The good and the tough: Life at a community garden in Berkeley

It’s summer. Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing and Duston Richards has a problem most any gardener would be happy to have. His tomato plants have turned gargantuan. 

“They’re pulling over the stakes, there are so many tomatoes,” he said. The kudzu-like tangle of vines is threatening to swallow the entirety of his 5 ft-by-5 ft plot at the Peralta Community Garden in North Berkeley. 

There are 29 plots in the garden, but it can take years to get off the waiting list and into the dirt. Richards had to wait for three. So he’s had time to strategize how to make best use of his 25 square feet of earth, going only for those vegetables he most wants to have fresh and at the ready: sweet bell peppers, Genovese basil and six different varieties of tomatoes. 

“I’ve got to prioritize what I want,” he said. 

On a recent Saturday, while giving his vegetables their weekly deep watering, Richards also detected the tell-tale sign of a separate problem bedevilling his basil — evidence of homo horticulturis — a nibbler unique to community gardens. A basil brigand. A pesto pest. An urban herb burglar. Someone has been pinching his Genovese.

“That is part of being in a community garden,” said Elizabeth Peele, current treasurer and former secretary and organizer for the Peralta Community Garden. Fortunately, to Peele’s eyes, all this particular plot meddler seems to have done is to remove the blossoming tips of Richards’ basil, which will make the plants grow even bushier and leafier.

The garden, located at 1400 Peralta Ave., is at the center of an archipelago of three community gardens in North Berkeley. The Karl Linn Community Garden occupies a wedge-shaped piece of land on the opposite side of the street, while a narrow walk-way connects to the Northside Community Garden behind it. All three were either started or directed by the eponymous Karl Linn, a German-Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany for Palestine with his family at the age of 11 in 1934. 

As an adult, Linn took a teaching job in Philadelphia, then, in 1986, retired with his wife to Berkeley, where he began working to transform vacant lots and what he considered underused spaces into community commons.

Most city commons are enjoyed passively. Parks and libraries are maintained by local governments. While community spaces like bars, cafés and barbershops are pay-per-use. Linn envisioned creating more actively enjoyed commons, where those who use them would also be responsible for their direction and upkeep. Places where locals would at the very least interact with and come to respect each other, if not always agree. 

“It’s really tricky to find that balance and sense of trust and openness. It’s not really ingrained in our culture,” said Peele. “A lot of people feel safe here. That they can express whatever they want to express,” said Peele. “But there are also people who are fearful, who think, ‘oh my God, if I’m here by myself and the gate is open! God knows who’s going to walk in!’ Neighbors are scary people!” she said with a laugh.

Linn is remembered as a determined — some would say domineering — individual. He died in 2005. He pushed through his vision of a garden at Peralta in 1996 by lobbying both agencies responsible for its existence: BART and the city of Berkeley, and creating a third to maintain it. 

Somewhat unusually, the property on which the Peralta garden sits is still owned by BART, even though that agency has shown interest elsewhere in converting much of its open space into housing — such as at MacArthur, Ashby and North Berkeley stations — or else rendering it completely off limits to public access, as at the Here/There signs at the Oakland-Berkeley border. But, officially, the city of Berkeley leases the property for $1 a year, and provides free water by connecting to a main in nearby Cedar Rose Park.

Garden members pay $30 a year in annual dues for their plot, but also pay in service by attending a minimum of three membership meetings a year and putting in at least eight hours of volunteer maintenance to those parts of the garden that are enjoyed in common — such as paths and tools — as well as keeping the gate open and the garden public whenever they’re inside. 

“In order to have a real community the people in it have to be willing to be of service,” said Peele. “To go beyond themselves and to help each other.” 

While many community gardens are tailored to low-income residents, Peralta was conceived to allow interaction among all people, including people of different economic brackets. There are no income requirements to membership, only a zipcode requirement. Members must be Berkeley residents. Which means, at least theoretically, a homeowner pulling six-figures could be gardening next to a economically challenged West Berkeley renter, a situation that does occasionally happen.

As in any gated community, there’s always the push-pull of public service against personal autonomy. Some members just want to pay the dollar portion of their dues and leave out the service. Onlookers may be counter to the spirit of the garden in one sense, and completely in agreement with it in another. Being part of any community means coming to terms with the reality that people have different standards and members give what they are ready to. Which occasionally, for some individuals, means giving nothing. While for others, it means giving what they can, and then some, because the communal benefits outweigh personal cost. 

Having so many and so many different kinds of members means people use the garden in different ways. Toshio Sawada has a personal project raising monarch butterflies in the garden. He collects eggs where wild monarchs lay them on the leaves of milkweed plants, then hatches and raises the caterpillars at home. When the larvae have formed chrysalides, he returns them to the garden, clipping them to a string suspended above a flowerbed, a technique he learned from silkworm farmers in his hometown of Fukushima, Japan.

Just outside the gate, one of the founding members, Debbie Meads, performed some basic beautification — tearing out Bermuda grass with a digging knife and a beer. Meads lives two houses over and often makes the walk to the garden to do some of maintenance she finds most satisfying. “There’s always the good and the tough and it’s woman against nature,” she said. “And you always lose but it’s always fun.” 

She has a different outfit for when she’s removing some of the more pernicious weeds at the property border. “I wear a shirt that’s stained from when I’ve butchered them in the past,” she said. “So I can intimidate them with something that’s got their kin splattered on it.”

There’s hardly any piece of the garden that Sylvia Soriano has not fixed up: the paths, the furniture, the signs, the paintings. In her own plot, she grows bee balm, thyme, strawberries, and yacón, a tuber from her native Colombia. 

“This is like my second home,” she said. “I feel a very, very deep connection to this garden, not just because of gardening and nature, but also because of the history.” 

Soriano never met founder Karl Linn and didn’t become a member until 2013, seven years after Linn’s death. But she shares a family history of displacement. Her mother was a German-Jewish refugee who fled Berlin for Bogotá just prior to the Second World War.

“I just love it here,” she said. “Because when I’m here I forget about everything. It’s like nothing else exists except this moment, and it’s so hard to be able to find that.”

Interested in stopping by? The Peralta Community Garden at 1400 Peralta Avenue is hosting a public work party from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday Aug. 10, followed by a barbecue and potluck. All are welcome.

Want to join — or start — a community garden of your own? The Ecology Center maintains a list of Berkeley community gardens and their contact information.