Saturday April 24 was a hot day for a garden makeover, or any other strenuous outdoor activity. But approximately 30 volunteers turned out to help transform the grounds of Chaparral House, a skilled nursing facility at Allston Way, under the auspices of Rebuilding Together.
Formerly known as Christmas in April, Rebuilding Together organizes annual clean-up and fix-up work parties at private homes and community institutions. All over Berkeley, teams were painting, drywalling, laying carpet, constructing fences and garden beds.
We’ve admired this group’s work for years, but never expected to get involved in one of their projects—let alone wind up wearing the gray shirts of authority, labeled House Captain and First Mate. But when Sandi Peters, Chaparral House’s high-energy Activities Director, asked for help, it was impossible to say no. Chaparral is a nonprofit without a huge budget for maintaining or improving its grounds. When Joe’s mother lived there, we noticed that the front and interior gardens, while extremely pleasant places to hang out and watch the birds and feed (or frustrate) the squirrels, were beginning to look a little threadbare. We got together with the family members of other residents to plan long-term improvements and schedule work days. Rebuilding Together’s involvement was a natural follow-up.
A core group of family members strategized how to deploy Rebuilding Together’s volunteers for a big push to upgrade the gardens. Landscape architect Charles McCulloch arranged for donations of compost—eight cubic yards of prime Walt Whitman from American Soil Products—and plants from The Dry Garden and other nurseries. Several private individuals pitched in with plant donations. Chaparral House’s Environmental Supervisor Rafael Gutierrez rounded up tools, work gloves, dust masks.
Saturday dawned bright and cloudless. The volunteers began to report—a mix of ages and skills, people from UC Berkeley student groups Gamma Zeta Alpha and Tau Beta Pi and their friends, a local LDS church, the office of Judge Julie Conger, plus some Chaparral House family members and a rep from the UC vice-chancellor’s office. Cal and the Oakland Tribune co-sponsored our site.
Team leaders McCulloch, Dennis Fox, and Anne Hudes sorted them out and put them to work. One group, armed with power tools, went after the ivy that had overwhelmed a garden fence and invaded the only accessible raised bed; another prepared the streetside and entrance areas for planting; a third cleaned and replanted an interior courtyard. A pick-up group also planted a newly cleared corner that gets a lot of wheelchair and walker traffic, and horticultural therapist Sam Moreau used the day to assemble and fill planters that hang from deck railings, easy to reach and work on from wheelchairs.
Things got a little chaotic at times, but the collective energy and good will more than compensated. Volunteers who claimed to know nothing about plants proved to be naturals at pruning and planting. Willowy-looking young women worked like stevedores, while folks on our side of middle age kept plugging away under the broiling sun. A row of purple-leaf plum trees went into the ground along the driveway; bright perennials were tucked into margins; four pickup truckloads of ivy went to the dump. Site Safety Coordinator Karuna Fosselius had no mishaps to report. As First Mate, Joe went “Arrrgh” a lot and muttered darkly about the rats getting into the hardtack. Ron’s primary act as captain was informing the crew that “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” scans perfectly to the theme from Gilligan’s Island.
This day’s work was a kickoff to a long-term project to make Chaparral House’s gardens more useful and accessible to its current residents—a group older and more frail, on the whole, that the population of 15 years ago, when the place was an assisted-living facility. The plantings in front, particularly those plum trees, will improve the view (currently an asphalt driveway and the parking lot of the city’s corporation yard) and improve the vision; they’ll filter sunlight through the big living room windows, eliminating the glare that aging eyes can’t handle. The raised bed will become more useable when it’s lowered by a few inches and the splintery wood top rail is replaced by smooth repurposed-plastic lumber.
One member of Chaparral’s landscape cabal knows a couple of Friends of Strawberry Creek, and they dropped by to talk to us too. An amalgam of creeks’ friends has been re-landscaping the margins of Strawberry Creek, whose daylighted section near Bonar Street borders both Chaparral’s gardens and the grounds of Strawberry Lodge, a larger independent seniors’ residence. They had ideas for opening the view of the creek and integrating it into the garden. Now we hope to combine the interests of the creek people, the native-plant people, wildlife advocates, the seniors’ residences, the City of Berkeley, the clean-water folks, the neighborhood, Alameda County, and gardeners including those living at Chaparral House to make the most of this urban oasis.
As the afternoon got late, we realized that whatever else happened, eight cubic yards of compost had to disappear from the front lawn. Shovels swung furiously, wheelbarrows barreled through the garden, spontaneous work chants broke out. The last newly planted trees and shrubs, irises and pelargoniums got their blanket of Walt and a good soaking. The last volunteers, including those indefatigable Cal engineering students, took off, hardly limping at all.
Some of us, although almost too tired to eat, had enough energy left to make it to Rebuilding Together’s picnic at Live Oak Park. Standing in line for burgers, barbeque, and a splendid array of desserts, we swapped tales of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction. And some of us were a bit surprised to hear ourselves talking about doing it again next year.