Archive for Gardens

Banana Trees and Guerrilla Sunflowers

One of my most popular posts has been one from last year about banana trees, and searches related to bananas, fruit trees, and the like are regularly at the top of the search terms used to find this blog. Regular readers and Berkeley gardeners may remember, however, the past winter’s rare cold spell and its damage to plants. As a result, I was not expecting to satisfy eager banana Googlers with more photos of local bananas. Imagine my surprise yesterday when I was walking in South Berkeley near Alta Bates Hospital and spotted a bunch of bananas growing on a tree in front of a house on Dana street! As you can see from the photo, the bananas are quite green and probably don’t stand much of a chance of ripening completely now that we are into October. Nonetheless, it was fun to see the bananas and thing about the cycle of plant life.

And speaking of plants, I have spotted a few instances of guerrilla gardening while out walking during the summer and fall. “Guerrilla gardening” involves acts of planting seeds and plants secretly or without asking for permission. This might be in the form of throwing wildflower seed balls (seeds mixed with compost and clay) in to a vacant lot or sneaking some vegetables into a landscaped bed of annual flowers. Near the Here/There art that I wrote about a few weeks ago, was a huge sunflower in an otherwise unplanted area near the intersection. The photo above was taken at the building site for the David Brower Building/Oxford Plaza in downtown Berkeley. The development, which is under construction now after several years of negotiations, is expected to open in 2009. I have also seen little gardens planted in various abandoned spaces in other parts of town, but I’ll leave those unnamed. If you are interested in reading more about guerrilla gardening, a book was published on the subject earlier this year, Guerrilla Gardening: A Manualfesto. I haven’t read that one yet, but I can recommend two other books with information on the subject: Avant Gardening (published by Autonomedia) and Urban Wilds, edited by local author Cleo Woelfe-Erskine. 

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A Tour of Claremont

At this point in my walk I am mostly working on completing small pieces of larger neighborhoods in Berkeley, but one I had barely walked until last week was the southeast corner of Berkeley to the east of Claremont Avenue. This area near the Claremont Hotel is primarily residential, with a few small but popular restaurants and shops on Claremont Avenue and on Domingo near Ashby. I was lucky to get a grand tour of the neighborhood by Berkeley Path Wanderers President Sandy Friedland. Let me start my discussion of this walk by saying that I thought I was the most enthusiastic walker of Berkeley until this walk with Sandy. There is good reason why Sandy is president of the Path Wanderers: she is incredibly knowledgeable about paths, architecture, neighborhoods, and the people who live in them. And she has obviously spend many hours walking and observing everything around her.

There is much to say about this small neighborhood, so expect a couple of more posts about Claremont in the future. One of my impressions of this area from previous glimpses was that it was somewhat different architecturally than the rest of Berkeley. Many of the houses are larger, and the architectural styles vary greatly from house to house. Some areas had a feel of some of the grander San Francisco neighborhoods. As it turns out, this area was built up after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire to draw in businessmen and other well-to-do San Francisco residents who wanted something different than bungalows found elsewhere in Berkeley. While most of the homes are large, there are some smaller and more modest homes tucked in between them. Despite the presence of multi-million dollar homes, the residents of the neighborhood who were out and about were very friendly and seemed down-to-earth. This area has a high concentration of stairways and pathways leading through and alongside homes, and the homeowners have made the paths welcoming to walkers.

It is difficult to take in everything in this neighborhood at once, particularly because of all of the interesting architectural details and the elaborate gardens. Many of the gardens here look to be straight out of a landscape design book or garden magazine, but many also have whimsical touches. I think my favorite part of walking this area, though, is the ability to follow parts of the Claremont/Harwood Creek, which runs above ground in many places here. Where the creek runs through properties, one can see bridges and other crossings, garages built over the creek and many other interesting methods of incorporating running water with architecture. John Muir School is next to the creekbed where it crosses the Oakridge Path and Tunnel Road, and a student restoration project can be viewed in this area.

Next up to read on my pile of books to read is Michael Chabon’s latest novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon is one of several famous residents in the Claremont/Elmwood area, and you can get a small glimpse of some of his family’s local spots in this 2003 article. Of particular note is the Star Grocery, where you can still buy groceries on account, and which Chabon also refers to in his 2004 Ode to Berkeley.

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Edible Schoolyard

I usually try to vary the crosstown streets I use to get to different areas of town where I walk, but one I often take in North Berkeley is Rose Street. It’s a quieter and shadier street than Cedar, but mainly I like to have the opportunity to stop in at the Edible Schoolyard, the well-known school garden and cooking program started by Alice Waters and located at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. I was pleased to learn upon moving to Berkeley that the garden is open to the public on the weekend and during non-school hours. On an acre of land next to the school buildings are beds of vegetables and herbs, fruit trees and vines, a greenhouse, an outdoor oven, chickens, a building that houses the kitchen area, and areas to sit and enjoy the gardens. I like to wander through the gardens to see how they look at different times of the year. We are lucky here, with our mild climate, to be able to grow food year-round. Even in the winter, there are several crops growing in the garden. Most of the plants have labels (made by the students), and it’s a great educational experience for adults as well as children.

Much has been written already about the Edible Schoolyard, so rather than recount its history, here are a few sources for further reading: PBS segment, Washington Post article, Center for Ecoliteracy. The new biography of Alice Waters, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, also has background on the Edible Schoolyard.

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Vegetables on the Roof

Along the Ohlone Greenway, which I talked about in my previous post, one of my favorite spots to stop is the EcoHouse at Peralta and Hopkins streets (right next to the Karl Linn Community Garden). The Ecohouse is a demonstration home and gardens for a variety of green building and gardening techniques. There is always something to see there — vegetables and fruit growing in the permaculture garden, the ducks that eat bugs and swim around in a bathtub, the shed made of natural building materials. Recently, a greywater system was installed, the first permitted residential system in Berkeley.

One of my favorite features of the EcoHouse, though, is the “living roof” on top of the garden shed. A few months ago, the roof was planted with vegetable seedlings that now appear to be providing a nice harvest of greens. The idea of “green roofs” or “living roofs” has been around for sometime, but it seems to be growing in popularity. I have seen new books out on the subject and various articles and academic papers as well. Green roofs vary, but they generally constitute plantings on some sort of structure, such as a shed, parking garage roof, or office building. They use light-weight planting mediums (so that the roof doesn’t collapse) and some sort of planting. I have seem examples of green roofs with low plantings such as sedums, and with native grasses, but not with vegetables, so this was a pleasant surprise. There was a series of workshops at the EcoHouse last fall, including one where the green roof was installed. I imagine there will be future classes there — the Ecology Center calendar is the best place to find out about such events.

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Front-Yard Gardens Revisited

One of the Walking Berkeley posts that has generated the most interest and e-mail messages was my post awhile ago about Front-Yard and Parking Strip Gardens. I was surprised that so many people were interested in the topic, but even more intrigued to find that I regularly get visitors to my blog from people searching for terms such as “front yard vegetable gardens” and “growing vegetables in the front yard.” In the time since this previous post, I have also spotted more front-yard vegetable gardens in Berkeley. Perhaps more people are interested in converting their lawns to food than I previously thought.

Back when the E. coli spinach outbreak occurred, spinach was still available at the farmer’s markets here. Many of the farmers had posted large signs next to their spinach explaining that their spinach was grown on a small farm completely unconnected and much different than the industrial spinach that was identified with the outbreak. I wondered at the time if some people also made the decision to finally start growing some of their own vegetables. Interestingly, I spotted this front-yard garden not far from the location of the South Berkeley Farmer’s Market. The greens were young enough where I could not tell for sure what they were, but likely either spinach or chard. In the background are the beginnings of either leeks or onions. This garden is different than most I have seen in the front of houses; usually there are raised beds or some sort of container, but in this yard they have used most of the available space for food. The garden is located on a very busy street, but the fence protects it somewhat from trampling or picking.

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Community Gardens Along the BART Tracks

A walk past a community garden in the Bay Area is pleasant at any time of the year. Even in the middle of winter, the weather is mild enough for greens and root vegetables to survive and grow a bit. But fall is an especially fun time to see what is happening in the gardens. Pumpkins are still on the vine, tomatoes and peppers are making a final push, and some of the other vegetables are starting to die down to the ground. There are several community gardens in Berkeley, many of which are part of the Berkeley Community Gardening Collaborative. The gardens are open to the public for several hours each week, and most welcome volunteers at garden workdays.

The once barren piece of land on the BART right-of-way at Hopkins and Peralta streets is now the site of a trio of community gardens — Peralta, Northside, and Karl Linn. Thanks to landscape architect and community activist Karl Linn (who passed away in 2005) and a host of volunteers, this land is now filled with vegetable plots, herbs, fruit trees, and native plants.

A 10th anniversary party was recently held at the Peralta Community Garden, which — in addition to garden plots and an herb and native plant circle — showcases a variety of sculpture, paintings, metalwork, and other pieces by local artists. The documentary film A Lot in Common tells the story of the garden. Connecting to Peralta is the Northside Garden, which features a beautiful straw bale toolshed. Across the street is the Karl Linn Garden and the EcoHouse, with a permaculture demonstration garden. And outside the gardens, California Habitats Indigenous Activists (CHIA) has been restoring a section of the Ohlone Greenway with local native plants.

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Fruit Trees


Sometimes people who have grown up in other parts of the country with more distinct seasonal changes comment “I love California, but I wish there were real seasons here.” Having lived my entire life so far in California so far, I admit to not being able to relate to those feelings. On walks, I really appreciate seeing some green along the way at all times of the year. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall, many varieties of fruit are visible on the trees that have been planted in yards and along the parking strips. So far I have seen apples, pears, apricots, peaches, plums, cherries, figs, avocados, loquats, pineapple guavas, persimmons, pomegranates, as well as olives and nuts. During the winter months the lemons are abundant, though other citrus does not seem to fair as well here as warmer parts of the Bay area. I have also spotted grape and kiwi vines, and all sorts of berries. Some time ago I heard a rumor about a fruiting banana tree growing somewhere in Berkeley, but I have yet to see one.

In Los Angeles (where you can really grow bananas and other tropical fruit), Fallen Fruit has been mapping the location of public fruit trees. I love this project idea, and have toyed with the idea in the past of mapping fruit trees in Berkeley. It would be a great educational project for adults and children to learn more about the origins of our food, and might also encourage more people to plant fruit trees in their own yards. It would have to be executed in such a way, though, as to not encourage people to trespass, disturb residents, or strip street trees of their fruit.

In addition to fruit street trees (i.e., trees planted in the area between the sidewalk and the road), I have seen fruit trees in some of the parks in Berkeley, such as Ohlone Park and People’s Park. Unfortunately a number that I have seen are fairly overgrown and would require a ladder for picking, but a few are a reasonable size and shape. At the new location of the Berkeley Adult School at Virginia and Curtis streets, Schoolhouse Creek Commons features many young fruit trees.

One of the reasons why cities sometimes do not encourage the planting of street trees is the mess they can create. No one appreciates walking through a slimy mess of smashed plums or cherries, and the slippery fruit could be dangerous for someone in a wheelchair or unsteady on their feet. Sometimes trees are planted with the best of intentions, but then the original owner moves away or is not physically able to pick the fruit any longer. Village Harvest, an organization that has been successfully harvesting fruit from home fruit trees in the Santa Clara Valley, expanded last year to working with the Berkeley organization Spiral Gardens to collect fruit from trees in Berkeley. The fruit is donated to local food banks and hunger programs.

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