Dorris Bridgewater picks some collard greens from her raised gardening bed

By Robert Mills

Ripe berries and peapods thrive at Berkeley’s Friends of Kenney Cottage Community Garden. The nearly three-year-old communal farming project is booked solid with plot holders in the middle of west Berkeley’s industrial district.

Two beds at the front of the garden particularly stand out. Elevated just above three feet and standing atop a beautiful hardwood deck, these beds are in place for the neighborhood’s disabled.

The raised beds lead the way in ADA accessibility, said Gary Cromp, the president of the gardens.

“We have cutting edge technology that’s never been used in a community garden,” he said. “We also have two of the country’s only truly wheelchair-accessible beds and gardens, and they’re completely filled with plot holders.”

The raised vegetable beds are at the perfect elevation for standard and powered wheel chairs, Cromp said.

“They’re also reinforced,” he said, kicking hard at a table leg to demonstrate. “Power chairs can destroy everything, so that’s just another thing we thought of here.”

The beds are accessible on all sides—with 5 feet of space at each side—and come complete with lightweight watering wands that quadriplegics can easily use. Kenney Cottage Community Gardeners partnered with Berkeley’s Center for Independent Living (CIL) to design these features.

Shira Leeder, the ADA coordinator for Friends of Kenney Cottage Community Garden and a member of CIL, helped Cromp draw up the high-tech beds. Leeder, who is a person with disabilities, said the beds’ height and design make gardening a breeze.

“It’s pretty easy for me to use,” Leeder said, turning on the water and demoing the watering wand. “Everything is level for me.”

The beds not only make it easy to garden, but they also serve as a way for people with disabilities to play an active role in the neighborhood, she said.

“This is great because you can meet new people in the community,” Leeder said. “Most people with disabilities stay at home and do nothing with their lives. So this is one way to get involved. Instead of being bored and watching TV all day, I can get out here in the sun.”

Dorris Bridgewater, a born-and-raised Berkeley native and friend of Leeder’s, said she comes out to the garden almost every day. Bridgewater helped design accessible gardening beds in San Francisco several years back and said these beds are definitely a step up.

“I like this one better,” Bridgewater said. “It’s great for the convenience of watering.”

Shira Leeder demonstrates the watering wand on her raised bed

The Friends of Kenney Cottage Community Garden opened in 2009. The site, on Fifth Street in Berkeley’s Oceanview district, is leased by the Berkeley Redevelopment Agency to the Northern California Land Trust and the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.

The community garden is just one part of the organization’s mission. It also hopes to become the permanent home for the Kenney-Meinheit Cottage, which now sits on a temporary site at 1275 University Avenue. The now-boarded-up cottage, based on a design that Berkeley carpenter William H. Wrigley patented in 1881, may be the oldest prefabricated panel house in existence.

It will take $1.2 million to renovate the cottage and move it permanently to the back of the lot, where it could be used as a museum or educational facility. Fundraising for that effort hasn’t gathered much momentum because supporters have been focusing first on the garden.

“We have to get some kind of security going on in here,” Cromp said, pointing to some damaged drainage pipes caused by night vandals. “We need to put up some fencing and security lights which will cost at least three grand.”

Numerous local businesses have supported the Friends of Kenny Cottage, including  Ashby Lumber, Environmental Concepts, Bette’s Diner, Annie’s Annuals, eVe Restaurant, Café Rouge and individual citizens. In addition, Cromp and Garden Coordinator Lisa Graciano have taken their fundraising efforts to the streets in an effort they call “Busking for Beds.” On Sunday, Graciano played guitar and Cromp handed out pamphlets outside Peet’s Coffee on the corner of 4th and Delaware Streets.

Leeder said she hopes the Friends of Kenney Cottage Community Garden project will not only promote community but also ADA usability on a global level.

“It’s a big deal because we want to promote this kind of accessibility all over the world,” Leeder said. “So all people can be sustainable.”

As Cromp showed off 17 different varieties of strawberries growing in the back of the renovated lot, he mused that the project is people-powered.

“This is definitely a garden built for the community, by the community,” he said.

Robert A. Mills is a graduate student studying interactive journalism at The Reynolds School of Journalism at The University of Nevada, Reno. He is currently interning at Berkeleyside.

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