A visit to K. Ruby Blume's backyard garden is like stepping into a lush vegetal paradise — not what you'd expect to find hidden away in a decidedly urban, working-class 'hood in North Oakland.
Viewed from the street, Blume's modest pistachio-green house is unremarkable in appearance — a bit cheerier-looking than its neighbors, perhaps. But walk through a side gate and the yard opens up to a garden-lover's dream: flowers everywhere you look, eighteen perfectly pruned fruit trees, and so many different kinds of edible green things — growing on the ground, along the fence, in planters, and up wire support frames — I couldn't write them all down.
Blume's Oakland hideaway is just one of seven urban farms that will be open to tours next Saturday, June 9, as part of an annual event sponsored by Blume's Institute of Urban Homesteading. The tours will run from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will start every hour on the hour at each site.
For Blume, tending to her 4,800-square-foot lot — which she's dubbed Beegrrl Gardens — isn't just a hobby; it's a calling. After fifteen-plus years spent running an organization that did puppet theater activism, Blume burned out. While taking a break from the nonprofit world, she did a lot of gardening and planned her next move. She thought, What would change the world? And what would be sustainable for her?
The answer, it turned out, was sharing knowledge — the kind of practical, back-to-the-basics knowledge that has been all but lost in a modern world where "a lot of things are designed to dumb everybody down." So in 2008, Blume founded a school called the Institute of Urban Homesteading, which now offers dozens of classes (held mostly at sites in Oakland and Berkeley) not just on urban gardening, but also on beekeeping, animal husbandry, and assorted DIY skills like food preservation and soap-making.
Blume started doing the tours last year in response to overwhelming public interest. She charges a small fee — a tax-deductible $30 advance payment for access to all seven farms, or $5 (or whatever you can afford) paid at each site. In exchange, the hosts show off their site's unique features and give visitors a chance to seek advice about their own projects.
Folks who visit Blume's garden will have a chance to see her two alternative beehives (designed to be less intrusive for the bees), her "bathtub bog" (a landscape feature that's irrigated with recycled laundry water), her container orchard, and her adorable litter of baby rabbits (which produce excellent compost, Blume explained, because they "double digest" their poop — eating it after it comes out the first time.)
According to Blume, a diverse mix of people attended the event last year: parents who wanted a fun activity for their toddlers, green-thumb wannabes, and hard-core homesteaders. Her hope is that they all came away from each tour with specific ideas that might be implemented at their own homes.
"It opens possibilities to people," Blume said. "It serves as an inspiration point ... to show what's possible and what's appropriate in an urban setting."
This year's participating sites range from a tiny goat farm in Glenview (where the goats can run up a ramp leading to their very own tree platform) to a North Berkeley "CSA-type" backyard micro-farm that grows enough food to feed five families.
Another tour site is Jeannie McKenzie's sprawling PineHeaven Farm, in the Oakland hills, where what I thought was a large dog wandering in front of the house turned out to be one of the four (exceedingly friendly) goats that McKenzie raises, along with several chickens. McKenzie also grows a variety of fruits and vegetables — many of them slightly exotic: cape gooseberries, goji berries, yacón, and oca (tubers that, according to McKenzie, taste like baked potatoes with sour cream).
For McKenzie, the tours have somewhat of a political purpose as well: They're a way for urban farmers to garner community support. While Berkeley's planning commission recently passed legislation that will permit residents to sell or donate fruits and vegetables grown on their own property, Oakland's regulations for urban agriculture are still a work in progress. According to McKenzie, the city's de facto policy is essentially complaint-based — she has one neighbor who files a complaint every day, presumably about the noise and the smell of the animals.
For the record, at least during my brief visit, the goats were remarkably quiet and not-too-bad-smelling. An added bonus? Two of them are massively pregnant, which means if you go on the tour next week, you'll have a chance to see cute baby goats.
To read a description of each site, or to buy a $30 advance ticket (via Paypal), visit IUHOakland.com/events.html. Even if you only plan on touring one or two farms, you'll need to register for the event in order to get the specific location for each site. Send an email to iuh at sparkybeegirl dot com with "Urban Farm Tours" in the subject line. Blume will respond with the addresses a week before the tours.
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