Succulents — yes, the plants — are dividing a Berkeley senior home

Charles Herring has raised hundreds of succulents over the years, but some residents believe they are attracting mice and want them gone.

02/25/2021 Charles Herring Plants
Charles Herring in front of some of the succulents he has cultivated at Oregon Park, a senior housing complex. Photo: Pete Rosos

Charles Herring loves succulents. He loves looking at them, thinking about them and growing them. To Herring, 80, his plump-leafed, twisty, spiny plants are like pets. A resident of Berkeley’s Oregon Park senior apartments for a dozen years, Herring loves succulents so much that, to many at his apartment complex, they’ve become a problem.

Under Herring’s green thumb, potted succulents have proliferated into the hundreds at the nonprofit affordable housing complex at 1425 Oregon St. (between Dohr and Sacramento streets). They decorate walkways, courtyards and side fences. Retired from the hospitality industry, Herring also used to own a San Francisco plant store.

But in addition to succulents a plenty, Oregon Park is also dealing with rodents aplenty, according to members of the elected resident board that runs the complex. Sightings of mice and mice droppings in and outside apartments have risen dramatically in recent months, they say.

And this has pit mice against succulents and residents against residents. Though resolution may be in the works.

“We try to work as much as we can to make it appealing and safe around here,” said Linda Washington, secretary of Oregon Park’s seven-member resident board. With mice reports up, the complex’s exterminator identified the potted plants as one culprit, saying they offer rodent hiding spots, and they should go, she said.

The exterminator is also closing holes in the buildings, and setting sticky traps, a non-lethal method of catching mice.

“I caught five mice at my house last night,” Myrna Simon, board president, said last week.

Herring’s plants, Washington said, “are affecting our water bill, our pest control bill, our neighbors are complaining and our insurance company is complaining. It’s too much.”

In late December, the resident board voted to give Herring 60 days, until February 24, to get rid of his plants or they’d order a dumpster for the job. This deadline was extended, thanks in part to the intervention of organizations trying to mitigate the situation, including the office of Councilmember Terry Taplin, and the nonprofit Eviction Defense Center, which serves Berkeley and Oakland.

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Some of the succulents Charles Herring has cultivated. Photo: Pete Rosos

Herring disputes that his plants harbor rodents, and says the complaints are an exaggeration. Some residents love his plants, he says. And they beautify the place, he said.

Oregon Park resident Cardie Tipton, 76, is one of Herring’s plant fans.

“I like his plants, I don’t have a problem with them,” she said.

“I grew all the plants on this property. I brought in other plants; I might have rescued them, I brought them and I rehabbed them,” Herring said. “Over a period of time, I accumulated a lot of plants.”

Herring was born in Chicago but spent a chunk of his youth in Florida, which he attributes to his love for gardening. As a teenager, he’d do yard work for pay and has good memories of the work.

“Raking leaves out of yards, they’ give you money for that. With a push-mow you made made a good little hustle, it was hot and good energy.”

From Florida, Herring lived in New York and then San Francisco, working as a union bartender and waiter at all the big hotels, he said. His plant shop, no longer in business, was called Green Planet.

Plants said Herring, are “family and friends, certainly. I care more about them more than a lot of things.”

One reason he likes succulents, he said, is because others don’t.

“Succulents have no appeal to a lot of people. They don’t have flowers for pretty bouquets, and you can’t cook them up like collard greens,” he said.

But they’re drought-tolerant, easy to grow, and full of lore, Herring said.

“Jade is my favorite because they bring good luck, and I need all the good luck I can get. They propagate easy, they’re good fortune, and they’re a really interesting plant.”

Progress toward resolution

02/25/2021 Charles Herring Plants
A side yard at the Oregon Park housing complex where Charles Herring grew succulents. Photo: Pete Rosos

Initially, Herring said he was reluctant to get rid of his plants, challenging the board.

“Plants are not just something you move like a box of furniture,” Herring said. “Plants are living things that you can abuse easily. You can abuse them by moving them, And I don’t want that to happen to my plants.”

Referring to a side yard near his unit, he said, “At one point it looked kind of unattended and overgrown and I started to put plants out here so people wouldn’t use it as a trash pile. Once I started putting plants out it looked more like it was getting attended, and they wouldn’t trash it as much.”

But he took some steps, moving plants away from people’s windows and external walls, he said. He put some over the fence along the Sojourner Truth Court, west of the complex. He gave a few to trusted outside owners.

Meanwhile, residents were still finding mice in their bathtubs, cupboards and under their stoves. Landscapers wanted to pull up ivy, Washington said, but couldn’t reach it under the rows of potted plants. At one point, Herring had tarps on the ground, and plants seemed to keep coming, she said.

“There’s a community garden right next door, if you want to mess with plants why not go over there?” Washington said she asked Herring, referring to a garden lot west of the housing complex, run by Spiral Gardens.

Herring said they weren’t interested in his plants.

The situation was tense; on this board members and Herring agreed.

But it may be rounding a corner.

“He wants them to have good homes, and we want him to keep his housing…and we’re doing everything we can to make this happen.” — Andrea Henson

Plants are slowly but surely being moved from the complex, and the dumpster deadline is no longer hard and fast, Washington said.

The Eviction Defense Center is taking plants from Herring, in exchange for helping him with rent, he said, and he trusts they’ll find caring homes.

“They’re not buying my plants; they’re compensating me by having my rent paid.”

Andrea Henson, a litigation attorney at the center, said many people are working to find loving homes for Herring’s plants, understanding how important this is to him.

“He wants them to have good homes, and we want him to keep his housing in South Berkeley and we’re doing everything we can to make this happen,” Henson said. This help includes some rent assistance, but she wasn’t sure of the exact amount.

Loads were taken last week, with more to come, he said.

“Last Wednesday office workers came out and moved a couple of plants; they’re coming out next week,” he said. “They’re minimizing it to an extent…They’re going to do more minimizing.”

Herring said he isn’t sure how it will pan out. “I don’t know how many plants they want or how many they’re going to take,” he said.

And the Oregon Park board plans to discuss a plant policy at its next meeting, which comes Tuesday.

“It’s nice to have plants, but not like that,” Washington said. “It’s just too many.”

Kate Rauch, a Bay Area native, has been contributing to Berkeleyside for almost 10 years, and in journalism for many more, with a few other interesting gigs along the way.