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Urban Farm Tours feature sustainability methods used in urban environments

on June 4, 2012

The Institute of Urban Homesteading, which offers classes that focus on living in an urban environment and in “rescuing” the lost arts of gardening, work in the kitchen and other work performed by hand, will host its second annual Urban Farm Tours day on Saturday, June 9 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Seven homes will be featured in guided tours through small medium and large lots in Glenview, Montclair, Oakland and North and West Berkeley.

These are home-scale urban farms; unlike other farms located in public spaces, these farms are on private property. The Urban Farm Tours are specifically designed to show people what they may be able to accomplish on their own. On the tours, the farmers will explain the ideas behind each site and the goals of the farmers. Visitors will have an opportunity to ask questions, get advice and possibly sample some of what is produced on the site.

For institute founder K. Ruby Blume, farming evolved out of her love of growing plants and her appreciation for their beauty. “I’m not one of those people who only grows useful plants,” she said.

“I’ve been a plant person since I was a little girl,” Blume continued. “I grew up in Berkeley and I used to dig up weeds and put them in pots and go, ‘Look, mom, I have a green thumb!’”

Because of her love of flowers, it is not unusual to see St. Johns Wart, used for medicinal purposes and elderflowers, often used to make wine living in the same soil at the entrance to her backyard alongside ornamental or perennial flowers. Inside the gate is a place where blueberries, potatoes, lettuce, rabbits and quail all seem to thrive in the same space. Blume’s farm, Beegrrl Gardens in North Oakland, is only one-tenth of an acre but she has managed to produce a large variety of food products here.

Blume started gardening shortly after the quake in 1989. At that time she ran a non-profit organization, and after taking time off from work in the community she spent a great deal of time gardening. “I just sort of taught myself and really enjoyed it,” Blume said.

K. Ruby Blume holds an egg produced by one of her quail.

She moved to Oakland where she had a large double lot for her gardening, and she became a beekeeper after attending a skill-share event where someone asked here if she wanted to keep some bees in her yard. She worked with the bees’ owners for a short time but they never reclaimed the beehives so she had to learn how to care for them.

Blume started The Institute of Homesteading in response to the growing number of people who showed an interest in learning about food security and sustainability methods that can be applied to an urban environment such as growing citrus trees in containers in the backyard or an herb garden on a balcony. In the past she held an annual open house but the gatherings became too large and she started the institute, which now has 20 instructors who have taught as many as 75 classes in a  year.

Classes happen at various locations, some at the homes of the instructors or in public gardens.  They last two to three hours and usually take place on the weekend or in the evening during the week. In the past people were excited about learning to raise chickens — “Chickens are the new black,” Blume said. Now, everyone wants to learn how to make cheese, even though it’s not that easy, Blume said. The core classes on beekeeping and gardening remain popular, she said.

Urban farming is “not for everyone,” Blume said, “but there is something about being human that traditionally we were always connected to where our food came from. I think even if you’re growing a couple of dill plants in a container that it’s nice to have something fresh that comes from right there.”

While Blume’s own home focuses on plant diversity and beauty and producing a large amount of food, other farms on Saturday’s tour will concentrate on varying forms of land management.

Shattuck Farms in North Berkeley is the smallest farm, but it produces enough food for five families 44 weeks out of the year using only 650 square feet of growing space, Blume said.

Blume calls the farm “a beautiful example of small alternative economics at work to promote local sustainability.” The homeowner who runs Shattuck Farm pays a farmer to come work on her property. As a result, the farmer is paid, the homeowner gets food and the farm generates enough products to feed another five families, Blume said. “If only two percent of the population in a city do something like that you might end up feeding 10 percent of the people,” Blume said.

Flowers in Beegrrl’s garden.

An online description of Algarden & Da Terra Food Forest’s urban farm in West Berkeley indicates it centers around permaculture, a method of farming based on specific principals such as using renewable resources and creating a self-sustaining ecosystems. On this farm, the land belongs to one neighbor and the water comes from another. The collaboration between the two parties has allowed the farm owners to maintain beehives, shiitake mushroom logs, rain barrels and thriving fruit trees.

Other farms on the tour are Indigoat Farms in Oakland, where visitors will see a variety of fruits, vegetables, cheeses and livestock including goats, ducks and chickens. Tiny Berkeley Gardens in Central Berkeley has been converted to producing edible and bee-friendly flowers.

For eight years Pluck and Feather Farms in Oakland’s Grand Lake area has featured edibles, poultry, meat rabbits, honeybees, and medicinal herbs. PineHaven Farms was started in Montclair in 1918. It began with chickens and a few goats. It has evolved into a half acre of space that features small orchards, vegetable gardens, beehives and a small spring fed pond.

Blume said she hopes visitors will come away from the tours feeling inspired and with a sense of delight and amazement at the possibility of accomplishing these things in the city.

“It’s not about changing your entire lifestyle,” Blume said. “It’s starting small and making one little change. It’s been proven [that] a lot of people making one little change will make a huge difference.”

For more information about the tour, click here or email


  1. […] The Institute of Urban Homesteading offers a tour of small sustainable farms in Glenview, Montclair, Oakland and North and West Berkeley. More information here. You can read Oakland North’s previous coverage here. […]

  2. Bebe NEAGU on February 8, 2013 at 1:58 pm


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