SOGA works hard to maintain the student garden

Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

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Many of us find comfort in digging our fingers and nails into rich, moist soil on a nice sunny day. But this time, we’d be carrying away deep yellow summer squashes in our dirt-covered hands like the interns this summer at the UC Berkeley Student Organic Garden Association. SOGA, located on Walnut Street in Berkeley, allows all those who enjoy this type of work to come in and get their hands dirty. Established in 1971, SOGA is now celebrating its 43rd anniversary and has flourished throughout the years with its dedication to education, sustainable agricultural practices and community. Their garden is the outdoor classroom for numerous UC Berkeley classes and opens its door to community members year-round.

SOGA welcomes this summer because of their Intern Management Program, made possible by a grant from the Green Initiative Fund. Interns Dea Oganesian, Matthew Duffett and Sara Cate Jones are the three powerhouses maintaining SOGA’s lush garden. The aim of the program is to maintain the garden’s continuity and to fight the lag in summer with the absence of students.

“We are the first of the paid interns. The intern program will continue for the duration of two years, starting this summer,” Jones explained. “We are building it as we go.”

With ideas of focusing on management projects like crop plans, Duffett said this internship was “not what we expected it to be.”

Oganesian agreed, explaining the experience taught them more about the unexpected realities of urban gardening and also allowed them to cultivate a harmony among them in their work.

“The three of us have learned to work together well,” she said.

Before starting the internship, these students were initially drawn to SOGA’s hands-on approach. Oganesian fell in love with SOGA because it felt the most interactive. Jones had worked with a sustainable agriculture nonprofit and found a new home at SOGA. Duffet familiarized himself with the garden through its DeCal and ESPM 117. He was able to use his past experience in working with a permaculture-certified program to enhance his involvement at SOGA. As for looking forward to the future, he said he’s “interested in teaching.”

Oganesian described her paid internship as vital to her commitment to ensuring the garden is thriving.

“We don’t have to worry about a second job. We can give the time and care the garden needs during the summer,” she said.

This undivided attention is especially important because the interns are faced with managing SOGA at a time that is much different than the regular academic year.

“Usually, classes are taught here. There are probably three to four volunteers per hour,” Jones said, referencing a practice that isn’t followed during the summer.

“During the summer, we get some regulars and some volunteers, but there’s generally a lack of minds and hands,” Duffett said.

While they may lack in manpower, there is no question that the plants here at SOGA are thriving.

“Since it’s the season of summer, things grow faster,” Oganesian added.

“The summer started with research projects, where we started working with professors and graduate students. We were learning the history of the area,” Oganesian said. Through this research, the interns learned that in 1923, a fire occurred on the land where SOGA is located today. The interns believe this is where the recently discovered lead originated from.

Jones said their summer can be summed up best with these three words: “weeding, mulching and testing.”

One of the many projects the interns have begun revolves around the garden’s soil. Students from a Biology 1B class conducted a soil test here, and the lead and zinc results were quite alarming. Thankfully, it was discovered that their machinery was placed on the wrong setting.

“But it made us wonder what was actually in the soil — what was our soil content?” Jones said.

The interns decided to find out, and campus professor Celine Pallud sent soil samples to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, as the first step.

“They were okay. We had some metal contamination in areas that lacked cultivation,” Jones said.

Jones explained that the lead and zinc levels in the garden are still within Environmental Protection Agency standards. In fact, metal contamination is a common occurrence in urban gardens. Compared with 400 ppm, the upper limit for lead set by the EPA, the levels in most areas of the garden are at 100 ppm — virtually nothing.

“However, areas with less cultivation were pushing up against the standards,” Jones said. “This makes sense though, since it’s not cultivated, and we’re not too worried because we don’t grow anything there.”

With the enlightenment of this newfound knowledge, the interns took immediate action and “are already engaged in the necessary practices to solve this issue,” according to Duffet.

“We will use organic compost to immobilize the lead. It is hard to remove lead, so we’re not focused on removing it. The compost will bind it with phosphates. The UMass results show our soil is high in phosphates. The metal will not be bioavailable and can’t be taken up by the plants. Still, we are now testing plant tissue samples to see if it has moved up into the leaves of plants. We have chosen not to eat the leafy greens like lettuce or kale, just in case,” he explained.

“Things like fruit and squash are perfectly fine,” Oganesian said. “You just have to make sure that you wash them because of the dust.”

The interns have also been creating infrastructure from reusable materials and have started using waddles, which are used for erosion control.

With the intense drought California is experiencing this summer, the interns did not develop an intense watering schedule to nurture their plants but responded to the troubling conditions by selecting drought resistant crops, site-specific designs and even deciding not to water the plants at all. The lush utopia does not look like a water-deprived gardening plot, precisely because of the fact that the plants were chosen for their drought resistance.

The interns have been engaged in numerous sustainable agricultural practices and have been trying to learn more about addressing the drought because climate change is a crucial aspect for the future of agriculture.

“We want to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge about urban agriculture,” said Duffett. The interns are testing the drought tolerance of their produce. They will then save the seeds of those who survived this summer drought.

In fact, there are so many plants blooming and ripening for the picking that these interns will be busy trying to give away all of their summer squash for a long time.

Regardless of the hard work carried out by SOGA’s interns, the community at large should not feel discouraged from helping out during the summer. SOGA welcomes student and community involvement during open hours. The garden holds open hours from 12 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday. According to Jones, open hours is always a fun time since people are “always excited and we love to give them food!”

“We reach out to all kinds of people in the community,” Oganesian said.

SOGA has donated a lot of their fruits and vegetables to local food banks in the past. In fact, that is where their summer squash is going this week. SOGA also shares deep ties with the university-owned and historic farmland called the Gill Tract, located nearby in Albany. SOGA and the Gill Tract have the same goals in regards to food and education and the garden stands by the effort to resist development on Gill Tract’s land.

“Why bring in all of those trucks and pollution when we can grow it ourselves?” Oganesian said.

Throughout Welcome Week, SOGA will be hosting a number of exciting events. On August 17, SOGA welcomes the public to help them with building raised beds for the garden. A few days later, on August 31, they will help them plant in these beds. SOGA will also be present at Calapalooza on September 3, where they will give away free plants, and later that week, you are invited to stop by to help their propagation of succulents.

Contact Lucy Tate at [email protected].

A previous version of this article stated that the zinc levels in the garden were 1 ppm. In fact, the zinc levels in the garden are a little over 100 ppm.

It also stated that SOGA sells their produce on a sliding scale with a range in prices. In fact, SOGA does not sell their own produce.

It also stated that the mulch dump was set up through the city of Berkeley. In fact, it was set up by a private arborist called Coastal Tree Service.