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People’s Park Garden Grows its Own Way

Friday July 04, 2003

On the south end of People’s Park, California indigenous plants meld with living sculptures, dinosaur tracks and Andean potatoes due to the work of a group of volunteer gardeners. 

“A mix of people brings a mix of types of plants and gardens,” said Richard List, a professional landscaper who now devotes much of his time to working in People’s Park. “It’s so like People’s Park to have this hodgepodge of stuff going on.” 

List spends most mornings planting seeds and flowers as well as researching the plants that are already in the park. He has been working at the People’s Park garden off and on since 1989, and prides himself on knowing about many of the “botanical oddities” in the area, including a rare species of Andean potato that he found growing there. 

One of the problems the gardeners face comes in the park’s role as the only non-fenced community garden in Berkeley. Although the park officially closes at 10 each night, people walk through at all hours, and the volunteers have seen their tools stolen and their plants smashed. 

In response, gardener Dana Merryday has begun to paint the gardening tools that sit out at night. The front of the group’s wheelbarrow reads “It’s bad karma to steal!” a message that Merryday said should discourage people from walking off with the wheelbarrow. 

“As they’re walking away they have to read that,” he said. “It just kind of stares up at you.” 

But for the most part, Merryday and List emphasized, the garden is well-respected. Anyone can sow their own plot of land at the park, and the understanding among community members is that the fruit and vegetables are available to everyone. 

While Merryday focuses on the food gardens, List puts the bulk of his energy into more creative endeavors. After reading a book about fossilized dinosaur tracks, he used a shovel to create prints all around the park’s paths. Each track is anatomically correct for a specific type of dinosaur, List said. 

“The kids love it,” he said. 

List is also working on a variety of “living sculptures,” which he describes as pieces of art made out of living things. His first piece for People’s Park is a giant heart elevated from the ground with a mound of dirt and filled in with small flowers. 

UC Berkeley oversees maintenance of the Park. The university buys many of the plants for the gardens and provides custodial services to spruce up the area. 

One of the latest projects implemented in the park with university support is the Peace Garden. The area, a circle eight feet across, was transformed a few months ago into a flower patch with large pieces of a tree trunk outlining a peace sign on the ground. The project was begun with help from a group called Roots of Peace, whose primary goal is to transform land scarred by land mines into agricultural areas. 

“They wanted to do a garden in People’s Park because of what it stands for,” Merryday said. 

The next group project is to renovate the dilapidated play area to make the park more kid-friendly. Merryday and gardener Terry Compost are working with UC Berkeley to secure funding to improve the existing play structures and purchase more equipment. 

“We want to make the park a fun, safe place for everyone,” Merryday said.