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Ready, Set, Grow

The Grow-It-Yourself movement digs deep in the East Bay.


Farmers markets may have once been all the rage, but Grow-It-Yourself (GIY) is attracting all the buzz now. Whether it’s cultivating vegetables and fruit trees, or raising chickens, bees, and goats, East Bay residents are more focused on their own food production than ever before.

“So many people are doing it for so many good reasons,” says Alice Waters, food activist and owner of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant. “It’s political. It’s environmental. And it’s essential to the health of our children and to the future of our planet.”

From suburban backyards to city community gardens, signs of this GIY movement are sprouting up everywhere. T-shirts exclaim, “Lettuce turnip the beet” and “You look radishing.” Dinner party conversations revolve around heirloom seeds, composting, bee swarms, permaculture, and whether Rhode Island Reds or bantams are better egg producers. While it was once a novel idea for a group of friends to purchase and share an entire cow or pig, now many people raise chickens and use them to fertilize their vegetable gardens.

Alice Waters (center) and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School students collaborate on the Edible Schoolyard Project. Photo by Amanda Marsalis.

Considered the creator of garden-inspired California cuisine, Waters was one of the first chefs to list the names of the originating farms and ingredients on her menus. Now, at eateries across the country, menus often note the vegetable variety and credit the producer. According to Waters, this focus on farms has radically changed the way America eats.

“Chefs used to tell the farmers what to grow. Now the farmers tell us what to eat,” she says, recalling the first time Bob Cannard of Sonoma’s Sobre Vista Farms brought her nettles.

Waters founded the well-regarded Edible Schoolyard Project at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which employs agricultural concepts such as complementary planting that Cannard uses on his 20-acre farm. Waters believes the widespread interest in home food production is critically important to the health of children and families—especially in “food deserts,” or urban areas without markets.

“It all starts with the children,” says Waters. “If children are involved in growing their own vegetables, studies show they are much more likely to actually eat those vegetables.”

Better nutrition, fresher tastes, lower food costs, and access to unprocessed foods are all motivating factors of this burgeoning GIY trend in both urban and suburban areas.

In Oakland, various groups cultivate vacant lots and schoolyards, such as International Rescue Committee’s New Roots garden at Laney College; Acta Non Verba, a youth urban farm project; and Love Cultivating Schoolyards, which operates in several East Oakland schools. These city projects teach children about what goes into their lunch bags and home meals.

In Walnut Creek, a new community garden will open this summer at The Gardens at Heather Farm, where local residents can tend up to 80 gardening plots. There are already 80 families on the waiting list. While most plots will provide food for nearby residents, some produce will be donated to food banks.

In Lafayette, 84-year-old farmer “Papa John” Kiefer has seen a recent frenzy of interest in raising chickens. Since 2010, he has offered free classes on coop construction and other chicken wisdom to more than 900 Bay Area residents. His popular classes always have a waiting list. “These are not new ideas,” explains the octogenarian about his efforts to educate residents on the techniques and joys of raising chickens. “It’s just that in recent generations, we’ve forgotten how to do it.”

Restaurants are also stretching to meet the demand for homegrown food. Arash and Lauren Ghasemi of Walnut Creek’s Main Street Kitchen grow more than 14 different types of citrus, fig, and stone fruit trees in their home garden so they can use the freshest produce in their desserts, sauces, and preserves.

Other local spots, including Berkeley’s Claremont Club and Spa, tend small kitchen gardens that supply fresh herbs for cocktail programs, pastries, and garnishes. In Livermore, the venerable Restaurant at Wente Vineyards annually serves about 12,000 pounds of grass-fed beef raised on the Wente ranch and more than 6,000 pounds of vegetables cultivated by master gardener Diane Dovholuk, who has tilled Wente’s organic garden for the last 22 years. Chef Mike Ward has recently noticed a large increase in the number of queries about the source of food on the restaurant’s menu, so he and his team continually update their “food knowledge packet,” a reference guide that details where and how food is sourced, and who grows it. They also lead spring garden tours to educate diners about the types of food the restaurant grows.

“Being a chef here [makes me feel] like I’m part of an entire sustainable food and wine movement,” says Ward. “Everyone is talking about it.”

Read on to meet three local cultivators who have made the GIY movement a way of life.


Walnut Creek resident Caedmon Bear has been a backyard beekeeper for more than five years, following about a decade of raising chickens.

Caedmon Bear.

“For me, gardening and beekeeping provide the perfect antidote to our hyperfast, ‘technified’ modern world,” explains Bear, who has held high-stress positions in San Francisco’s financial district. He also believes these activities allow him to do his part to help the environment.

“Bees are the perfect companion to growing fruits and vegetables,” says Bear, who keeps three colonies and is a member of the Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association—and even rescues bee swarms that have escaped local hives.

“From an educational perspective, bees are really interesting,” he adds. “It’s fascinating how the colonies are organized. The queen will lay between 800 and 1,000 eggs a day [toward the beginning of spring].”

Bear also cultivates blooming plants such as Mexican bush sage and manzanita to support his bees, which produce honey for his family and help them appreciate nature’s bounty.

“[My kids] think it’s cool that Dad does bees, and they love the honey, too,” says Bear. “A healthy hive can give you roughly 60 pounds of honey or 30 quart jars a year. That’s a lot of cool.”


Take Root: Oakland Grows Food, at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), examines how and why urban city dwellers are growing more food. The exhibition includes an array of interactive displays, such as a microscope to explore beneficial insects. Visitors even have opportunities to draw their own gardens and contribute their personal garden photos to a giant photo wall. There is also an animation station that shows organisms in urban gardens and a video of insect predators in action.

Matthew Linzner stands in an Oakland community garden featured in OMCA’s show on urban growers. Photo courtesy of Oakland Museum of California.

Sarah Seiter, associate curator of natural sciences at OMCA, says Take Root was partly inspired by the museum’s hugely successful 2015 bee exhibit—Bees: Tiny Insect, Big Impact—and ensuing conversations with gardeners and beekeepers.

Take Root tells the story of positive change that garden projects are making in the lives of Oakland residents,” explains Seiter. “It’s about more than food production. It’s about education and social justice. We learned that people were producing food for their families and their communities, and we thought that really said something about Oakland.”

Take Root will be on view in OMCA’s Gallery of California Natural Sciences through January 13, 2019. museumca.org.


For Cady Scharff, a counselor at San Ramon Valley High, the choice to raise goats and chickens was a joint decision she made with her meat-loving husband, Jim. Before they met, Cady had been a vegetarian concerned about the health effects of consuming meat as well as its impact on the environment. The couple purchased eight acres in an unincorporated area of Clayton and started raising chickens (after taking Papa John’s classes), and quickly moved on to goats they purchased from their neighbors at Hanson Family Farms (a small-scale commercial producer of lamb and goat meat).

The Scharff family.

They used their first goat (named Momo, after a Nepalese dish) to make “absolutely delicious” sausage laced with apricot, ginger, pine nuts, rosemary, and garlic. “All our goats are named for foods to make our intentions clear from the start,” explains Scharff.

This spring, they had 10 kids that will also be given food-related names. The Scharffs still raise chickens for eggs and grow heaps of vegetables.

“We’re really busy, but I love growing our own food and being around the animals,” explains Scharff. “Knowing [we’re eating] good, clean food is really important.”


Walnut Creek resident Heather McNeil and her son had a few minutes between games at an out-of-town baseball tournament, and they were hungry. But a 7-Eleven was all they could find. Frustrated by the lack of healthy options, McNeil had an epiphany: What about a healthy convenience store?

Heather McNeil.

That’s when she decided to open Enroute Market. Located at the corner of Treat Boulevard and Sunne Lane near the Pleasant Hill BART station, Enroute offers roughly 900 products, including salads and wraps from its own commissary kitchen, grab ‘n’ go sandwiches, and lunch items from notable San Francisco restaurants such as Dosa and Little Green Cyclo. In addition, the market carries crispy quiches and baked-from-scratch goods from Starter Bakery.

Enroute also features rows of healthy snacks as well as a wide selection of gluten-free, dairy-free, Paleo, and vegan offerings. While shoppers can find standard treats such as ice cream, chips, and candy, nothing in the store contains hydrogenated oils, corn syrup, or preservatives.

“Why does fast food have to be bad for you?” asks McNeil. “My customers can get in and out of here in a few minutes, and they are eating healthy foods.” 7000 Sunne Ln., Ste. 100, Walnut Creek, (925) 482-0085, enroutemarket.com.


In Pleasant Hill, first-grade teacher Leslie Altman has embraced the GIY movement as a step toward better health.

Leslie Altman.

With six chickens (Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rock, and wyandottes) and 200 square feet of raised garden beds, she can provide 25 to 50 percent of the food her family needs. She even has a plaque from the National Wildlife Federation designating her yard as a Certified Wildlife Habitat for her continuing efforts to attract beneficial birds and insects, among other fauna.

“I started growing my own food because I was not comfortable eating food that had been produced by an agribusiness corporation in the Midwest or on farms in other countries, where we don’t know what they are using to grow food,” explains Altman. “Learning more about where our commercial food comes from was pretty scary.”

When Altman began growing vegetables and herbs instead of flowers in her front yard, some neighbors complained—until she installed a pleasant sitting area where they could stop by to view (and taste) the edible landscape. Now, Altman’s yard is the talk of the town.


UC Master Gardener Program
This program offers a free help line to answer gardening questions. While the masters won’t turn over your soil for you, they’ll tell you the best way to do it. ccmg.ucanr.edu.

Sustainable Contra Costa
Check the calendar for this organization’s robust list of workshops on backyard fruit orchards, drought-tolerant gardening, permaculture, and more. sustainablecoco.org.

Mount Diablo Beekeepers Association
Interested in becoming a beekeeper? Join this group to learn more about it and get support. The number of members has soared to 450 in just a few years. diablobees.org.

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