Archive for Plants

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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Plants and the Weather

A few months ago I was wandering through Berkeley Horticultural Nursery to see what was new. Berkeley Hort (as it is known to locals) is a favorite nursery in the Bay Area because of its wide variety of unique and hard-to-find plants. In the fruit tree section I spotted several varieties of tropical plants that I had never seen growing in the San Francisco Bay Area. “Can you really grow mangoes here?” I asked one of the nursery employees. His reply was, maybe if the conditions are just right you will get a little fruit in several years, but definitely don’t count on it. The thing is that the trees will probably sell (and I have to admit that I was a bit intrigued myself). The Bay area is an interesting place for gardeners because of its many climate zones and its mild climate. Some plants that may or may not make it, depending on where you live and what the weather is like in a particular year.

Berkeley’s climate seems closer to some of the milder areas of San Francisco than some of the other areas I have lived in the Bay Area. Often this means that the summers are cooler and foggier, but there is little to no frost in the winter. This winter has been much colder, and many of the borderline tropical plants don’t seem to be surviving the weather. I have seen many a shriveled datura and bird-of-paradise on my recent walks. One of the most interesting observations, though, has been the wrapping of plants in an attempt to protect them from the frost. In many other parts of the country, frost protection is a regular winter activity. There are specially designed covers for this that are made of synthetic fabrics and come in different sizes and shapes. Most of the covers I have seen on my walks have been improvised out of blankets and bedsheets, and some (such as cotton sheets) are less successful than others. I do feel slightly guilty for saying this, as I am somewhat deriving enjoyment out of others’ suffering, but it has been lots of fun for me as walker to run across the interesting color combinations and patterns created by the cobbled-together plant coverings.

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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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Front Yard and Parking Strip Gardens


parking strip garden

Much has been written about the lawn in American society, from books such as American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn and The Lawn: A History of an American Obsession to dissertations and theses such as Suburban Dynamics of Lawn Care. From my observations, the perfect lawn does not appear to be a priority of most Berkeley homeowners. Except for a section of homes surrounding the Claremont Hotel, I have seen few cases of perfectly manicured lawns with sprinkler systems. There are a number of likely reasons for this pattern. For one, many Berkeley homes have either tiny front yards or no yard at all. Due to the high number of bungalows in Berkeley, gardens influenced by the Arts and Crafts period are also popular.

A small number of people have chosen to use their front yard to grow food. There are edible landscapes that contain a mixture of fruits, vegetables, and herbs mixed with traditional landscape plants. There are permaculture gardens and traditional raised beds. And then there are a few that have moved beyond the front yard to the parking strip area between the sidewalk and the street. I spotted the vegetable garden pictured here on a quiet street near the Berkeley-Oakland border. While I spent some time at this garden admiring the range of vegetables and the natural fencing around the plot, several people walked by but no one seemed to notice all of the vegetables growing right out in public view.

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