A Nursery Tale 

Berkeley's Spiral Gardens is a communal plot with big dreams.

Daniel Miller has big ambitions for a half-acre: A nursery for vegetables, fruits, and herbs. A community garden to provide food for homeless shelters, seniors, and volunteers. Educational programs. And a stand that sells organic produce to South Berkeley residents at cost. "We're interested in getting food to folks who can't afford it," he says. Miller is one of the cofounders of Spiral Gardens, whose original mission in 1993 was to supply gardeners with nonhybrid, non-GMO plants: heirloom varieties, little-known edibles (got mashua?), and native NorCal species. Spiral's old plot at the South Berkeley Community Gardens produced enough to supply a stand at the Berkeley Farmers' Market for the past decade "on the order of a bake sale," he says.

But Spiral Gardens has recently spun off on its own, renting from the city a fenced-in corner at Sacramento and Oregon streets. Miller oversees an ever-shifting crew of volunteers -- from kids to old folks -- as they plant seeds and sell pots to local gardeners. Everything is grown on-site, save a few donations from locals who've heard of Miller's penchant for heritage veggies. Anonymous donors like to drop pots and bags of soil over the fence at night.

Instead of doling out private plots, Spiral works according to a communal model. Half of the total bounty will go to volunteers, explains Lisa Snyder, another hard-core volunteer. The excess will be distributed to senior centers and homeless shelters. "Perhaps two times a week we'll divide the food into boxes," Miller says. "Or maybe people will harvest their own." Well, the specifics are still up for debate, but the time to join is now, because the tomatoes have just started turning red and the blackberries along the fence are getting fat and sweet.

Spiral Gardens is in a tricky spot as it transitions from a grant-funded program to a self-sustained one. The hope is that proceeds from the nursery will fund the other programs, and perhaps some staff pay: Right now, everyone involved in the project, including the sixty-hour-a-week Miller, is a volunteer.

Once the profit-making portion of the business is up and running, Spiral plans to teach free classes on growing your own. Community gardens and low-cost produce stands are one way to bring healthful food to poor neighborhoods. Giving people the plants and the skills to do it themselves, though, is the real master plan. "One resource South Berkeley does have is backyard space," Miller says.

Spiral Gardens is at 2838 Sacramento Street and is open Tuesday through Friday from noon to 7 p.m. The produce stand is open Tuesday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. Usual volunteer day is Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more info, call 510-843-1307 or e-mail daniel@urbangardens.org

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