy getting the diverter ready for another season, Rachel was told by a city gardener charged with taking care of neighboring Oak Park that she was violating sundry municipal codes.
Rachel turned for help to Robert, who had just started a website to get people involved in local issues [disclaimer: I am Robert’s wife]. On the website, 20 neighbors expressed their support for having colorful vegetables instead of gray dirt, and, with the help of the local council member, who spoke with the relevant authorities, the Happy Forever Community Garden was inaugurated on a sunny afternoon in early June. The name comes from a Chinese proverb, beloved by gardeners, whose punch line is something like “if you want to be happy forever, plant a garden.”
Community Gardens in Berkeley
Applying the name ‘community garden’ to the 12-foot-by-18-foot diverter was a bit of a stretch, as community gardens are usually much bigger. The city of Berkeley’s General Plan, approved in 2002, indicates the existence of 17 community gardens on sites owned by the city, the Berkeley Unified School District, the University of California, and a variety of nonprofits and private organizations. The General Plan contains policies regarding community and school gardens in both the Open Space and the Environmental Management sections. In particular, the Plan “encourage[s] and support[s] community gardens as important open space resources that build communities and provide a local food source.”
Creating a community garden is a complex endeavor. Organizations like the local Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative (BCGC), the city of Oakland’s Community Gardening program, and the national American Community Gardening Association (ACGA) offer valuable resources. For example, the latter has compiled a useful guide titled “Starting a Community Garden,” a checklist of items that organizers need to take into account to ensure a successful enterprise, from creating a planning committee to choosing the site to managing the garden once it has been started.
Although it may not take a village, it certainly takes a good number of dedicated volunteers to ensure smooth operations for the garden, and therefore community support is critical. It then takes time to develop the full potential of the land. According to the late Karl Linn (the landscape architect and advocate for urban green spaces who spearheaded the creation of several community gardens in Berkeley, one of which is named after him), “it generally takes a minimum of eight to 15 years to develop fertile soil with the capacity to produce abundant, healthy crops on a sustainable basis with a minimum of maintenance.” Hence, ensuring long-term access to the land is critical, particularly when the owner is a city or another entity that at some point may decide to use the land for a different purpose.
Community gardens in Berkeley are required to post hours when they are open to the public. Probably the best place to visit to get a sense of what a community garden looks like and how it fits in its surroundings is the intersection of Peralta Avenue and Hopkins Street in north Berkeley. The Karl Linn Community Garden occupies the triangular corner lot on the northeast side of the intersection. It is small, almost cozy, and looked cheerful even on the gray February morning when I first paid it a visit. Next to the garden is the Ecology Center’s EcoHouse, built with ecologically friendly materials and methods. The EcoHouse has a garden at street level and also one on its roof.
On the other side of Peralta Avenue there is the bigger Peralta Community Garden, which contains not only vegetable and flower beds but also artwork, including the sunflower gate that graces the entrance, the sign bearing the garden’s name, a painting, mosaics and various sculptures. The Northside Community Garden, on Northside Avenue, which runs parallel to Peralta, is adjacent to the BART tracks. In all three gardens winter vegetables and early spring flowers looked healthy and happy in their neatly kept beds, evidence of the patient dedication of the volunteers, who contribute to make these urban spaces attractive and definitely worth a visit.
Microcosm of Joys
Covering a tiny portion of city land, our special community garden is in a category of its own, not envisioned by the compilers of the General Plan. We did not have to worry about many of the items listed in “Starting a Community Garden.” However, it was still important to have people committed to making the endeavor a success. I found myself being one such person. I became a character in this story by volunteering to help Rachel with maintenance, which, considering my nonexistent gardening skills, meant purchasing a sprinkler and using it to water the garden two or three times a week. The owner of the house closest to the garden generously gave us access to her spigot.
Soon after the inauguration, Rachel planted corn, lemon and Persian cucumbers, green beans, gypsy peppers, Sungold tomatoes, summer squashes, a giant pumpkin for some Halloween fun, mini watermelons and basil. Decorated with neatly spaced green tufts, the diverter immediately took on a much happier look. We added small-flowered bacopa plants to soften the forbidding red concrete. I then started my regular late-afternoon visits to the garden: I would first check the log to see when the last watering had been done, then would write down the day and time of my visit and finally I would either set the sprinkler or use the water wand to provide refreshment to the plants.
I could notice small changes after an absence of only 48 hours. At the beginning of July, however, I was away for several days and when I came back a big surprise awaited me: the cornstalks had nearly doubled in height, squash leaves completely covered a section of the space, green beans and basil leaves were ready to be picked. From then on, the rate of growth of the green mass became almost exponential and in certain cases had to be contained. Branches of squash invaded parts of the garden originally set aside for other leafy denizens, several of whom we had to rescue from strangling tendrils.
The garden brought joy not only to Rachel and me, but also to neighbors and passersby. Every time I watered the garden, people would stop to chat and I would offer them some fragrant basil, a handful of green beans or a prickly lemon cucumber. Even when they shyly turned down my offer, they would describe their fondness for the garden and thank us for creating a heartwarming corner in the neighborhood. The social magic of community gardening was known long before I had my own epiphany. Again in Karl Linn’s words: “Community gardens not only grow fresh produce close to home, they also grow community among neighbors and friends, which makes neighborhood life much more meaningful and secure.” The security comes from knowing one another, from having had a chance to interact with the neighbors, who therefore are no longer strangers. If a small plot of dirt can make this happen, then maybe all traffic diverters across all cities should be turned into community gardens.
In early November, after we had harvested the last Sungold tomatoes, I went nursery shopping for the first time in my life and then planted broccoli, green and red cabbage, and rainbow chard, while Rachel planted sweet peas around the grid at the bottom of the “Do Not Enter” sign. In its winter attire the garden is less flamboyant than in the summer, but no less appealing. There are several contrasting shades of green and the stems of the rainbow chard provide brilliant notes of color, while the pastel pea flowers signal the imminent arrival of spring.
Season Preview: The Three Sisters
For the upcoming season Rachel has proposed that we pay tribute to an ancient tradition and plant what the Iroquois call the Three Sisters: corn, beans and squash. The components of this trio thrive together. Corn plays the role of pole for the bean vines to climb. Beans fix nitrogen on their roots, therefore improving the overall fertility of the plot. By shading the soil, large-leafed and low-growing squash preserves moisture and inhibits weed growth. In the words of Chief Roy Horse of the Powhatan Renape Nation, “by observing the way the Three Sisters work together, we learn the value of productive inter-relationships of human beings.” A garden planted with the Three Sisters not only provides a means for the community to grow, it also becomes a metaphor for the community itself.
During the rainy season I visit the garden less often, and early in the day instead of in the afternoon. Domed dewdrops on broccoli and cabbage leaves sparkle in the morning sun and the garden has an overall atmosphere of animation that is as energizing as a frothy hot cappuccino. Even though I’m no longer there every other day, I know that the people I met last summer, who told me that they jog or walk past the garden on purpose to observe the changes time brings to it, continue to be delighted. This confirms the wisdom of another Chinese proverb (adapted to account for the female gardeners featured in this story): She who plants a garden plants happiness.
Let’s not forget, though, that she who plants a garden in time will harvest. In the upcoming summer issue of Edible East Bay I will talk about our garden’s bounty and how we savored its fruits. •
The Happy Forever Community Garden, located on Domingo Avenue at Hazel Road, is always open to receive visitors.
A native of Italy, Simona Carini moved to the Bay Area 14 years ago to live with her (now) husband. At the time she was not a cook and not interested in becoming one. Now, not only does she enjoy cooking, but she has also started to write about food. She works part-time at UCSF as a researcher and helps her husband run the small non-profit he founded a year ago.