Learning in the Garden

From the Independent Study Garden

Joy Moore (left), gardening and cooking instructor at the Berkeley Independent School takes, a break in the day to give a garden tour with student Sami Mirza, the writer of this story.

Joy Moore (left), gardening and cooking instructor at the Berkeley Independent School takes, a break in the day to give a garden tour with student Sami Mirza, the writer of this story.


Imagine you are walking through a typical city neighborhood, grey sidewalks and faded paint surrounding you. Ahead, however, you see a clump of green sticking out. As you approach you realize that it’s a grove of bamboo. Through a gap in the tall, rustling stalks you can see a brown picnic table, and you can hear hushed voices chuckling over what is apparently a “punny” joke. Farther down the sidewalk is what appears to be a massive green cloud. It takes you a moment to realize that it is actually a bush, one that has simultaneously captured the grace of both an explosion and an overweight cat, while also exuding the scent of jasmine.

Intrigued, you turn right as you pass the bush, and then you can see it has two siblings, which are being pruned by a teenager with long, blonde hair. Next in line is an apple tree with a sign proclaiming “Do Not Pick the Apples. They are Not Ready.” As the laughter grows louder, you pass a large planting bed on your left, and five small, rectangular beds on your right. One of them holds a tame, trimmed blackberry bush, another the traditional rose. Ahead, you can see the brown picnic table with a silver bowl on top. The table is covered by a red umbrella and now encircled by a multitude of high- and middle-school kids. You are greeted by an enthusiastic grandmother-type figure, clearly the instructor, who welcomes you with a smile and offers you a cup of fragrant tea.

The scene described above is that of the Berkeley Independent Study (IS) garden. Founded in 2004, it has been cultivated by Joy Moore, the gardening and cooking instructor. Ms. Joy is a kind, enthusiastic soul, whose individual attention and passionate acceptance fill everyone with a sense of belonging. Her philosophy of cultivation includes treating all plants equally and using both the layout and the nature of the soil to select what to plant in certain areas. The garden itself is relatively small, only about an acre in size, but it grows everything from raspberries to pumpkins. Next to a two-year-old cedar tree sits a handmade clay pizza oven, which is used to cook pizzas adorned with spinach, basil, and whatever else happens to be in season.

The average garden class begins on a chilly Friday morning. Around 9:00, people start to trickle in. Usually the first to arrive are the high schoolers, who get physical education credit for attending the class. When Ms. Joy arrives, work begins. “Let’s get the tools, ladies and gentlemen,” she directs with a kind, no-nonsense attitude. IS adjoins Berkeley Technology Academy (B-Tech). Mainly because items in and around the garden have been stolen, broken, or just rearranged by hooligans, the tool shed lies safely inside the B-Tech courtyard. Inside the shed is a lesson in chaos theory. Tools lean against walls in loose bundles, with shovels here, hoes there, while rakes sit in a corner. A bucket of trowels, hand clippers, shears, a post-hole digger, and other assorted thingamabobs hang on a hook.

After you locate all the necessary tools, you return to the garden, noticing that more teenagers have arrived. Ms. Joy assigns the tasks. You wonder, “What does it mean to be assigned to meditate the bamboo?” Your job is to clear all of the upstarts out of a certain area. “What is an upstart?” you ask. A tall, lanky eighth-grader explains: “Weeds officially do not exist in the IS garden. Upstarts, as they are called, must be meditated, not weeded. This is because every plant has value.” Recently, the garden class learned that certain upstarts actually hold the soil in place, and infuse some nutrients into the soil. The incredible thing about this garden is that it is almost entirely self-sustaining. Plant waste, whether upstarts, waste from our cooking exploits, or a student’s banana peel, is composted in a large black bin near the pizza oven. The rich soil is combined with industrial compost (provided by the city) and used to amend the soil in various beds around the garden. Therefore, the only things going into the garden are the industrial compost, water, mulch, and hard work, but what we get out of the garden is a sense of community, a meal, and experiences to carry with us for the rest of our lives.

Ok, back to work. Your job is to meditate a large patch of upstarts with a couple of other people. As you sit down to work, a conversation begins. The topic meanders from politics to football to a good joke. Some are so into the conversation that they stop working altogether, investing themselves entirely in the discussion. When the clock passes 10:30, some people are directed to cooking duties. They will harvest, slice, and cook the meal of the week. Sometimes it is salad, or greens. In November and December, it is often pumpkin soup. For some kids, this is the first time they have tasted collard greens or kale. Ms. Joy rails against sugary drinks, fast food, and anything that has unpronounceable ingredients. She worked tirelessly as a proponent of Measure D, a soda tax that was passed last year. Here, everything is organic, from ground to table in 60 minutes or less.

Today’s meal is bean soup. Most of the beans used in the soup were picked last week. They have been soaking in hot water to make them easier to cook. Those beans are joined by the few that were picked during this class, and tossed in a pot with carrots, squash, and some salt and pepper. People begin to wander back towards the picnic table around 11:30, sitting down and striking up conversations. At 11:45, bowls are passed around. Everyone shares in the meal no matter how little they worked. Ms. Joy’s signature tea, a mixture of Earl Gray, spearmint, lemon, and agave syrup, is served alongside almost every dish. A few brave souls attempt tasting one of the chili peppers that were ready that week. Since 9:00, you have not thought about your homework once, yet you’ve learned about horticulture, insects, nutrition, and the satisfying feeling of physical work. As you walk away from the garden class, dirty and sore, contented and full, a bee zips by and lands on a zinnia bloom.