At Berkeley senior home, concern over a beloved garden

Residents at Redwood Gardens have been told by the management company to remove all plants from their raised beds as part of a rehab project. Photo: Mark Humbert
Residents at Redwood Gardens have been told by the management company to remove all plants from their raised beds as part of a rehab project. Photo: Mark Humbert

By Karin Evans

Several garden plots at Berkeley’s Redwood Gardens have recently bitten the dust.

The raised beds, laid out in an inner courtyard of the HUD-subsidized complex for low-income seniors and the disabled, have been a source of pride and pleasure for many residents over the years. One woman cultivated rare roses. Another tended baby tears and had lined her plot with river rocks brought from her hometown of Oroville. A fig tree was a favorite among the gardeners, who also grew ginger, vegetables, and flowers. The small plots were well cared for and flourishing, a source of both comfort and community.

No longer.


As of last week the flowers and vegetables were largely gone, and many of the gardeners appeared to be in a state of shock and grief. As part of a rehab project going on at the complex, a memo had been issued by the corporation that manages Redwood Gardens, a company called CSI, with offices in Monrovia, California. By Oct. 3, it said, all plants had to be out of the planting boxes. Once construction was over, the plants could go back in. Trouble was, the corporation offered the seniors no timetable, and no help or materials.

redwood gardens 3 photo: mark humbert
Residents have taken out what they can, but they say they don’t have the ability to pull everything out. They have not been offered help or materials for the removal or the replanting. Photo: Mark Humbert

After the word came down, the elderly gardeners gathered what containers and strength they could and began digging, hoping to save plants they had been tending for years. Some didn’t have the energy to get things out. The prize roses, for instance, were too large to move without help. “These are old, frail people,” a resident pointed out.

Redwood Gardens is located in the Claremont neighborhood, with an entrance off Derby Street. The Spanish-style buildings occupy part of the site of the original California School for the Deaf and Blind, now principally UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr campus, with 169 Section 8 units. Gray Panther Maggie Kuhn was involved in the early days and the Redwood Gardens website calls it “a gem among independent senior housing in Alameda County.” The “raised garden beds for resident use” are among the amenities advertised on the website.

The abrupt deadline to uproot the plants is among a series of recent decisions by CSI that has left residents unhappy.

Photo: Mark Humbert
Residents are hoping some of the removed plants will survive being transplanted. Photo: Mark Humbert

“We formed a Residents’ Liaison Council to try to talk to the management,” resident Janet Lenihan said, “But they stonewalled us.” (Among the other issues residents point to are the lack of an earthquake preparedness plan — the complex sits up against the Hayward Fault.)

An email and call to the manager of Redwood Gardens went unanswered, and representatives of CSI could not be reached for comment.

On the morning of Oct. 3 an elderly man came out into the garden and played his flute to say farewell to the plants. The deadline had come, and apparently any plant not rescued would be torn out. Still, someone had placed a note on a small Buddha in one plot: “Please work around this rose. If you are unable to, please let me know first.”

The flute player dug up some onions and moved them into plastic milk crates. He touched the leaves of a large bushy plant, and shook his head, explaining it wouldn’t survive a transplant. He seemed sadly philosophical about the loss of his garden, saying he had lived through China’s Cultural Revolution. A woman was hunched over, digging out her last plants and moving them to buckets. A line of uprooted plants sat in makeshift tubs lining the sidewalk.

The beloved fig tree had already come out. A pair of large rare rosebushes beloved by one resident were being rescued by a relative who had hired some landscapers to dig them up and take them to her own garden, so they, at least, would be salvaged. A pile of redwood boards near the gardens gave the hope that new planter boxes might be built in the future, but no one knew where or when. As Gary Hicks, the Chairperson of the Residents’ Council, understood it, “The steel and concrete boys are coming to play.”

By afternoon the near-empty planting beds had a torn-up desolate look and the elderly gardeners of Redwood Gardens had put away their trowels. 

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