The Summer of 2016, Love Cultivating Schoolyards took over the garden at Castlemont High School, home of the Knights. The garden is a roughly 1,000 square foot section of unearthed land tucked in the back of the school. On one end, there is a creek- a rarity in East Oakland, where many of the once numerous water veins are now culverted and buried under ground. The remaining three sides of the garden are surrounded by asphalt: a driveway where cars enter the school, a parking lot with portable classrooms and the back of a large school building housing the school’s newcomer program (students who have entered the country within the past three years). Digging in the garden, it is evident that the space too was once covered in asphalt as there are large chunks of black tar, numerous levels of compacted contractors gravel and strange relics of old fill: iron bars, pottery and other unrecognizable items.
Castlemont High School is situated in Deep East Oakland: 83rd Ave and McArthur Blvd. In one of the city’s roughest neighborhoods, Castlemont is notorious amongst Oakland public high schools. On any given day in the Deep, one may see many things that are unheard of in other parts of the city: cars blowing through red lights driving the wrong way down one way streets, memorials for people passed lacing sidewalks, street corners and liquor store walls, ice cream trucks on rims slapping hip hop renditions of “The Entertainer”, police squad cars, police motorcycles, police vans and the constant police helicopter circling overhead. With the constant distractions outside the school perimiter constantly tugging on students’ attention spans, Castlemont students are proud to be Knights (Colin Kapernick came to a Castlemont football game honoring the students’ stance against systemic racism).
The school stands out in many regards and there is a strong team of educators working closely with students and administration to make Castlemont a model within Oakland and California for food sustainability. On campus there are currently three organizations doing work with youth centered on food justice. Growing Together works with schools and communties to plant fruit trees in urban neighborhoods in order to improve the environment, build community, and create a long term source of local healthy food in neighborhoods with a lack of tree cover, and classified as “food deserts”. At Castlemont, they run an internship program where they train students in fruit tree cultivation and grow a small orchard and nursery of trees. Phat Beets is managing the farm at Castlemont in support of its efforts to provide produce to the Oakland Unified School District produce stands as well as the Beet Box CSA. In conjunction with LCS, these organizations are models of youth leadership development, community empowerment and urban ecological transformation through food production.
In Spring of 2016, LCS hosted a community clean up of the Castlemont garden. Once a thriving, abundant garden, the space had been neglected for well over a year and had become overgrown with weeds. It was apparent that at some point in time, many people had put much love and sweat into developing the space: the fence is lined with many different fruit trees, there is a chicken coop that once housed a flock of hens, there stands a tall shed with a rainwater catchment system and there are numerous raised garden beds painted and numbered. When we came in the spring, the weeds ruled. So we took a day and sweated out the winter rains while we pulled out the tough plants that had taken root. It wasn’t until early summer that we were able to break ground and attempt to grow some produce in the garden. We planted some warm season crops: basil, tomatoes and squash as well as some collards which seem to do well regardless of the season here.
If you know California summers, you know that it is many, many days of sunshine and no days of rain. Therefore, we new that we had to get our irrigation system established if our plants were to grow. Since we were busy at the time working in our 5 other gardens and teaching summer camp with Oakland Peace Camp, we attempted to set up a basic overhead osculating sprinkler. While, when given adequate water pressure, the sprinklers we used can cover over 1,200 square feet of area, there seemed to be a problem at Castlemont. The sprinklers would barely cover enough space to water four raised beds. This proved frustrating as we did not have the resources or capacity at the time to invest into investigating the cause of low water pressure within the garden. Therefore, the summer of 2016 saw LCS planting only 6 raised beds within the garden’s 25.
As the school year began, we new that our efforts need to be more focused at Castlemont. The summer had taught us about basic infrastructural challenges and we had gotten familiar with the space. We knew that the current raised bed system need a renovation since many of the beds were rotting and breaking. Plus, while the raised bed system appeared neat and organized, it proved wasteful to the space since the majority of the garden was used as pathways rather than cultivated space.
So we took to dismantling the raised beds and creating a new system of pathways. We brought in an abundance of organic matter in the form of woodchips as we mulched everywhere we weeded with a thick blanket of woodchips. We did this not only to suppress the weeds, but also to help with the naturally heavy clay soils that are common in the East Bay as well as to provide structure for the compacted soils that resulted in the once asphalt covered garden. We decided that, because transformation is generally alarming to people who are used to things being a certain way, and because we were new to the Castlemont community, we would transform only a section of the garden from raised beds to double dug beds. So we took to removing the middle third of the raised beds, digging out old rebar, hauling away rotting wood and mulching with woodchips. After clearing the space, we began to double dig. The term “double dig” literally means what it sounds like: you dig twice. We first removed the top layer of soil with shovels and then took picks and digging forks to the hard, underlying layer. In breaking up the compacted clay underneath, we hope to provide better penetration of air and water to the subsoil. We then covered the loosened subsoil with a layer of wood chips and compost. Working the width of the beds in a line horizontally, we then repeated the process backwards, throwing the next layer of topsoil on top of the area we had worked. Double digging is a lot of fun (if you like digging) as well as hard work, but the end result is well worth the effort!
While we were establishing our beds, knew that we needed to have the plants ready to go in when the beds were completed (we also needed to give our backs a break from all of the digging). So we committed one of the raised beds that we did not remove into a seed bed. In that bed, we sowed many different seedlings for the crops that we wanted to transplant out to the double dug beds. In one 6×4 foot raised bed, we were able to seed more than enough seeds to plant out the entire garden!