Mad Farmer Sascha #64 - Guerilla Gardening in North Oakland

    It was dark when we left the house, all of us wearing black with a shovel and a couple of fruit trees under each arm. Our destination was just three blocks away at the irrigated median strip down the street. We scoped the area for signs of trouble from the Man, all clear. It was a quick operation -- we tore holes in the sod and planted six trees: pear, orange, persimmon, lemon, poplar, and maple. The guys at the liquor store across the street just stood and stared. We made the final touches and mulched each tree with straw. The timing was perfect -- moments later the irrigation system came on to welcome the trees into their new home. Now it’s already a couple weeks later and the trees have taken and just blended in -- the city workers mow the grass around them like they planted them themselves. A couple years from now they’ll be huge and full of fruit for the neighborhood. Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands.
Food Not Lawns
    One day back in the early spring we tore up our lawn and planted a vegetable garden. We pulled up the grass, hoed out the roots, and double dug a spiral shape. Two of our local community gardens were being evicted -- one for a new parking lot and one for a crop of genetically engineered Novartis corn on the Berkeley University property. This was fucked up to say the least, but we were making the best of it and were part of a number of houses rescuing tons of plants and compost.  We planted a huge artichoke in the center with a web of broccoli and lettuce seedlings all around. On the edges we planted borage and comfrey and calendula and peppermint and raspberries and chard and rhubarb and oregano and thyme and epazote and aloe and grapes, plus all kinds of native perennials.  Neighbors we never knew we had now come to stop by and complement us on our work all the time. We usually invite them in to check out our backyard and give them the tour.
Props to my Badass Community
    I live in a house full of badass people who know how to do incredible things. We dumpster and salvage everything from our furniture to our food. The place is constantly in flux -- a ‘three bedroom’ house with seven to nine people paying rent and usually a couple transient folks camping out in our living room keeping things interesting. There are extra rooms built in wherever there’s space - from the front room to the attic to the back shed. Every Monday morning a crew of rad older women take over our kitchen with crates upon crates of organic produce and cook Food Not Bombs to serve in People’s Park.
     But just like how you can’t separate the individual trees from the greater forest, our house is actually part of a greater network of houses stretching around the neighborhood that’s all part of the East Bay activist community. We share food and plants and ideas. Bekey showed up at our door last night with a crate full of dumpstered tofu she got in the city. The house down the street that used to broadcast the pirate radio station gave us a swarm of bees for our backyard. Our older next door neighbor Tom let us sheet mulch part of his garden and plant a bunch of food for him and his mom.  Our neighbors down the street put on puppet shows for kids and sometimes invite us to come paint murals with them down at the trainyard.  We go down to Emeryville in bike posse’s to dumpster dive and paint the town.
The Backdrop
    When our house was started by another group of activists about five years ago, there was no backyard garden, only a concrete floor and a beaten up old garage. They tore up a bunch of the concrete blocks with pick-axes and sledgehammers to have place to plant their vegetables. They turned the garage into a bicycle library full of frames, parts, and a good set of tools. Now all the kids in our neighborhood know us as the bike people and come over all the time to visit and fix their bikes. There are usually a couple folks working on their bikes in the backyard whenever I get home. Still, the garden was small up until a couple months ago.
The Skillshare Gathering
    Then a bunch of things happened all at once. Mark showed up from North Carolina with her fiddle and boxes & boxes of tools and inspiration. She and a tight crew of folks basically organized the DIY Skillshare Gathering mostly out of our house - four days of workshops ranging from Seedsaving to Making Your Own Biodiesel to Stiltwalking to Anti-Racist Organizing to Auto Mechanics. People came out of the woodwork to participate.
    Now it’s a month later and all kinds of projects are sprouting up all over the neighborhood.  Our friends down the way have set up a system where the graywater from their shower is channeled out the window to a series of three staggered bathtubs filled with gravel and reeds which purify it like natural wetlands and then send it off through a hose to water the garden. We’re setting up a similar system in our backyard and they’re helping us figure out how to do it. A bunch of the houses in the neighborhood already have basic graywater systems in our bathrooms: the water from our sinks drain into a bucket below which we use to flush our toilets. At our house we’re also setting up a solar hot water system where water is diverted from our furnace and pumped to the solar heater on the roof where it snakes through pipes which are heated by the sun’s rays and dumped into the low-flow shower head. We have a food dehydrator where we dry tons of dumpstered apples and bananas and strawberries and papayas. We have drying racks built high up near the ceilings that dry our herbs and spices.
Tim Arrives
    The next thing that happened in our little story was that Tim showed up back from Austin all emotionally mangled and garden obsessed and we started doing our therapeutic late night dumpster runs for containers and missions to the racetrack for strawbale. The city is full of trash that can be used for growing containers -- barrels, stacked railroad ties, tires for growing potatoes (fill them with straw and stack them as the plants get higher - they’ll send off potatoes on the sides and then you can harvest them by just pulling the tires off), bathtubs, wire baskets for hanging, milk crates filled with garbage bags, refrigerators, use your imagination.
    A bunch of us including me and Tim work at a composting collective called Berkeley Worms that picks up the organic waste from the university and turns it into black, rich, beautiful compost. (Actually, it’s the red wriggler worms that make the compost - they eat half their weight a day in ‘garbage’ and spend the rest of their time sleeping and reproducing.) Anyway, we started sheet mulching in the boxes with a bottom layer of food, then straw, then worm compost.  Suddenly our tiny backyard started blooming with huge tomato plants full of flowers that we started from seed. Now there are scarlet runner beans trellising up the ladder to the roof and boxes full of chard and mustard greens and squash. The side of our house has hops and grapes growing up it.
The Birds and the Bees
     In nature, animals have coexisted and coevolved with plants for millions of years. In urban areas, there’s a severe lack of animals because there’s so little habitat for them to survive in. Therefore it’s really important for us to do anything we can to create habitat.  Basically, in the middle of the city, the wild creatures we’re left with are the ones that can fly in: birds and insects. Birds are incredible -- they eat insects and process them into phosphorus with their quick digestive process, they eat berries and etch the seeds so that they germinate and then shit them out in a puddle of good stuff to grow in.  (Fences are usually really fertile places full of interesting plants because that’s where the birds like to kick it and shit out their seeds!) Anyway, Tim has been making nest boxes to attract birds and bat boxes to attract bats (to eat the mosquitoes that might show up in the graywater pond we’re building.) He just built a bunch of mason bee houses which are just wooden blocks with drilled in 3/8 inch holes 3 inches deep which the solitary bees colonize and use to hatch their young. We’ve left our thorny blackberries to vine and flower so we can collect the fruit and let all the bees pollinate. Life is sweet.
The Future Ripe and Beckoning
    From coast to coast, I’ve been watching my friends learning more skills and teaching each other how to do things. What I love about my friends is that as we get older we learn more about everything, we get wiser and find our places in this crazy world, and we start putting our words and dreams into action.

Beneath the Concrete - A DIY Farming Zine - a 200 page booklet all about how to
grow your own food, cut and pasted from my favorite books. $6
The Guerrilla Graywater Girls Guide to Water - a history of water politics and a
practical guide of how to set up your own graywater systems - put together by
Clea and Laura at the Punanny Palace down the street. $4
El Otro Lado - Adventure travel stories about the global economy $4
The Secret Life of White People - More travel stories $3
The Collective Unconscious - A collection of my friends’ dreams $4