Urban Farm Tours: The Dirt on City Homesteading

by Sarah Henry on June 7, 2012 · 18 comments

in berkeley bites,food events,growing greens,urban farming,vegetables

Tiny Berkeley Garden attracts bees, butterflies, and appreciative passersby. Photo: Kristin Stromberg

True to its new name, Tiny Berkeley Garden, is a small edible landscape located in the heart of Central Berkeley. But don’t be deceived by its diminutive size. The lot may only amount to 3,500 square feet (with just 1,750 feet for farming) but it’s chock full of trees, plants, and herbs that supply Kristin Stromberg with much of her produce for her home kitchen — with plenty to share and swap with neighbors and a nearby school.

A year ago, with the help of East Bay-based  Planting Justice, Stromberg turned her concrete and weed-filled yard into a haven for apple, apricot, pear, plum, pluot, fig, lemon, and lime trees, raspberry and blackberry bushes, along with chard, kale, tree collards, tomatoes, corn, pumpkins, zucchini, asparagus, and other edibles.

Then, with assistance from family and friends, she built a chicken coop (known as Chez Panisse), which houses Panisse, Coco, Cuckoo, Tikka Masala, and Kung Pao, who provide several eggs a day, and a few rabbits, whose poo, she discovered, makes excellent compost. A beehive is in the works.

Sophie Hahn (left) and Willow Rosenthal. Photo:Robin Jolin

Tiny Berkeley Garden is one of three urban farms in town featured on the upcoming Urban Farm Tour hosted by the Institute of Urban Homesteading on Saturday, June 9. The tour — which also showcases Sophie Hahn‘s Shattuck Farms in North Berkeley, a produce garden tended by local urban farming icon Willow Rosenthal, and previously profiled on Berkeleyside, as well as the large West Berkeley Algarden and DaTerra Food Forest — is the second such annual event and back by popular demand.

While there’s nothing new about growing your own row of greens, a few short years ago urban farming was considered a fringe activity practiced by a a small group of trailblazers, notes K. Ruby Blume, founder of the IUH, whose Beegrrl Gardens in North Oakland is also open for viewing that day (others farms just outside the Berkeley border on tour include Indigoat Farms, Pluck & Feather Farm in Oakland and Pine Heaven Farm in Montclair.)

These days, who doesn’t know a friend or neighbor who keeps chickens, maintains a beehive, or grows enough produce to feed a family of four — and then some? Attempting to keep up with this thriving urban farming culture, Berkeley’s Planning Commission recently unanimously passed the Hahn-sponsored Edible Garden Initiative, which would allow residents to sell the food they grow in their backyards.

“Several phenomenon are converging at the same time to fuel this urban farming boom,” says Blume. “There’s Slow Food, so-called foodies, the D.I.Y.ers, the prolonged recession, a growing backlash against consumerism and waste, and the mainstreaming of the environmental movement through media like An Inconvenient Truth and books such as The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

Giancarlo Muscardini and Patricia Algara farm together. Photos: Nicki Rosario

Hence a tour for people who might be curious about how to get an edible garden started. Stromberg’s produce plots are an example of how even the smallest of spaces can be coaxed into producing an impressive bounty of food. Shattuck Farms is a model micro-sized farm (650 square feet for produce) maintained by professional urban farmers with the goal of being economically viable by selling excess to neighbors. The four-year-old Algarden Urban Farm (7,000 square feet) is a permaculturalist’s paradise and an example of shared resources — land, water, and labor — between permaculture designer Giancarlo Muscardin, landscape designer Patricia Algara, and the homeowners.

Stromberg is still experimenting and learning from her mistakes. “It turns out no-one needs five tree collard plants,” she says of the prolific producers, which she sautés, adds to green smoothies, and gives away. “And dogs will aerate the soil in the raised beds after you’ve planted them just as happily as before.” Also: “If you sheet-mulch with cardboard, you need to remove all the plastic tape from the cardboard first — otherwise, you will be picking up pieces of plastic out of your yard for years. I  learned all this the hard way.”

Kristin Stromberg and one of her happy chickens. Photo: Sarah Henry

She’s also experiencing unexpected benefits from deciding to set up her own mini urban homestead.Neighborhood children sent a note — written in crayon — offering to help with the harvest; the same family now trades eggs for lemons.

Another passerby dropped off a pretty printed card thanking the home grower for beautifying the neighborhood and bringing her joy.

A local resident asked for an artichoke to cook at home and promptly returned to tell it was the best she ever tasted. Runaway chickens have all been brought back home by concerned residents, who laugh at the hens’ antics.

Creating community is such an overused term these days, but that’s exactly what’s gone down on Stromberg’s corner this past year. She’s met more neighbors in the year since the garden came to life, she says, than she had in the previous nine years.

This nascent urban farmer found Novella Carpenter‘s memoir Farm City an inspiration and the tome Carpenter and Rosenthal recently co-wrote, The Essential Urban Farmer, an excellent reference guide for when to start seeds inside, how many, and when to plant. Staggering plantings is something else Stromberg figured out by trial and error.

A Berkeley native, Stromberg and her fellow urban farmers plan to share some of their tools, tips, and tricks to growing greens and raising livestock in a city landscape on the upcoming tour. The event is a benefit for the IUH, which offers classes in Oakland and Berkeley, including homesteading, food preservation, beekeeping, animal husbandry, and other D.I.Y skills for resilient urbanites, suburban backyard dabblers, families looking for a fun activity to do together, green-thumb newbies, and hard-core homesteaders.

Urban Farm Tours
Saturday June 9, 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Tours start on the hour at all seven locations, last tour starts at 5 p.m.
Pay-as-you go ($5 per person per tour, kids under 12 $3)
Pay in advance $30 adults, $18 children, $5 discount for bikes.
Tax-deductible donation. No one turned away for lack of funds.
Plan your own itinerary; guided tours with tastings.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside.

You might also like:

Faith Based Urban Farm Opens in Berkeley
Urban Farmer Jim Montgomery of Green Faerie Farm
Adventures of an Urban Farm Gal

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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Brette June 8, 2012 at 7:23 am

I love the idea of an urban farm tour!

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Sarah Henry June 8, 2012 at 1:19 pm

I expect the tours tomorrow will be really well attended, Brette.

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ruth pennebaker June 8, 2012 at 7:53 am

I love the idea of these urban farms — how they’re re-imagining a city’s landscapes.
ruth pennebaker´s last [type] ..Total Surrender at a French Restaurant

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Sarah Henry June 8, 2012 at 1:17 pm

And it’s happening all over the country.

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Roxanne June 8, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Wow. That’s a LOT of planting. It sounds like a terrific tour. I live in a relatively rural neighborhood, but being at altitude (about 8,500 feet above sea level) our growing season is crazy short. I have a small, hobby greenhouse, and that helps. I started some seeds MUCH earlier this year (like 2 months earlier … inside the greenhouse, inside wall-o-water), so I’m already harvesting a few things. When it cools down tonight, though, I’m going to thin some of my robust seedlings (tomatoes, squash, kale) and give them to a neighbor. If I get really good at starting seeds, I might start a bunch for a few neighbors and friends next year.
Roxanne´s last [type] ..Dog Book Review: What the Dog Ate

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Sarah Henry June 8, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Impressive, Rox. Wish I lived closer. Would happily take some of those seedlings off your hands.

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Irene June 8, 2012 at 1:51 pm

How exciting to bring farming into the city…and then eat your bounty!
Best, Irene

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Sarah Henry June 19, 2012 at 11:23 am

I gather the day was a big success, Irene. Lots of folks took the tour.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. June 9, 2012 at 11:22 am

You’re right, I definitely know a few people who keep chickens – but none with names as great as those. Tikka Masala and Kung Pao are inspired!
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..A Beginner’s Tale of Beekeeping

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Sarah Henry June 19, 2012 at 11:24 am

Fun names for farm animals, for sure, Casey.

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The Writer's [Inner] Journey June 10, 2012 at 7:05 am

What I love as much about these urban farms as the yield they produce is the community/friends they build/foster around a common goal/love.
The Writer’s [Inner] Journey´s last [type] ..stuck/unstuck: MEN UNDRESSED contributors talk internal conflict and writing: Gina Frangello

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Sarah Henry June 19, 2012 at 11:25 am

Agreed, merr, the connections people make — around something positive in the neighborhorhood — is a good thing, for sure, for sure.

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Kerry Dexter June 10, 2012 at 1:41 pm

sounds like there is a harvest of both food and community. if you went on the tour, Sarah, I hope you will write about it.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..from Scotland: Joy Dunlop & Twelfth Day

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Sarah Henry June 19, 2012 at 11:26 am

I was out of town, Kerry, but have toured a few of these farms (and many others around the area) over the past few years. Always inspiring to see what people have growing and thriving in their backyards.

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Living Large June 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm

This is such an important initiative, urban farms. So many people have gotten so far away from knowing where our food comes from. Stories such as this continues to warm my heart.

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Sarah Henry June 19, 2012 at 11:27 am

Agreed, LL. Berkeley kids are lucky to have gardening programs in almost all their elementary schools. It’s good to grow up knowing how your food is grown.

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Kris @ Attainable Sustainable June 11, 2012 at 6:50 pm

I absolutely love the idea of giving people the chance to tour urban gardens to see what works! There’s nothing so inspiring as seeing something like this in action, and that it’s doable.
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable´s last [type] ..Retain Yourself!

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Sarah Henry June 19, 2012 at 11:28 am

I knew this would be your kind of thing, Kris. Come visit some time and see for yourself.

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