Alberto Ibarra: Growing Rooftop Sunflowers and Nopales

The founder of La Loma Rooftop Garden shares the story of UC Berkeley’s tallest campus garden.

January 24, 2023
By Sarah Siegel, BFI Communications Assistant

When Alberto Ibarra first arrived on campus in the summer of 2015, UC Berkeley’s food and gardening community looked much different than it does today.

Berkeley Student Farms, the collective student-gardening coalition on campus, did not yet exist. Neither did many of the efforts to diversify student farms and create spaces for underrepresented students in food systems. Alberto, a first-generation student from Inglewood, California and a budding engineer, recognized the need for change.

Over the course of several years, Alberto and the Hispanic Engineers and Scientists organization battled logistical and bureaucratic obstacles to establish the La Loma Rooftop Garden at the Bechtel Terrace Engineering Center. The garden is Alberto’s proudest accomplishment as an undergraduate. Alberto, who is now enrolled in a fifth year Master’s program under the Chemical Engineering Department, took a walk down memory lane with BFI, sharing what it was like to establish a rooftop garden on campus.

How did you first become interested in food and gardening?

The first memory that I have of gardening was my mom having her own rose garden in an urban space with a lot of concrete. That’s what got me really interested in gardening — seeing concrete everywhere, but beauty in this small rosebush. Everyone was so excited seeing vibrant colors in a concrete area.

My high school was another big pointer. We had a small garden in my high school. Everybody could come in and just take fruit or vegetables. I started seeing how growing your own food, especially culturally relevant food, is very powerful. It’s pushed me to take the next step with starting a project here in Berkeley.

What was the initial spark for the idea?

This has been going on since 2018, so in a way it’s a reflection now.

I was already volunteering in a community garden. Because of my background, I recognized that food is powerful. I know that gardening is a part of my culture. I am half Mexican, half El Salvadorian. I’ve visited El Salvador, and it’s very natural. That part of my culture is very environmental. I had that spark already in me.

I am also part of an organization on campus called Hispanic Engineers and Scientists. I had my love for gardening for food, as well as my role in HES, but I wanted to intersect the two. That paved the way for me to start a garden where we can actually have our own space. Especially in STEM, there’s not that many students of color.

What are some of the specific challenges that come with gardening on a rooftop?

There are a lot of unique challenges. For example, even transferring soil, especially 100 bags of soil onto the roof, when they’re probably more than 50 pounds, is just one of the many challenges that you have to keep in mind. On a roof site, you have to think much more about transportation.

Another challenge is that rooftops get a lot more direct sun compared to other spaces. You have to really consider the selection of plants, while understanding that too much sunlight can actually harm the plant. Over the years, I took notice that there’s certain plants that just don’t do well with that much sun.

There are certain plants that are okay with a lot of sun, but on a rooftop it is amplified a lot more. The roof can get pretty hot compared to what the actual weather app says.

Finally, with actually starting seedlings — sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes it does. That was actually my whole goal, to have a space where you actually grow something from the start. Seeing a plant across its whole journey actually worked out occasionally — we now have sunflowers that are actually taller than me, and they were started from seeds. So that happened to work out, but other times, it doesn’t. That’s likely due to the harsher conditions on the rooftop itself.

Other than a source of food and flowers, why do you feel like La Loma is important for Berkeley students, and particularly students of color?

It is an actual space for students of color, and there’s not that many spaces for us — especially spaces for gardening, appreciating food, or just getting fresh air. It’s a garden space that can represent us in terms of the actual foods that we’re growing. Having a community and a space that represents our own cultures is so important. It provides a space and a platform for students to come in, be themselves and share a common cultural background with one another.

What are some of your favorite things that you’ve grown in the garden?

The main two we are known for (and that I enjoy growing) are sunflowers and nopales.

Nopales are very culturally relevant for a lot of Latin American countries. You can do a lot of things with nopales and they are very aesthetic, but it’s also an incredible food source.

And of course, we also have sunflowers and we grow almost all of our sunflowers from seedlings. It’s quite impactful and mesmerizing watching seeds you can hold in your palm become sunflowers. They can grow to five or six feet — taller than me! It really brings color to our space. We currently have a new generation of sunflowers already starting to sprout.

As a bonus, we grow a lot of succulents — a lot of succulents are from Latin America. That’s one of the things that we keep in mind: The idea is that a lot of the plants we grow are related to our own culture.

What sort of advice would you give to undergraduates who are trying to undertake a really big project?

Follow your passion, find what makes you happy, and find something fun. That’s probably some of the best advice I can give to other students. Even if it’s outside your comfort zone — you never know what might come out of it. I always tell people, just get out of your comfort zone!

I grew up very shy. But I started learning that I have to get out of my shell to actually get anything done. I would encourage others to just try something new. As long as it’s something that’s fun, gives you happiness, and feels like a passion.

The way I see things is that if you want to go far, you have to go with others. I believe there’s power and strength in numbers. It’s great to create a network with existing and new people, especially those that have diverse backgrounds. Make sure you have a community that is always behind you. When we started La Loma, it wasn’t just me — I had to have tons of support to actually get it going.

What are your own personal future goals and plans?

I just want to be not just an engineer, but a socially responsible engineer. I am a strong believer of using engineering as a tool for me to do social good. I’m still developing my passion for urban agriculture and asking myself: How can I use my innovation? How can I use my design? How can I use my ideas?

I’m going to go through my grad program, but I am thinking a lot about urban agriculture — especially how I can use my engineering specialties to design sustainable garden systems.

What future do you envision for the La Loma rooftop garden?

That’s a really great question, because I’m not always going to be here at the university. While I created a path for students who have appreciation and love for gardening and food systems, that path continuing is a big aspect of what that future holds. In the long term, I see the garden as a hub where people can actually grow a lot of their own foods, because the space that we are located in is pretty big. Seeing the potential of how many fruits and veggies can be really grown gets me excited. I just want future students to continue holding that space, that representation, and also growing culturally relevant foods for themselves and for those on campus. There’s a lot of aspects where I want to intersect technology, for example integrating sensors, building vertical structures, or doing hydroponic systems.

But at the end of the day, I just want to know that it’s still holding space for students of color. Those voices that aren’t always heard, I hope it gives them a space to be present.