Winter Gardening Lessons at Fairyland


If there’s a garden fairy at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland’s Lake Merritt Park, it has to be Robin North. The design, planting, and maintenance of the enchanted 10-acre plot, so beloved by East Bay children, is Robin’s domain. Among the things she tends is a vegetable patch that provides food for Fairyland’s resident sheep, alpaca, pony, and rooster.

With winter rains approaching, we visited Fairyland to learn how Robin evaluates the summer’s gardening successes and plans for the next cycle in this small growing space. Everything we learned there can be applied to our home gardens as well.

The landscape design at Fairyland incorporates both mounded beds and raised beds framed with wood. If a better configuration of path and beds reveals itself, the mounded beds can be moved, preferably in early autumn before the rains arrive: The garden’s foundation consists of a heavy clay that requires Herculean strength to shovel when it’s saturated. Robin’s plans must also factor in the chicken tractor, a portable cage that houses Henry the rooster during the park’s opening hours. Henry assists in garden maintainance by scratching the soil, eating weeds, and depositing manure in the space enclosed by the tractor. In his time off he ranges freely. After two or three weeks in one spot, the cage is moved so Henry can work the next patch of ground.

Robin rotates the crops every year, leaving one bed fallow and covering it with a thick layer of mulch as it rests. She knows that each type of vegetable has its unique nutritional needs and disease risks, and that rotating crops and resting the soil helps her deal with these challenges. She digs some soil out of each raised bed and amends it with composted manure and green waste, plus some alfalfa meal for an extra bump of nitrogen. Fall and winter crops are planted in some of these newly amended beds, while others take fava beans, an attractive and delicious green manure that helps break up the clay. After the beans are harvested in spring, the fava plants will be cut down, chopped up, and added to the compost pile as the bed is prepared for warm-season crops.

Robin’s favorite fall crops are the coles—bok choy, broccoli, mustard, cabbage, and cauliflower—plus snow peas and snap peas, which, when they fruit in early spring, will be a special sweet treat for the animals. Greens such as lettuce, spinach, and chard are also favorites for planting now and year round.

Fencing is an evolving project around the garden as Robin tries to deter the animals from free-ranging where they shouldn’t. Twinkle, the sheep, ravaged all the greens in 10 minutes last year and ended up with a bad stomachache from the raid. She can easily jump the picket fence, so some temporary fencing is artfully arranged above it.

All the animals contribute to the garden with their droppings. These are added to the compost pile, greatly enriching it. The pile’s temperature hovers between 140 and 150° until Robin turns it, which cools things down for a while. The sustained high temperature kills E. coli bacteria and any weed seeds that may be present.

Most of us don’t have this ready supply of manure, but composted steer and chicken manure are readily available at local retail nurseries. If a neighbor has chickens, figure out what you can trade for that bounty when the coop gets cleaned out. Compost it first though, as chicken manure is very high in nitrogen and can burn a plant’s roots. Also, for sanitation reasons it shouldn’t touch vegetables near harvest time. One course of action is to lay it on a fallow bed and let time and the rains do their work.

Winter gardening in the Bay Area can be very rewarding. With just a little planning, amending, and planting, you can have delicious cole crops all winter and into the spring, enjoy fresh-picked greens on those rainy days, and harvest snap peas in January! How great is that? All with much less care, time, and maintenance than you give to your summer garden. Get ready to welcome El Niño, but dig in the compost first!

When the cold weather of winter makes you yearn for summer days in the garden, bundle up, invite a child (you can’t get in without one!), and head to Fairyland to reconnect with the simple pleasures. While your small friend is enchanted by the fanciful characters, check out Robin’s veggie plot, and say hola to Juan the alpaca for me.

Children’s Fairyland

699 Bellevue Ave, Oakland


Winter hours: Fri–Sun 10–4

Closed on rainy days

Helen Krayenhoff is co-owner with her partner Peggy Kass, of Kassenhoff Growers, a local organic plant nursery, which you can find at Her passion to share the magic of growing food has inspired her to create a 2010 fundraising calendar, Celebrating Our Local Harvest, to raise funds for local school garden programs. To learn more and to support her efforts check out the ad on page 12.

Photo caption:  Little Miss Muffet doesn’t much like the huge spider sitting in the web behind her, but the tomato plants in this Faryland vegetable garden are unfazed by the ample arachnid, and cling to its web for support.

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