Planting the niche

Chard and basil growing in the Cloyne garden.
Anya Schultz/Senior Staff
Chard and basil growing in the Cloyne garden.

I moved into Cloyne Court — the largest single-structure student housing cooperative in the nation — because of the corrugated-plastic greenhouse that stands in the courtyard between the lawn and the now-harvestable chard and arugula patch. When I was taking my first tour of the house, I had just finished working at a farm where I had learned about organic vegetable production and had volunteered in numerous community gardens. I was in the midst of changing my major to conservation and resource studies, with a focus on sustainable agriculture. I would soon be working in Ignacio Chapela’s microbiology lab on the UC Berkeley campus, doing research on GMOs. I was embarking on the path of an aspiring farmer. I was titillated by the resources and access to land that Cloyne would afford me to actuate my studies and my passions at my home.

For my first semester at Cloyne, I was put on garden crew — the team of five residents who spend their five hours of required weekly house chores tending to the land around the house. I began using our waste streams of coffee grounds and eggshells to build up the depleted soil for the long future I imagined for this community that dates back to 1946. I reorganized the greenhouse and began heirloom plant starts, which more than a year later are highly productive chard, cilantro, arugula, onion, broccoli, kale and lettuce plants that supplement some of the house meals. I pruned the trees and dried the herbs. The garden was a place I could take solace in after a long day of class, a place of silence and thought and a place to show my housemates how their own food could be grown.

I became co-garden manager with my housemate Ari Cherbowsky during my second semester Cloyne, after finishing a summer working at a medicinal herb farm and studying herbal medicine. I consulted professors on campus who study native pollinators and, with the help of Ari and our crew, put in a strip of sequentially flowering, bright, fragrant plants. We would need wasps, bees and butterflies to pollinate our vegetables. I dug several holes and brought soil samples into Celine Pallud, my soil professor, who tested them for nutrients and toxic compounds. Thankfully, there were no heavy metals, so the leaf and root crops are safe to eat! I put in an herb corner, based on my favorites from the summer farm, so our house cooks would have access to fresh culinary herbs and members could makes salves and teas from the medicinal ones. We planted the rest of the yard with drought-resistant California natives, as if in anticipation of the imminent drought. I was able to apply the sustainable agriculture methods I was learning in class and at other community gardens, and I was lucky enough to have peers willing to fund these projects — I merely had to make a proposal at Cloyne’s weekly council, propose a budget and win the vote, which garden projects always seemed to do.

This is my third semester at Cloyne. It is spring, and I am still garden manager. Our cherry trees are blossoming. A few weeks ago, I organized the donation of 15 cubic yards (that’s a garbage-truck-full) of mulch from a local arborist. I explained to the house that this was a good way to reduce erosion and soil evaporation. Cloyne rallied around me. Even though the delivery happened when I was in class, 15 Clones put on their work boots and spread the load across the yard. By the time I got home, the yard smelled of Christmas trees and looked as if it had been covered in wood-chip snow. The community support, access to land and abundant resources for gardening would not be possible if I lived alone, in a small house with friends or in any smaller co-op.

Last Friday, I rented out the Berkeley Student Cooperative truck with one of my garden crew members to pick up ferns to go under our redwood tree, spring flowers for the newly finished hillside terrace and drought-resistant succulents to add to our front yard. The night before, we received news of a proposal written by the BSC cabinet to evict all members of our house at the end of the semester. My garden crew and I are now planting with no idea of who is going to take care of our plants in the summer or even whether there will be another Cloyne garden manager and crew. I love this land, this soil and this garden, which Clones old and new have helped create. Strange that I will not be allowed back, nor any of the others who invested so much in it.

I’ve come to find in my three semesters at Cloyne that, as in a good ecosystem, everyone has his or her niche. Jake and the maintenance crew are building a professional-grade deck, Mikey and Jim have renetworked the house Internet, Marie is holding play rehearsals in our basement, Zach and Ryan make the sweetest music I know, and Lynnea and Rob cook meals to come home to each night. We are a community that supports one another and protects one another from the pressures and stresses of youth. Our community is made up of people, people who love this house and have invested their lives into it so Cloyne may continue to be the last bastion I know of free thought and creative innovation, good tilth and springtime wisteria. I’m proud to be a small part of the great Cloyne culture.

An earlier version of this article was published on the Save Cloyne campaign website.

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