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Planting the victory gardenStudent elbow grease and a big pile of compost give life to six planting beds in the newly fenced kitchen garden near Memorial Glade. Left to right, the volunteers are Madeline Tiee, Kris Daum, Kirsten Auker, Melissa Smith, and Skylar Bisom-Rapp. (Peg Skorpinski)

A new garden grows at Berkeley

At this garden spot, say sustainably minded students, healthy vines, stems, and sprouts will be the fruits of victory

| 19 March 2009

Berkeley students are getting their hands dirty bringing to life an idea that more than 70,000 people have successfully urged the Obama White House to adopt: a Victory Garden.

Over the past few weeks they've dug six garden beds inside a zigzaggy fence just downhill from Evans Hall, near Memorial Glade.

Right now the beds are bare, giving the garden the look of a graveyard — albeit one with a killer view of the Campanile. But right after spring break, as the weather warms, the beds will start sprouting tiny, green heirloom tomatoes, lettuces, broccoli, and kale, just for starters, all in orderly rows.

And in a few more weeks — in time, organizers hope, for Berkeley's weeklong celebration of Earth Day, April 20-24 — the garden will burst with sturdy vines and stems that will eventually bear fruit, vegetables, and herbs.

"I think we're doing it not so much to grow our own food, but to show people that they can, and that it's not hard — to show them a stalk of broccoli in the ground," says Tim Kline, an environmental-sociology major who was one of a dozen or so students helping dig compost into the thick clay soil to prepare the beds last week.

The purpose of the garden is to "raise awareness of food issues on campus," says Melissa Smith, a junior and one of the ringleaders in a core group of students who came up with the garden idea and now are putting it into action.

Victory Garden signA rustic sign welcomes visitors to the student-planned Victory Garden near Memorial Glade. (Peg Skorpinski)

By siting the garden in such a conspicuous spot, the group hopes to attract the attention of people outside of the sustainability and food communities. "These are issues that apply to all of us," says Smith, a conservation and resource-studies major in the College of Natural Resources and the daughter of a Mississippi farmer. "It's all about education and hands-on learning."

The campus farmers says the new garden can help raise awareness about the environmental damage caused by industrialized agriculture, including chemicals in the soil and water and fossil fuels burned to transport foodstuffs halfway around the world. And it can show how easy growing food can be.

"I feel like it's important for people to see that, 'Oh, you can put a seed in the ground and a month later you have some kale or arugula,' " Smith says.

The same reasoning is fueling the national Eat the View campaign, led by a group called Kitchen Gardeners International and endorsed by such sustainable-food leaders as Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters and Berkeley's Michael Pollan, a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism whose book The Omnivore's Dilemma stimulated a wave of interest in food and agriculture reform nationally.

An online petition urging creation of a White House food garden attracted more than 74,000 backers. At our presstime, word was spreading that the Obama administration is going to go ahead with a garden at the White House. Rumor also has it that one will be installed outside the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Agriculture as well.

The term "Victory Garden" dates back to the last White House kitchen garden, planted by Eleanor Roosevelt during the scarcities of World War II and emulated all over the country. It's been resurrected recently by the sustainable-food movement, which brought a food garden to San Francisco's Civic Center last year.

The San Francisco garden inspired Berkeley's, according to Smith, and the notion caught on during an Earth Week brainstorming session of the ASUC Sustainability Team (aka Steam). The hope is to find students who will be in Berkeley for the summer to tend the garden far beyond Earth Week.

Location, location, location

Finding the right spot for the garden was key. The garden group scoped out sites all over campus before settling on the mulched space by Memorial Glade. It had several advantages: great south and west sun exposure, nearby water, and the fact that it wasn't already planted because it had recently served as the staging ground for construction of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library.

By all accounts, chief campus landscape architect Jim Horner was key to helping the group garner approval for the garden from Ed Denton, vice chancellor for facilities services. And he also lent support and expertise, even suggesting the design for the garden's low fence.

When digging started a few weeks ago, it attracted the attention of campus police, according to Christine Shaff, communications director for facilities services. "At first it did look a little like a guerrilla something-or-other on campus," she says.

Smith's soil-science class tested the garden's dirt for toxins, and also had it analyzed by a Ph.D. student whose area of study is contamination in the soils of Oakland and Berkeley.

So far the garden effort has cost just $50, according to Smith. Shovels and rakes have been borrowed. A tree that fell on campus recently was sliced into chunks for seats; its stump will become a table. A free load of compost was delivered under a city of Berkeley community-gardens program. And the labor is all-volunteer.

Student-made signs, handpainted with carrots and strawberries, now identify the garden and direct the curious — and new volunteers — to seek more information at

The garden will make its official public debut at an "opening soiree" and seedling planting, complete with music and food, at around 4 p.m. on Friday, April 3, Smith says. The seedlings have been started already in a nearby greenhouse.

Michael Pollan says the importance of a garden like Berkeley's is that it teaches some unexpected lessons.

"Students will learn that they can feed themselves, and just how much food a small plot can produce," he says. "They may also learn new habits of thought and, paradoxically, values of self-reliance and community."

And, he adds, "The university will learn that students care about food, and that there are more productive (and beautiful) uses of its land than grass."

Skylar Bisom-Rapp, a first-year design student who helped plan the garden's layout, says food and sustainability issues have their place in the design school, where students deal with urban and community planning.

Slipping gardens like Berkeley's into open spaces all over the Bay Area, he says, "might be a solution" to creating a sustainable, local food system in densely populated areas nationwide.