Berkeley neighbors fight to save their community garden

In 2004, a group of neighbors were given permission to garden on two empty lots along Ashby Avenue. With one of the lots up for sale, they’re rallying to save their garden.

Neighbors were given permission to create the Ashby Community Garden nearly two decades ago. Now one of the two lots it sits on is up for sale and the gardeners are trying to raise money to save it. Credit: We Bee Gardeners

Almost 20 years ago a group of Southwest Berkeley neighbors started looking around for a place to grow vegetables, herbs, and, who knows, maybe even fruit. They wanted somewhere close to their homes. They wanted a spot with enough room for community gardening, a shared plot.

Eyeing vacant lots, someone in the group dug through city records researching the ownership of spaces that looked abandoned and forgotten. A couple of empty lots on the south side of Ashby Avenue, between Mabel and Acton streets, caught their attention.

It could hardly have been easier. They sent a letter to each of the two lot owners, and soon they were celebrating that they could turn these pieces of land into a garden. They had permission to weed, plant, sow, and harvest.

And they did.

Today, some of the same people who established the Ashby Community Garden in 2004 are throwing their energies into saving it, or at least one major chunk, the eastern lot. They’re joined by newer gardeners and garden fans.

The 3,920-square-foot lot at 1376 Ashby Ave. went up for sale on Sept. 1 with an asking price of $500,000 cash.

The group has launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign to buy the lot, and contacted city officials for support.

Carrie, a South Berkeley apartment dweller who asked that her last name not be published, weeds her plot in the Ashby garden on Sunday. She’s been tending plants in the garden for 10 years and said she likes spending time in green space she doesn’t have at home. Credit: Kate Rauch

“It is a community hub, it’s like a magnet for the community, it’s very well established, we got it, we made it,” said Nora Shourd, secretary of We Bee Gardeners, the nonprofit formed to oversee the garden.

“With that being said, the owners of the east side decided to sell that land and they asked us to vacate,” Shourd said.

Before the lot was listed for sale, the gardeners were asked to clear it. They pulled up vegetables, flowers, and a mix of other plants —including fruit trees — transplanting what they could, said Bonnie Borucki, a longtime garden coordinator.

Now a fence separates the garden on the western lot, 1370 Ashby Ave., from its former twin.

Shourd and Borucki said they have no idea of the status of the lot for sale. The realtor representing the property, Charles Goldstein of Remax, hasn’t been very forthcoming, they said. Berkeleyside reached out to Goldstein via email and hasn’t heard back.

The same lot has been on a market a few times since the garden started, they said, with no sales.

Sensitive to competing needs for open land

The eastern lot of the garden is now fenced off and for sale. Credit: Kate Rauch

Leaders of the We Bee Gardeners group that hopes to buy the land say they are sensitive to the competing needs for undeveloped land in Berkeley, especially the major need for affordable housing.

“We don’t want people to say we’re against affordable housing, because we’re not. We just don’t think you need to destroy a garden in order to have affordable housing in Berkeley,” Shourd said.

And she said open space for a garden, for greenery, is also a vital way to contribute to a community. She estimates with gardening and workshops and events, several hundred people a year have spent time on the blooming lots. 

“Especially a community that is really impacted by the infill,” Borucki said.

The garden, which is home to a variety of community educational and volunteer programs, is a mix of individual and communal plots. “It’s a community space; it’s what we like to call a wild garden,” said Shourd.

In addition to vegetables, fruit, and herbs, it’s rich with pollinator plants that attract bees and butterflies. Monarch butterflies are rebounding in the East Bay, and she thinks the Ashby garden is one reason why.

“When you walk in this garden you see so many butterflies. We’re creating pollinator gardens in Southwest Berkeley,” Shourd said.  “We’re looking out for the community in that way, too.”

The garden is rich with pollinator plants that attract bees and butterflies. Credit: We Bee Gardners

Shourd and Borucki said the goal of the gardeners is to save the land, not just the garden. They hope to help secure it for a land trust.

“We have been working on that for years,” Borucki said, saying the Ashby gardeners have reached out to various land trusts to interest them in the garden, including the John Muir Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land. “We’re volunteers who enjoy the space, but we’re not committed to owning, operating and running the land. A land trust would be the most optimal solution.”

Among the trusts they’ve looked at is the Bay Area-based Sogorea Te Land Trust, which is run by Indigenous women.

In response to an early September letter-writing campaign to the City Council for support, the gardeners met with councilmember Ben Bartlett, who steered them in the direction of fundraising and partnering with the Sogorea Te trust. Members of the trust, which works to return land to Ohlone people, toured the garden.

“I think the city wants to support this. Ben Bartlett office wants to support this. What support means can be a lot of different things,” Borucki said.

“Environmental justice is central to the West Berkeley community’s vision of racial justice and reparations,” Terry Taplin, the Berkeley councilmember representing District 2, which includes the garden, said in a statement. “Open space, trees, and public gardens are important collective resources we need to combat climate change and mitigate urban heat island effects in disinvested neighborhoods.”

As of Monday morning, the GoFundMe campaign had raised $3,035 toward its $100,000 goal. The garden group is nervous about losing the lot, and realizes the future of the west lot is also tenuous.

“We just check the (real estate) listing obsessively,” Shourd said.

“We think it’s a pretty high price, which we’re worried about,” she said, explaining that maybe only a deep-pocketed developer could come up with the money and might want to build on both lots.

“That’s out biggest fear — that it’s all going to be lost. That’s why we want to make a push to ensure it’s all going to be secure for the future.”

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.