South Oakland ‘free market project’ turns parking lot into urban farmer’s paradise

[image:2250:jpeg] In all the chaos around Oakland, this humble kitchen garden is providing a welcome oasis — at least to the community of the Packard Homes. “We like to call it the free market…

South Oakland 'free market project' turns parking lot into urban farmer's paradise


In all the chaos around Oakland, this humble kitchen garden is providing a welcome oasis — at least to the community of the Packard Homes.

“We like to call it the free market project,” explains Laura Colgate, the communications manager for the Oakland Housing Development Corporation (OHLD). “The idea is that it’s a community garden, and as we market it, and invite the community to join, everyone’s willing to pitch in.”

This is not the first time that OHLD has offered a community garden to impoverished residents of the project. It is part of an ongoing initiative to beautify the streets of the Housing Development Corporation, which is nestled against the Oakland hills in West Oakland.

Created by the Housing Development Corporation, Unit 664 of the city’s expansive Alameda Housing, it is four feet square, a site of cramped living, crammed into the irregular spaces of a parking lot on Jackman Avenue.

Plants are planted where the concrete would normally go, but an oasis still exists, complete with a pebble pool. Beyond a down-filled fence, is a sturdy canopy and a porch, “one of the few safe spots in the project for neighbors,” Colgate told

Within the community garden, a small plot of fertile soil receives monsoon season runoff. One of the garden’s organizers, Marion Bray of Domino Gardens, described the strategy as picking up “weed buckets” — “basically doormats with cayenne pepper on them that you can drive around in your car and get all the weeds off the ground.”

By giving residents space to grow food, she said, “we’re making it easier for people to grow what they need, and making it very easy for them to keep it in their neighborhood.”

Environmentalists agree. “That land was just rubble for quite a long time,” said Stephanie R. Brady, with the Oakland-based advocacy group CleanTech. “To be able to restore that vision and sense of pride, a large part of that has to be greening your public space.”

And a green space it is, the Packard, which is as much public space as it is a rooftop garden. An assortment of plants grow on dozens of small plots, from common weeds like rhododendrons to succulents and peppers.

The plot with the largest grow space is for nettles, one of the most useful weeds for people who grow their own food. “They are super strong, they are super vigorous, but they also don’t give off much smell,” said Ray Naidoo, a UC-Berkeley plant scientist who travels the country for his work on invasive species.

What has kept residents growing there are the rules on maintenance. During the winter months, a handful of faithful members tend to the plots. In the warmer months, the grounds are full of people. The garden is sold at the St. Cecilia Neighborhood Market, which Colgate attributes to the untapped potential of a growing urban community.

“That area has some of the lowest homeownership rate in the city,” she said. “Many people are coming out to the market because they want to grow their own food. To have an opportunity to be away from home — and if they can do it, it’s an awesome experience to be healthy.”

Colgate said that there is a huge success in allowing people to grow their own food. She said that it means “very valuable cuts for the seniors of Oakland,” as well as children in the community, who are able to “be part of the community.”

To do that, the community garden must continue to be on an integral part of the housing initiative in the neighborhood. An ambitious schedule is set with a plan to grow flowers and sod in the area over the next six months.

And with the addition of OHLD’s newest addition, a community edible garden that formed in the Packard this year, there will be no shortage of planting plots to grow food on Jackman Avenue.

Alex Hassler is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter: @AlexHassler

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