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Gardens for play, for food, for family

By Joe Eskenazi Daily Planet Correspondent
Saturday October 07, 2000

Voltaire’s Candide, having been kicked solidly and repeatedly on the backside by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, learned in time what was important in life.  

“That’s true enough,” said Candide when reliving the improbable chain of events that led him from baronies to battlefields, through Eldorado and, finally, to a humble existence on an equally humble farm, “But we must go and work in the garden.” 

Candide’s catharsis in “cultivating one’s garden” is more than just a 242-year-old metaphor. Even today, legions of people young and old delight in getting their hands into the Earth and participating in the age-old cycle of nature – and the not quite as age-old act of community-building.  

“I tell you why I do this; I’ve been working on gardens like this for 40 years,” says Berkeley psychologist and landscape architect Karl Linn, honored within his lifetime by the naming of the Karl Linn Community Garden in North Berkeley. “In cities, often so many people live next to each other as strangers. Once they were able to meet in the street, a lot of social life took place in the street. But that’s no longer possible due to cars. One vacant lot a block makes it possible for neighbors to meet casually, become friends. It makes the neighborhood more secure, people feel much more at home, at ease. The gardens are very peaceful places.” 

These green, growing bases of community within the oft-impersonal world of the city pop up more frequently than one might think. No less than 34 school and community gardens are ready to put on an exhibition today from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Berkeley Community Gardening Collective’s sixth-annual Open Garden Day. (Frequent Daily Planet readers have probably already noticed the map of school and community gardens running in the paper over the past week.)  

“They couldn’t possibly go to even half of them. If they make six or seven, I’d be pleased,” laughs BCGC project director Beebo Turman, speaking of the 22 community gardens, 10 school gardens and two youth gardens on the tour. “Community gardens aren’t just about growing your own food on your own plot. The gardens bring people together. We have a really nice quote in our brochure: ‘People growing food growing people.’” 

People are different, communities are different, and therefore community gardens differ as well. But almost every garden shares at least one similarity – the space it is situated on is being utilized a lot more productively now than it was before. Today’s school and community gardens are yesterday’s filthy vacant lots, gravel pits and asphalt pitches.  

“This was under concrete for 100 years!” exclaims Malcom X School garden teacher and coordinator Rivka Mason, who suddenly found herself with a 4,000-square-foot ‘classroom’ after the school’s extensive remodeling project. “We dug some beds and planted massively in June. Now the kids are coming back in September and it’s still harvest time. We’ve got tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, sunflowers, birds, hummingbirds, butterflies; within four months we’ve got a flourishing garden and the kids and their parents did it all.” 

The up-from-asphalt theme is not uncommon among Berkeley school gardens. Over 200 tons of organic compost was required in 1994 to help jump-start King Middle School’s 1.5 acre “Edible Schoolyard” from a concrete spread into a lush garden, equal roughly to 209 feet by 209 feet.  

“Working in the garden creates a sense of wonder; the kids begin to see the relationship between themselves and the Earth,” says Edible Schoolyard Executive Director Mildred Howard. “It’s a safe place to learn and discover. And you begin to understand what food really tastes like.” 

Along with the big lessons, school gardens teach smaller ones as well. And one, rather obviously, is that eating vegetables doesn’t have to compare with a trip to the dentist or a fall from the monkey bars.  

“Kids learn to eat and cook. Our goal is to get them to eat five fruits and vegetables a day,” says Willard Greening Project co-founder Yolanda Huang. “Many children taste something just plucked out of the ground and can’t believe what it tastes like. They’ll eat a fresh potato raw, it’s so juicy and fresh. We give out carrots as an incentive for kids to help out in the garden, pick up some garbage, do a good deed. Since the school year began, we’ve given out 300 carrots!” 

Yet the “sense of wonder” one feels when surrounded by bees, hummingbirds and tall corn, lettuce et al. is not limited to the young. 

“A lot of senior citizens know so much, because when they were growing up, they had to grow and harvest in their own gardens,” says Kathi Kinney, garden coordinator and educator at the Strong Roots Gardens on Sacramento. “I think we have to get back to that. I just came back from Africa and people rally around the garden and the soil. It’s like an outdoor kitchen.” 

Many happy events are planned for today’s Open Garden Day. Demonstrations ranging from composting to nutrition to mosaic making will accompany guided tours and, of course, lunch – because while Candide sought meaning in working his garden, he certainly wouldn’t have protested too heartily over a little playing in it as well.