A Walk Through the Garden

by Sam Thornburg, University of the Pacific Student

THORNBURG_cropI know my grandpa’s backyard like the back of my hand. I spent my childhood freezing my skin off from the ice cold pool shaded by the eight large redwoods that stood proud and tall in his backyard. I have always loved the oddly pleasant smell of lemon-blossom and chlorine that has taken up residence in the air surrounding his ranch style abode. Out of the things I remember about his house in Elk Grove, the most vivid and beloved memory I have is of his garden.

It was a bright and sunny day, with a cool breeze rushing through the sickly smelling Boxwood bushes that lined the cobblestone path to his large garden. It was a grand garden but a bone-dry, barren one. My grandpa, Don Truhett, leaned toward me as we were walking to his beloved dirt forest. “It’s not usually this barren,” he said, “but I’ve been having trouble with my back lately. I have Michael clean up the mess from all the fallen leaves and mow the grass. No…No…I don’t have time for stuff like that. I pour my work into the vegetables.”

I am used to there being a plethora of tomatoes, carrots, and herbs, but it seemed as though a harvest was not even going to be an option for my grandpa. After getting over the initial shock, I realized that the reason I was not seeing these regular vegetable visitors was due it being wintertime. Curious about harvesting, I asked my grandpa, “When you do have a harvest, what do you do with it? Do you sell any of it or give it to neighbors?” He thought these questions were funny. His eyes crinkled and he said, “Why no?! I barely have enough to give to your grandma, let alone feed a neighborhood.”

Sam with Kale

Sam prepares to plant kale in a plot in the Robb Garden.

I realize now that my memories of his garden were tinted with a rose-colored glow of grandeur. After all, I had not visited my grandpa’s garden for a couple of years. Time and the aging process are not kind to the hands and body of a gardener.

My grandfather has always been intimately involved with the processes of obtaining his meals. During this interview, I wanted to know more about his history, as I was aware he had grown up on a farm in Louisiana. At this point, we finished looking at his garden and moved to a table near his pool. When we settled I asked, “Has the food you eat changed significantly as industrial agriculture has modified the quality and quantity of it? Does it taste worse?”

“Food is different nowadays,” my grandpa responded. “Now, I can’t attest much to the quality of your grandmother’s cooking, but what I can do is talk about the quantity of food we can get at a grocery store compared to our garden. Bel Air and Safeway mark up their vegetables and fruits, because the companies that supply the product grow them out of season and transport it. When you have a garden, the price comes in the form of your time. You have to spend a lot of it in a garden to coddle the growth of your food. A full harvest is not always guaranteed with gardens, but you can always get what you need at the grocery store.”

I ruminated for awhile about the changed American palette and how my grandpa was living proof of the growing disconnect with our food. I asked my grandpa, “Why do you think America has pulled back from small farming? Do you miss not being on a farm and having more than half your meal grown by your hand?”

My grandpa looked towards the redwoods as he thought about his answer. “Money. America can be greedy like that. I also think fear has turned us towards big farming. I think humans will always have a fear of starvation, even though we have enough food to go around. I do miss being on a farm, but I also do not miss the times when my ma and pa were nervous about whether we would have enough food to go on the table. When you feed yourself by your own hand and you do not have an income to support buying groceries, then you have to put forth maximum effort into getting enough food in your system. I don’t have to spend half my day on a farm anymore.”

I was somewhat saddened by this answer. I hate the idea of America playing its citizens a fool and diminishing the control of our food right before our eyes. My grandpa’s answers told me a story about food in America. I was able to see the past and present form of agriculture through his eyes.

A Plant’s Legacy

by Tiffany Vu, University of the Pacific Student

VUThe words “seed catalogue” would bring to my mind a book, similar to what one might find at a department store, featuring seeds instead of outfits. How anyone could find a picture book of seeds interesting left me befuddled. To me, seeds were simply dried beans that grew into plants with a sprinkle of water and a handful of dirt. Imagine my surprise when I opened my first seed catalogue and learned how to properly care for seeds.

When I first received the Seed Savers Exchange catalogue, I was blown away. Opening the first pages, I was greeted with pictures and information of new additions to their collection as well as a note from Seed Savers Exchange about their process for selecting varieties to sell and their goal of sharing lesser-known varieties with other gardeners. As someone who has never cared about seeds and is tasked with planting a garden, I found the later section about seeds helpful in developing an idea of when and how to plant seeds. For example, beans are best planted in warm soil, while lettuce likes cooler temperatures; if the temperature outside is too cold, some seeds can be started indoors and be transplanted outside when the weather is warmer. The catalogue also mentioned a co-founder, Diane Ott Whealy, who likes to use a different approach when gardening and uses self-sowing seeds that will literally seed themselves when the time is right. Simply reading the introductory pages of this catalogue offered me some insight into how different people operate their gardens and showed me that gardening isn’t simply sticking a seed into the ground and hoping for the best.

Apart from the how-to’s of seed planting, the book was full of information about vegetables and fruits, some of which I was familiar with and others I had no idea existed. Flipping through the pages, I slowly realized that I had completely underestimated the diversity of fruits and vegetables. I had previously thought that the carrots I buy at the grocery store were the only kind of carrots available for everyone to buy and plant in gardens. Simply flipping to the page in the catalogue about carrots proved me wrong; varieties can range from short and stout to long and slender, as well as from red to orange to yellow. On the same page, there was an overview of companion planting that certain plants, like carrots, benefit from and a featured book that explains companion planting for those who would like to learn more about it.

Vu in the garden

Tiffany prepares to plant seeds in her Robb Garden plot

Every page turn uncovered new information as well as new plants. Each new variety brought new information pertaining to that plant and completely redefined every vegetable and fruit that I thought I knew. For those who would like endless tomatoes throughout the season, indeterminate tomatoes keep growing fruit while determinate tomato plants focus their energy on ripening theirs to give us a more plump, juicy crop. For the most bang for the buck, beets produce seeds that fuse together to form “seed balls” containing several seeds which will eventually produce seedlings that need to be thinned but can still be eaten. Learning about the unique characteristics of these plants gave me a different perspective on what growing plants looks like. Instead of picturing a ubiquitous cycle of seed to plant to fruit to seed, I can now see that each plant serves a purpose in the garden; some, like radishes, can be grown to serve as markers for slow-growing plants while others, like okra, produce fantastic flowers if left on the plant.

When it came time to start planting seeds, however, there was still much I did not know. After reading “What is a Seed?” in the book Saving Seeds, I was shocked to learn that seeds were, in a way, embryonic plants in dormancy. I was fascinated to learn about the different parts of a seed and how a seed is very much alive, metabolizing its endosperm by absorbing moisture from the air. When I previously looked at a seed, I could not wrap my head around the fact that a plant could come out of such a simple looking speck. Now, I can see how seeds, though they may look plain, are actually a miraculous way for plants to continue their legacy.

Seeds are rather picky when it comes to their environment. Different seeds have different temperature and light requirements, and the soil needs to be properly moistened and aerated for the seed to be able to come out of dormancy. In addition to these requirements, some seeds may need their seed coats to be broken in order to germinate. I imagine a seed to be a strange form of Goldilocks, looking for the right amount of moisture and light to, instead of fall asleep, wake up.

Seeds are not merely dried kernels, but rather hibernating plants waiting for the right time to wake up. It is no wonder why there are catalogues focused on tending to these sleeping creatures. Each has its own characteristics that bring different elements to a garden. After planting seeds and going through a seed catalogue, I now see planting seeds in a new light and am excited to see what comes next.

Pumpkin Seeds

by Mark Michael, University of the Pacific Student

MICHAEL_cropI was first introduced to seeds when I was about 5 years old during Halloween time. My dad and I were carving pumpkins and he was keeping all the seeds from the insides of them. When I asked about it, he explained to me how they make new plants and eventually pumpkins. It was the way pumpkins had their children, he said. That kind of amazed me, because at five years old I didn’t have any concept of how food was grown. The idea of being able to grow some of the seeds that we collected was very exciting and all I could think about was of all the pumpkins I could grow.

We would go to pumpkin patches every year and pick out the best ones for carving. I would always be in awe of all the hundreds of beautifully orange pumpkins. Sometimes we would even go in the summer and scratch our names or draw things on the green skins of the growing pumpkins, to come back in October and find which ones were ours. For me being able to grow a few of these at my own house and watch them grow really inspired me to want to at least try it.

Most of the seeds we collected were dried in the sun and roasted in an oven for food, which made a very good snack. A small amount of seeds we dried in the sun then planted them in Dixie cups and left them in our sunroom to germinate. Unfortunately,  growing things is very hard where we live, because of cool temperatures, lots of trees and fog. So, my plan was to leave the pumpkin plants in the sunroom and just move them to some bigger pots later. After only a few days, the seedlings sprouted and had a very simple but beautiful two-leaf stalk, which grew until a flower bloomed.

After waiting and waiting, nothing else happened. I eventually grew frustrated and tried many different pumpkin plants but they never started a pumpkin. Letting all of them die is what I chose, because my hopes of having pumpkins for October were shut down. Quitting the whole growing plants thing was my course of action for many years to follow.

Michael_direct seeding lab

Mark fills out his worksheet during the direct seeding lab in the Robb Garden

One day, it came across my mind: “why didn’t they produce pumpkins? They had everything they needed; water, sun, warm temperatures.” A quick Google search showed me what I was missing. Plants need to be pollinated, which was impossible to be done naturally indoors because there are no insects or animals. Then it explained how certain plants, like the squash family, have male and female flowers. Not knowing too much about reproduction in general, I learned that female flowers had to be pollinated by males to produce a pumpkin. After finally figuring out that I was not just a horrible grower, I decided to give it another try. One spring, I started trying pumpkin seeds again, but this time I moved them outside after they sprouted and left it for nature to do its magic. I think I remember a small bulb growing in one of the flowers right after school got off for the summer, but we were going to Europe for a few weeks. Not thinking of the needy plant, I returned and found shriveled up twigs.

Ever since then I never wanted to plant anything again because I knew I would forget about them. Nevertheless, I enrolled in a Sustainable Gardening class this semester. After taking this class, I may reconsider my decision. Looking through the seed catalogues was very interesting, because they were filled with lots of cool plants that I have never heard of but would someday like to try and plant. The seeds that we recently planted should be a good learning experience and be fun. I was able to plant a colorful Swiss Chard mix, and I am interested in seeing how it turns out and tastes. Hopefully this class will give me another chance at growing things from seed to produce and that my mistakes from many years ago can be used to help me learn the right way.

Seeds of Elizabeth Way

by Alexandrea Mendoza, University of the Pacific Student

MENDOZA_cropSome of my first memories are of a messy little garden in the side yard of the first home that I ever knew on Elizabeth Way. It was a small garden, probably no bigger than fifteen square feet. There were tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, spices and other greens. My mom and I loved our little garden. I remember holding the seeds in my hands when my mom would let me help plant the next round of plants. I would wake up and run down the hall and push away the blinds on the sliding glass door just to look at the progress that our plants had made. I would also try and help water the plants too, but when you are two feet tall you can only reach so far back. I remember one time picking off a tomato and being told to take a bite out of it and absolutely disliking the taste. It gave my parents a good laugh and to this day I still do not like tomatoes. Our garden was beautiful, green, and full of life, unfortunately it’s been years since I have seen my first home on Elizabeth Way and our messy little garden.

I have always wanted to go back to my mother’s little garden of my childhood and play around in the dirt. There was something special and enticing about placing seeds in the ground and watching them grow; it was like magic. But instead of magic beanstalks, they were just beanstalks. As I got older, the memory of the garden has become faint and I can only remember bits and pieces of it. Since leaving our first home on Elizabeth Way my mom and I have not been able to start another messy little garden. And after moving away from home for the first time, the memory and reality of having another seed in my hand seemed impossible. I am filled to the brim with extra-curriculars and academics. It looked as if it would never happen, until now.

Mendoza with Lexi

Alex and her buddy Lexi show the seedlings they started from seed

My sustainable gardening class has given me the opportunity to go out to the community garden and have a plot to share with someone who I consider family. For the first time in years I got to hold another seed in my hands (broccoli seeds are much smaller than I remember!). For the first time in years I got to stick my hands in the dirt. I felt as if I was home, and as if I was holding the seeds of my childhood. They seemed so small and frail in my hands, and holding them felt different as well. When I think about holding them as a child, to me they were magical. As I held them as an adult, they still had that sense of wonder and awe, but instead I felt more soothed and comforted. I felt such content even though my plot partner and I were frantically trying to plant, water, and label all of our seed cells; we were so spastic that we forgot to put our own names on the label. Planting our seeds may have been stressful, but the most stressful part was trying to figure out what we wanted to plant in our twelve foot square plot. We had a few options to choose from, but even then we still had some difficulty.

Looking through seed catalogs was extremely overwhelming. I never knew that there were so many different varieties of the same plant. When I think of carrots, I just think of big carrots and baby carrots that you buy in packages in the grocery store. I had no idea that there were different varieties called “Dragon,” “Danvers,” “Paris Market,” etc. The amount of different varieties is incredible. Each seed holds a different path and can be something completely different, and sometimes totally new. What was even more incredible was the fact that each type of seed had its own story, its own origin and its own personality. It really put into perspective and reminded me that plants are just as diverse and unique as people.

To me a seed is one of the purest forms of life. When it is untouched, it has the potential of producing a new, beautiful outcome. I am so excited to have the chance to recreate the messy little garden of Elizabeth way with the seeds that have been provided to me. My seeds are in small planting cells right now, but soon they will be beautiful, green and full of life. These will be the seeds of Pacific.

To My Dear Little Bloomsdale Spinach

by Hannah Edwards, University of the Pacific Student

EDWARDSI know you’re young, so you might not understand what I’m about to tell you, but I feel like you should know how I reacted when I held you in my hand for the first time. Holding you was something I’d never done before, and it felt strange to see you resting on my palm. I could barely see you, and I began to worry that you were gone because I dropped you. I was lucky, for I hadn’t dropped you; you were just hidden in the grove of my palm, watching as I panicked and tried to find you.

Unfortunately, now was time for me to let you go, to plant you in the home you would remain in for a few days or weeks. After that, however, I need to transfer you to a bigger home; the first one would not be able to contain you or the sibling I planted with you. Don’t be scared, little one, because you will never be alone in the larger estate. Some of your siblings will be accompanying and staying with you for the remainder of your life. The others, however, are being sent somewhere else, for there are too many of you to inhabit the larger home. You see, when you are little, you live close to your siblings, only an inch apart, but when you begin to sprout, and your roots begin to stretch, you cannot handle the nearness of your siblings and fight each other for space. I’ll interfere before this happens and move you 6-8 inches apart, so I don’t have to see you get hurt.

It’s difficult to truly explain the feelings I felt when I held you. I was excited to plant you, scared to drop you, and I wanted to watch you grow. I know this might seem strange, but I know what is inside of you and I know how you are meant to grow. Inside of you, there is a little bud attached to a stem, and when you are nurtured, they will emerge, and you will begin the cycle of becoming a vegetable. It seems impossible that something so vital to every species on earth comes from something as tiny as you, but you don’t think it’s impossible. For you, it’s natural. Your ancestors were introduced into this world in 1874 by D. Landreth & Sons seed company, the same company that in 1872 developed the first steam-powered tractor for plowing fields. Feeding people is what you were made for, and I know that you will grow for me if I give you the correct amount of attention.

Edwards_direct seed 2

Hannah Edwards direct-seeds peas in her Robb Garden plot.

I need to be honest for a moment. Before I began the process of planting you, I didn’t want anything to do with you. I didn’t understand your importance, and I thought you would be a nuisance I would need to deal with for the next three months, but now that I have spent some time studying you and other seed varieties, I realize that the complexity behind you and your history is truly incredible. You’re not just a seed that I need to care for; you’re a symbol that carries “memories from different eras and social relations.”  You do not simply sprout and grow into something animals eat; you help “represent the taste of…childhood” and “reconnect people and places throughout generations…and across borders” (quotes from Aistara 2014). It’s incredible how influential and powerful you are, and I can now appreciate you for what you are, not for what I imagined you to be.

I’m reaching the end of this letter, and now I must tell you the true reason why I am writing you. You see, while you were my first seed, you will not be my last. There are so many varieties of seeds that I want to grow and experience. You already know about the Slobolt lettuce, since I planted them alongside you, but soon, there will be more. You were the first seed I planted, and that fact will never change, and I will continue to provide you with the correct temperature, moisture, air and light you need to germinate. You will not be forgotten, I promise, but I need you to promise me something. When I plant these seeds, directly into their forever home (for they do not like being transplanted), I need you to breathe and survive, for I do not know what I would do if you left and denied me the sight of you fully grown.


Your Loving Gardener

Work cited: Aistara, Guntra A. “Actually Existing Tomatoes.” Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Antrhopology 69 (2014), Stichting Focaal and Berghahn Books.

Teaching Sustainable Gardening at Pacific

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

Patty bike profle picAt University of the Pacific, one common experience that all first-year students share is to enroll in a series of courses called The Pacific Seminars, better known on campus as, simply, PACS. These seminars explore the question, “What is a good society?” while developing students’ critical thinking skills about significant personal, social, and political issues by means of extensive writing, reading, and class discussion. These are small-group classes where students get lots of individual attention from instructors and can form a close cohort with their classmates.

In their first semester, all students in all classes are following the same syllabus with a set of common readings. But in the second semester, they are offered a choice of 38 different topics, each one a special interest of the instructor. This spring, I offered one of these PACS choices, and you’d better believe I jumped at the chance to hook some fresh, young souls into the wonders of food growing.

“Sustainable Gardening” is a course that starts from the premise that a good society is one that provides its citizens with pure, nutritious food to eat in a way that does not deplete the earth by its production. An even better society is one in which its citizens possess the knowledge and skills to grow some of their own food, sharing food, knowledge and seeds in the process. Students are encouraged to move beyond being passive consumers of whatever is marketed to them as edible, and to become active, engaged citizens who exercise responsible food selection based on their social awareness of how food is grown, treated, transported and marketed.

One key way I try to activate their awareness is through hands-on work in the Robb Garden. Each student is planting and tending a small garden plot, selecting which varieties they want to grow, starting some plants from seeds, transplanting seedlings into their plots, and learning how to deal with weeds and insect pests that appear. In the end, they will harvest and eat the food they have grown.

Of course, they do plenty of reading and writing in the course. Each student is researching a topic related to sustainable gardening for a research paper that is their main focus in the second half of the course. In the first half, I have had them write three short, descriptive essays: the first describes their experience with seeds; the second is based on an interview with a gardener; and the third asks them to reflect on gardening as a form of civic engagement.

Each essay is peer-reviewed by three classmates, and one of the things I ask students to comment on is whether or not they think their classmate’s essay merits being published on this blog. When there is a consensus around an essay, and if the student agrees, it is put in the hopper for publication.

So this blog is about to be taken over by the voices of Pacific students. I hope you will enjoy reading their work as much as I have.

Giving Thanks for Gardens

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

Patty bike profle picNature is a gardener. When we leave it alone, Nature produces perfectly sustainable gardens – nothing is brought in, nothing is taken out. Nature’s gardens are not static; they ebb and flow along with patterns in weather and fire and the serendipity of animal visitations. Nor are Nature’s gardens wildernesses – humans have been walking through them since time immemorial, harvesting their bounty, learning from them, imitating them with cultivated gardens.

There was a time hundreds of years ago when humans were pretty good stewards of Nature in this land we now call California, but today humans of that sort seem to be overrun by humans who don’t value Nature, either willfully obliterating it for their own short-term gain or simply being ignorant of how absolutely essential it is to life.

pie pumpkin 1

Photos by Alaya Hubbard

The more I see Nature’s gardens being eaten away by development, the more I want to cultivate imitations of Nature’s gardens in urban and suburban spaces, and encourage others to do the same. The willful short-termers may be lost to this cause, but fortunately I think there is a much larger share of humans who simply have not yet had their connection to nature activated. That’s an opportunity.

So if I give thanks for anything this week, it is for gardens. I am feeling grateful for what they teach us, and how they begin to transform us the minute our fingers touch the green of their myriad plants. This week I am going to walk into the Robb Garden at the University of the Pacific, I am going to pluck out pumpkins and sweet potatoes, and then I’m going to make pies. I wish for you the pleasure of preparing something from a garden this week, and sharing it with someone you care for.


Gardening with Purpose

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayAs part of the University of the Pacific’s “Leading with Purpose” campaign, Pacific students, staff and faculty have been asked to reflect on the question, “What’s my purpose?” and answer it in a single statement. Exercises like this can easily slip into the superficial, but I like the way Pacific’s promotional video about this caught people in the act of not being able to answer the question right away. There’s an appealing honesty and informality in this that rings true and resonates with my experience since joining Pacific less than a year and a half ago.

All of this inspired me to think about my own purpose as Garden Program Director at Pacific. Here’s how I would put it:

As Garden Program Director, my purpose is to connect people with the green, growing world, to find people (especially students) who would never in a million years think of themselves as gardeners, and help them have an experience in nature that transforms their understanding of where our food comes from, and transforms as well the way they think about their capacity to grow at least some of the food they eat.

All of this purposeful reflection is part of a campaign to demonstrate that Pacific is a worthy beneficiary of the generosity of our donors. The support we receive from donors is hugely significant at Pacific, and this is particularly so for the Pacific Garden Program. The Ted & Chris Robb Garden and the Bon Appétit Native Plant Garden would not exist if were not for the generosity of two donors: Walter Robb and Fedele Bauccio. But I know that not everyone who supports these gardens has the capacity to donate on the scale of these two founding donors.

So I love what Pacific is up to this month: next week, on November 15-16, we will be having a 24-hour marathon called the Day of Giving. It starts at 11:15am on the 15th and ends at 11:16am on the 16th. The focus is not on the size of the gifts, but on the number of people we can involve in giving gifts of any size. If you’ve taken a stroll down that walkway with the Robb Garden on one side and the Native Plant Garden on the other and felt a sense of happiness that comes from being surrounded by nature’s beauty, this is an opportunity to express your appreciation through direct support.

What you’ll be supporting is more than the aesthetic beauty of the gardens – it’s the capacity of the gardens as special natural spaces of experiential learning for students, as well as the whole community. The size of the gift doesn’t matter – we’ll make it go far, just like a single packet of seeds can bring a whole garden bed into bloom. If you’ve got a particular idea of how you’d like your gift to be used, we’d love to hear it – and we’ll make it happen. You can stroll by anytime and see. Come on over!

Gardens, Prisons, Connection, and Community

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayEarlier this year, I had one of the most remarkable experiences of my life when I followed Amy Boyer, Program Manager with Insight Garden Program, through the gates of the California Health Care Facility (CHCF), a prison located just south of Stockton. Along with two other visitors, I was undergoing a trial visit to see if I might be a good fit as a regular volunteer with the program. Insight Garden Program has a constant need for volunteers; and so if you are looking for a challenging and inspiring volunteering opportunity, this post is for you. Further down I share ways to get involved, including meeting Amy in person at an event on Pacific’s campus next week.

Insight Garden Program (IGP) transforms the lives of people who are incarcerated by creating garden spaces inside prison grounds and then connecting inmates to the plants in ways that help them to see themselves as worthy beings who can thrive if they become deeply rooted and reach for nourishing influences, just as plants do. Founded by Beth Waitkus 15 years ago, IGP now has gardens inside eight prisons in California. At the time of my visit, CHCF was next on their list for establishing a garden.

Our little group was heading for a small chapel deep inside the prison grounds, but first we had to make a progressive transition from ‘outside’ to ‘inside’, passing through a couple of checkpoints and several rattling metal gates, and trekking across the barren grounds of the prison. Amy has done this more times than she can count, and she led us calmly, coaching us along the way about what to expect. I did not see so much as a weed anywhere as we walked, let alone any verdant green landscaping – just tall chain-link fences, guard towers, pavement, and desolate expanses of gravelly, sandy-colored ground.

For Amy, bringing a bit of garden green to such bleak and barren spaces is only a small piece of the transformation. The program is really about building community – and not just among IGP’s participants, although that is of course important. But even more important is for people both inside and outside of the prison to recognize that they are members of the same community. The checkpoints and fences that so severely mark the difference between “inside” and “outside” can make a prison seem like an island; but the community is one whole, and it helps people on the inside to know that those on the outside know about them and care enough to connect. It can make a tremendous difference for them when they finally step outside the prison gates to freedom.

We finally reached the small chapel, situated inside its own fenced enclosure and surrounded by a yard just as barren as the rest of the prison. The people enrolled in Amy’s course were waiting for us outside, and they greeted Amy with genuine warmth – she had already worked through one semester with them and was well into the second. She coaxed everyone to move out into the yard and form a circle, and then she began to lead us through a meditative grounding exercise, starting by asking everyone to imagine they had roots extending deep into the earth, seeking out nutrients and cooling moisture.

As we stood there in the chapel yard, I noticed that there was, in fact, a bit of vegetation there, exactly three types of plants: Bermuda grass, bindweed, and cheeseweed – all prime examples of invasive weeds that were the bane of my existence as a tender of the Robb Garden on the campus of the University of the Pacific. I delighted both at the irony of finding only these tough customers growing on the grounds of a prison, and also at the glorious audacity of green growing things: what we consider an unwelcome weed in the garden is an inspiring example of the capacity of life to find a way in the seemingly most inhospitable of conditions. And in this place, these weeds were welcome harbingers: within a few weeks, a cultivated garden would be carved into this tough, dry ground, and the IGP’s participants could begin to observe not only the life of plants, but plant visitors, such as hummingbirds and magpies.

Eventually we went inside the chapel to sit down for the more formal instruction of Insight Garden Program’s curriculum. The prisoners were more talkative than any group of college students I’ve ever taught, and their comments were thoughtful and articulate. More than once I heard a profound observation that challenged or inspired me to deeper reflection. I came away having gained far more than I gave.


This remarkable classroom dynamic was no fluke: Beth Waitkus explained to me how she worked with educators with neuroscience backgrounds to develop a curriculum that roots learning in practice. She also has grounded the work in appreciative inquiry: providing the opportunity for people to recognize their assets rather then dwell on their deficits. The program encourages them to identify strengths that can be valuable to the community when they return home. Amy says that many people inside have to think about what is really important to them, what really matters, how they can contribute to society – because they have to go before parole boards and convince them they are ready to be released. This work is not trivial, she says, and it can be really illuminating for everybody in the conversation.

Volunteers are an important part of this dynamic. Volunteers offer program participants an opportunity to hear about what is going on outside and to learn about other people’s lives. By the same token, program participants get to tell their own stories of their lives on the inside. As one young man told me, it meant a lot that someone from the outside came and looked him in the face and saw him as a fellow human being – in spite of our differences, in spite of the sharp markers of “inside” vs. “outside”.

I had desperately wanted to volunteer with the program, which is why I went on the prison visit in the first place – and the visit only confirmed for me that nothing could be more worthy of my time and effort. But I finally had to admit to myself, and to Amy, that my all-consuming job as Garden Program Director at University of the Pacific would not allow me to make the kind of commitment that was needed, even if it was only once a month. Then I realized there was one thing I could do: in the program’s own spirit of connecting people, I could help Amy to connect with potential volunteers in the Pacific community.

If you are over the age of 21, are comfortable in encounters with different cultures, are a good listener, and love to learn from other people, then volunteering with Insight Garden Program could be an extremely rewarding experience for you. You have a chance to find out first hand from Amy Boyer when she comes to give a talk at Pacific on October 26, 2:30pm, in the University Library’s Community Room. Join us!

Biointensive Instensity

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayOur student Garden Planning & Planting Lead, Laura Navarro, has returned to Pacific’s campus and to the Robb Garden like a dirt-churning whirlwind. If you stop by the Robb Garden these days, you’ll see mounds of freshly-turned soil where compacted earth had been, as Laura transforms what used to be a barren patch of the garden into soft, tidy beds. She has tenderly tucked seedlings of broccoli, kale and lettuce Into these fresh garden beds, as carrot seedlings and single-leafed grain seedlings spring up alongside.

Laura spent her summer at two Ecology Action gardens in Northern California – the Golden Rule Garden in Willits, and the Victory Gardens for Peace in Mendocino – learning biointensive gardening techniques. Now in her Junior year at Pacific, she is registered for internship credits in Environmental Science, advised by Dr. Lydia Fox, and she is applying what she learned in the Robb Garden.

2017-09-18 17.47.23There’s no doubt about it: biointensive gardening is intensive – labor intensive. New beds are carved into soil by hand through double-digging – as in doubly deep. Insect pests are picked off by hand or sprayed with a biodegradable soap solution and then gently washed off. Weeds – many of which are desirable vegetables and flowers that simply managed to seed themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time – are plucked out by hand.

For Laura, it is a labor of love, never mind how cliche that may sound. She loves the work, and she loves the plants – she talks about them as if they were her children. She built her own wooden flats for starting her seeds, which she keeps in a makeshift nursery on a table in the Robb Garden, sheltered from the sun’s full intensity behind a screen of tall tomato plants. Watching her hunched over her seedlings in a garden bed, I have seen her straighten up, sigh, and declare beatifically, “I’m so happy,” with an unmistakable expression of bliss on her face.

Laura blisses out

But this is anything but mere hippy-dippy dabbling for Laura. She has brought scientific precision to the planting practices of the Robb Garden. The seeding of each vegetable variety is timed by counting back from the average first frost date in our area, and she created a spreadsheet to track the timing of pricking out the seedlings and later transplanting them to garden beds. If you look closely at the beds she has planted, you will see small labels for each vegetable variety with a set of codes that she developed. If you understand her coding system, you can instantly know the history of each plant starting from its seedhood.

Lauraa's flats  Laura's labels

It is an absolute joy to hand over responsibility to a Pacific student and watch her grab onto it and unfurl it like it was a set of wings carrying her aloft and not a weight dragging her down. The Robb Garden is designed to be a space of ‘experiential learning’ for students; that’s become quite a buzz word in higher education these days, but Laura makes me believe in it. We can stand back and watch her learning and growing through direct experience of nature in the garden.

Come see.