The garden isn’t solely food. Shein prides himself on keeping native plant and flower species around in order to attract beneficial insects and birds. Planting natives is “a little selfish,” as it encourages pollination of his food. But isn’t that the point? Living symbiotically amongst all living creatures is a benefit to everything.
A hummingbird zips past us several times. “I just learned something cool the other day," says Shein, eyes brightening. "Hummingbirds eat about half their weight in insects.” Thus, hummingbirds mean good insect control in the garden and planting natives ensure that they will come around.
We climb to the upstairs deck, which is adorned with salad greens and herbs for easy access. A small bodhisattva is perched above the rosemary, and the sun warms the small space. Shein’s love for growing food extends to his philosophy for life, for something as simple as a garden leads to food sovereignty, food justice, learning, teaching, and saving money. It makes apparent “a web of life we are connected with,” he says, and, although it’s hard work, is undeniably enjoyable.
I felt fortunate to be able to peruse Shein’s garden and listen to his advice on how to create an equally abundant backyard. Maximize light and space, he advised, and go vertical. Use trees as trellises for climbing plants like runner beans. Plant natives in the north side of the house, as they don’t need as much sun. West coast soil is alkaline, so import acidic soil for crops that require it, such as blueberries. A used oak wine half-barrel is about $20 from urban wineries, which are great ways to grow food in small spaces. Experiment with your garden. And squirrels like figs.
As the sun dropped lower, Shein’s daughter awakes from her nap and comes down to the garden with her new backpack. She is learning at an early age where food comes from and how to eat well. (“She loves raspberries!” Shein hollers excitedly.) For her, the interns, his students, his family, and myself, Shein teaches gardening as well as the origins of life. Nothing seems more important than that as I tiptoe out of the backyard, as Shein and his daughter put the chicks back into their cardboard box, where they will nestle down and await another day.
To find out more about Christopher Shein, his work at Merritt College, the Alameda nursery, the Ploughshares homeless shelter and St. Marys, or are interested in volunteering for him in any of his gardens, please browse the links below.