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Homesteading organization shows Oaklanders the rewards of urban gardening

on October 15, 2019

It’s chock full of collard greens. And figs. And chickens. On Saturday, visitors meandered through the bushy rows of produce in the community garden at the corner of 33rd and West Streets, in the expansive lot belonging to Hoover Elementary School. Between the vegetation, visitors could see pops of color from mosaics and decorative wooden poles with glittery streamers floating in the soft breeze. Volunteers picked at a ten-foot-high mulch pile, filling loads into a wheelbarrow before spreading them across the northern part of the garden.

Hoover Elementary was one of eight sites for Saturday’s urban farm tour organized by the Institute for Urban Homesteading. The tour was meant to be educational, giving people a quick overview of the know-how needed to build a small urban garden and incorporate sustainable homesteading practices.

“I tell the kids, if you can grow a plant, you can grow yourself. If we can grow a garden, we can grow a community. And it just multiplies,” said Wanda Stewart, executive director of Common Vision, a nonprofit that advocates for agriculture as a tool for reversing climate change and supporting social equity. She’s worked at the garden since it started four years ago with just small fruit trees and drought-tolerant native plants. At the time, each class at the elementary school spent 100 minutes with her a week, while their teacher prepared lessons. That time planted a seed for the kids to become more interested in gardening and being outside, Stewart said.

“Children who live in a concrete environment cannot understand that they are part of an ecosystem,” she said.

She said the garden has helped the neighborhood become more food secure, so that people have consistent access to food, and that kids now come to school asking for different vegetables to take home. They grow culturally-appropriate foods that community members will actually want to eat, she noted, such as figs, which are commonly used in many Middle Eastern dishes.

The institute began in 2010 after founder Ruby Blume realized people were hungry for the self-sufficiency skills that gardening and other homesteading practices develop. Her Oakland garden blossomed into an urban homestead in the making when Blume started beekeeping, fermenting, brewing, and making cheese there. She started giving mini-tours of the garden, and the interest was overwhelming. She enlisted the help of four other friends with gardens, and soon the institute started hosting annual tours and teaching classes in canning, making bath salts, and gardening techniques.

Blume is a self-described “hardcore generalist.” In a world that is increasingly specialized, she said, there needs to be more generalizers and “synthesizers,” people who can bring different ideas and skills together. She describes urban homesteading as using “agrarian and heirloom skills to reclaim land in the city and to have more connected relationship to growing and gardening and urban agriculture.”

In 2016, the institute tours went on hiatus when Blume traded her North Oakland garden for 22 acres in Oregon. But she now shares management roles with someone else, and the tours are back up and running. The institute now offers classes in canning and soap making, along with discussions about different aspects of urban gardening.

After they had finished exploring the Hoover garden, visitors made their way over to any of the remaining seven tour destinations, which included The Berkeley Basket CSA in West Berkeley, the UC Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany, and the Soil Sisters Garden in North Berkeley. Their other Oakland option was PLACE, a community education hub tucked just behind San Pablo Avenue and Alcatraz Avenue on 64th Street, which has a community ceramics studio and a maker space on site.

Visitors stood outside its entrance while founder John Youtt explained the principles of PLACE’s newest project, the pallet planter. Made from upcycled shipping pallets, the cubic planter is watered by a wicking bed, which means there is a reservoir of water under a bed of gravel at the bottom of the planter, mimicking how a reservoir works in nature. The planter only has to be watered once a week, he explained as visitors scribbled notes down.

But the planter is important for another reason. It allows gardeners to build up high quality soil that they can transport, if, for example, someone is moving out of a rented unit. Using a raised bed like this is much easier than tilling soil, and is much healthier, especially in Oakland, which is notorious for its polluted soil, Youtt said.

Youtt said he hopes using the planters can become a ubiquitous urban gardening practice, and help people create a small food source for themselves. “In addition to the place-making, which is the re-inventing of the public spaces, this is another very public offering. It’s a gateway drug to gardening,” he said.

As visitors walked into the PLACE garden, he pointed out other raised beds made from tree stumps connected by plumber’s tape, which allows the beds to swell as plants grow and their roots expand. Youtt delivered a step-by-step explanation of how he built up the soil health in the planter, which included using layers of charcoal, sawdust, woodchips, compost, and the occasional top watering of diluted pee from the garden’s onsite compostable toilet. Youtt says these skills are important for general emergency preparedness, such as when an earthquake hits or the water is shut off.

But these skills and the garden spaces are important for redefining neighborhoods, Stewart had said at Hoover Elementary. Near the school, Stewart said, the effects of gentrification are noticeable, but garden’s volunteering days have lessened the divide between neighbors. “You see white people walking the dogs around the block, but you don’t see any of the kids in the school. But this garden has helped ease a lot of it,” she said. “Both sides of the fence are getting acquainted in a way that you’re not doing when you’re just living across the street from each other. New relationships and understandings begin to form.”

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