A New Take on Giving Away the Farm
By Rachel Trachten
Charlie Costello wants to give you free tomato plants and teach you to save seeds. Last year, Costello gave 400 tomato plants to East Bay gardeners for their schools, urban farms, and homes. This year, he’s on track to share just as many, or maybe more, as he grows 18 different varieties, mostly from seeds he’s saved and started in his MariLark Farms greenhouse in the Berkeley Hills.
In May, Costello launched the MariLark Community Seed Bank, a new venture aimed at encouraging people to grow food. About 25 friends and neighbors came to the unveiling of the seed bank, a street-side structure that works like a Little Free Library and looks like a miniature red barn. Its christening involved a sprinkling of champagne and a show-and-tell of the bank’s contents: packets of seeds, gardening books, tools, seed saving information. A pullout work surface makes it easy to pour seeds and take only what you need.
At the gathering, one guest offered California poppy seeds to add to the collection; another announced a bamboo giveaway happening nearby. Neighbors brought food to share and left with tomato plants. It all fits in with the spirit of this tight-knit community, where some neighbors have keys to each other’s homes.
Costello, who routinely sets out free gifts of ripe tomatoes at the farm, hopes that over time, people will bring seeds they’ve saved for others who visit the seed bank, contributing to the movement to preserve local seed diversity.
I Just Kept Ripping Out Ivy
Costello says he wasn’t much of a gardener when he moved to MariLark in 1993. He’d grown up in Fremont and spent time in Japan teaching English and playing soccer. His great aunt and uncle, Marie and Larkin Smith, built their home in 1941, combining their names to get “MariLark.” They even had a MariLark sign out front, which Costello recreated from an old black-and-white photo. As executor of his great aunt and uncle’s estate, he was required to put their home—“a complete fixer-upper” in his words—on the market. But when he finally got an offer, Costello countered and bought the property himself.
At the time, Costello was working as a technical writer, which gave him flexible work hours. He had always enjoyed being out in the garden, and that was enough to get him started at MariLark. His great uncle’s 1960s-style formal English garden featured a putting green, golf net, and plenty of ivy. “Ever since I moved in, I’ve been filling up green bins,” says Costello. “I just keep ripping out ivy and adding two raised beds per year.”
One day in 1998, about five years after moving to MariLark, Costello was out in his garden when he heard a telltale scraping noise. He recognized it as the sound of the “Road Closed” sign being moved out on his corner. At that time, Wildcat Canyon Road was blocked to through traffic, with a detour onto Costello’s road. Local drivers often moved the sign off to the side, so Costello walked over to thank the cyclist who was putting the sign back. They got to talking, and Costello invited his new friend to stop in for a cold Calistoga on the way back. “Forty-five minutes later there was a knock on the door, and it was Liz,” he says. “Three years later we got married at the church across the street.”
Liz Cunningham, an ocean conservationist and author, shares Costello’s sense of connection with the natural world. “We’re the up-above and down-below couple,” she says. “He’s the terrestrial part; I’m the water part.”
In 2009, Cunningham encouraged Costello to invest in the greenhouse he’d been saying he wanted as a place to start his tomato plants. Within a few years, Costello was giving away tomatoes and tomato plants to his neighbors. He launched his annual MariLark tomato tasting in 2013.
Costello collaborates with his friend and fellow gardener Doug Reil, who leads the food-sharing program called Bay Food Shed. In partnership with Reil’s program, Costello donated hundreds of tomato plants to distribute to the Gill Tract Farm, Albany Arts & Green Festival, and El Cerrito’s citywide garage sale. When Reil put out a call for produce to give to the Bay Area Rescue Mission and the Berkeley Food Pantry, Costello offered tomatoes and collected lemons and other produce in his neighborhood. His tomato plants also found their way to local public schools via garden educator Wanda Stewart, whose home Costello had visited on an Institute of Urban Homesteading urban farm tour.
Costello believes that with all the plants he’s given away over the years and the advent of the seed bank, he’s helped launch hundreds of starter farms from MariLark stock. Thus the plural name: MariLark Farms.
Because the Berkeley Hills microclimate alternates from sun to fog, Costello grows a variety of crops: lettuce, kale, arugula, garlic, squash, zucchini, and Kalettes (a kale–Brussels sprouts cross). In the spring, he planted Painted Pony beans as part of the East Bay group-grow campaign One Seed One Community. For his tomatoes, Costello draws inspiration from farmer Brad Gates at Wild Boar Farms, inventor of the Berkeley Tie-Dye and other varieties. Last season, Costello had fun growing a yellow and black tomato he named Bumblebee, a natural cross between Indigo Apple and a yellow-white beefsteak he calls Great White.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Costello
Irrepressible, Costello is currently jazzed about growing a giant pumpkin to enter in Safeway’s World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off, which is held each October in the town of Half Moon Bay. These pumpkins (actually a type of gourd) aren’t particularly edible, but they are huge: Last year’s winner weighed in at 2,363 pounds, with prize money calculated at a hefty $7 per pound.
Deer thwarted Costello’s pumpkin-growing in 2017, but that won’t happen again. He’s constructed a special deer-proof pumpkin bed, which is now planted with pumpkin seeds Costello procured from Leonardo Urena, the Napa grower who won the Half Moon Bay competition in 2011. Costello anticipates that his giant pumpkins could grow 20–30 pounds per day. He’s planning to install a “pumpkin cam” to catch the action, so stay tuned!
“You’re Just Cresting the Hill”
In January, Costello decided to go to Ames, Iowa, for the Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference. He especially wanted to enroll in an eight-hour course on soil, but he was told over the phone that the course was full. Undaunted, he put his name on a waiting list, flew to Iowa, and learned that a space in the course had opened for him.
Cunningham appreciates the kind of tenacity that propelled her husband to travel to Iowa. “Many times,” she says, “I’ve just teetered on the edge of something that could or couldn’t be possible. Charlie is always on the bright side, saying ‘you’re just cresting the hill.’ He’s an incredible coach and a great encourager of other people.”
On an afternoon out in his garden, Costello greets the mailman with a reminder to attend the late summer tomato tasting. And at his workplace—a local labor union—Costello runs a lunchtime group called Green Wednesday, where colleagues share and prepare healthy foods. Costello contributes homegrown veggies and sells his tomato plants, using the proceeds to buy new soil. One colleague said she couldn’t grow anything in her townhouse, but Costello encouraged her to try the Barcelona cherry, which shot all the way up to the ceiling. “It’s kind of like being a coach,” says Costello, who also works with youth soccer. “You see how the kids open their eyes to the passion of the sport; this is the passion of gardening. You see people’s eyes opened up like that, and just from a plant; that’s what happened to me.” ♦
Saturday September 8, 1–6pm
Sixth Annual MariLark Tomato Tasting
515 Woodmont Ave, Berkeley
Sample the luscious tomatoes grown at MariLark, and feel free to share the bounty from your own garden. Please RSVP: email@example.com
MariLark Heirloom Tomato Risotto
1 pound fresh heirloom tomatoes (1 cup cooked)
¼ pound sweet Italian sausage or sausage of choice (optional)
2½ cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup chopped shallots or onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup arborio, carnaroli, or other risotto-type rice
¼ cup white wine
2/3 cup finely shredded Irish Cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ cup fresh basil leaves, cut into large pieces just before serving
An hour or more in advance, cook the tomatoes slowly over low heat. Also cook the (optional) sausage and set aside.
Place stock in a saucepan, heat to a low simmer, and keep hot as you make the risotto.
Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over a medium flame. Add chopped shallots (or onion) and sauté, stirring occasionally, until golden, 8–10 minutes. Add minced garlic to the pan about 5 minutes in.
Add the rice, stirring constantly over medium heat until the edges of the grains look translucent, about 3 minutes. Then add wine and cook, stirring constantly until wine is absorbed, about 3 minutes. Begin adding chicken stock or vegetable stock ½ cup at a time, stirring constantly as all liquid is absorbed with each addition. About 20 minutes into process, stir in 1 cup of the slow-cooked tomatoes, continuing to cook until rice reaches al dente, then stir in the shredded cheese and the cooked sausage (if using). Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve hot garnished with the fresh basil.