Comfort with Complexity

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayThere is a fascinating body of cancer research that, oddly enough, has relevance for the health of the garden (see Siddhartha Mukherjee’s article “Cancer’s Invasion Equation” in the Sept. 11, 2017 issue of The New Yorker).

Research increasingly demonstrates that cancer cells are always present in our bodies to some degree; they are never completely eradicated. But they also may never manifest in harmful ways if the proper environmental conditions to suppress them are maintained – the health of the body’s immune system. One way to treat malignant cancer is to use chemotherapy, which knocks back cancer cells – but it is also toxic to the whole body, damaging the very immune system that fights the cancer cells.

As I was reading about this, I was reminded of weeds in the garden (not that it takes much to remind me of the weeds in the Robb Garden – I have a much more intimate relationship with them than I would care to admit). Weeds and their reproductive parts – seeds, rhizomes, etc. – are always present in the garden. We pull and pull and pull weeds, but there are always more popping up behind the ones we got rid of. Of course, we could treat the weeds with a systemic herbicide, but that would be like treating a cancer with chemotherapy: it would knock back the offending weeds, but it would also damage, even kill, the plants that we want in the garden (I won’t even go into the damage that the herbicide residues could do to the bodies of the humans who ingest them).

Both approaches – chemotherapy on humans, herbicides on plants – address an invading organism by making the entire environment toxic. And yet, neither method will ever completely eradicate the presence of the invaders. Every Gardener knows that weed seeds are always present, perhaps unseen, but nevertheless lying dormant beneath the soil surface.

The agricultural methods we’ve come to take for granted involve mechanically tilling the soil – which brings those weed seeds to the surface where they delight in the sunshine, water, and ideal growing conditions created for them – and then spraying chemicals to kill the weeds. When the chemicals threaten to damage the desired crops, the crops are genetically modified to resist that damage. Rather than working with the natural conditions of soil and plants, we’ve worked against them.

There is another way, of course, and that is to accept the perpetual presence of weeds, but to encourage the environmental conditions that create balance and prevent weeds from taking over. Minimal tilling of the soil (which not only keeps weed seeds way down under but also preserves the structure of the soil), keeping the soil covered at all times with green plants (crops or ground covers), and pulling weeds to weaken their photosynthesis mechanism – these are examples of techniques that work. But it requires one to feel comfortable with complexity – to be willing to figure out how all the parts of the intricate environmental system work together, and to work with that system and not against it.


Tomato Woe

by Patty Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director



That’s how I always thought of Sacramento and the Central Valley when I was spending part of my childhood here. In my memory, tomatoes were everywhere, always ripe, always perfect. I later had good success growing my own tomatoes in Southern Illinois, but then my travels took me to much cooler climes, first to Alaska, and then to Ireland. After spending the last eight years struggling to grow the juicy orbs in cold, damp, mostly-cloudy Dublin, I thought growing tomatoes in Stockton would be fool-proof.

So does that make me a fool? Because here in the Robb Garden at University of the Pacific, we had practically no tomatoes this summer. Out of twenty plants, only about half produced any fruit at all, and most of those were cherry varieties. The big, plump, sun-ripened beauties I had imagined – and hankered for – never materialized.

Legend has it that Dr. Mark Brunell, when he served as faculty garden director in the Robb Garden 2012-2014, had 100 varieties of tomatoes planted, with the vines groaning under the weight of abundant fruit. When I arrived at Pacific a year ago in July, the Robb Garden sported a bumper crop of ripe tomatoes. We harvested basketsful every week, well into Fall.

This year we are already preparing to yank the plants out in mid-September, in an admission of defeat.

Just about the time I was ready to conclude I’m not the gardener I thought I was, I started getting reports from other gardeners in Stockton that they’ve been experiencing similar tomato misery. Commiseration is a wonderful resource for gardeners. It’s a chance to engage in mutual reassurance that it isn’t us, it’s Mother Nature conspiring against us. Even local Stockton gardening heroes were functionally tomatoless this summer.

When the average temperature of your hottest month is 60 degrees, as it is in Dublin in July, all you can think of as a remedy for your ailing tomato plants is more heat. It just never would have occurred to me that you could have too much heat. But of course you can. Stockton experienced a perfect storm of adverse tomato weather this summer.

Tomatoes grow best when daytime temperatures are anywhere from 65 degrees F to 85 degrees, and when nighttime temperatures do not fall below 55 degrees. If temperatures get above 95 degrees, fruit will not set on tomato plants. What’s worse, if nighttime temperatures fail to drop below 85 degrees, fruit that has set won’t ripen.

So Stockton’s weather this summer was basically a tomato disaster. During the critical window for tomato plants to flower and set fruit, temperatures were way too hot – a look at the Weather Underground historical pages for Stockton shows that we had 13 days above 95 degrees in June, 28 such days in July, and 19 such days in August. And many of those days were well over 100 degrees. The records show that low daily temperatures were plenty below 85 degrees F, but I wonder if in the Robb Garden – situated as it is amidst heat-radiating pavements and concrete buildings – does not experience warmer nighttime temperatures than the local averages.

Next year we will be ready. There are ways to place tomatoes so as to shade them during the hottest part of the day, and we can do a much better job of mulching and making daily checks of soil moisture. We cannot control nature, and our beloved tomato varieties cannot adapt to these heat extremes, but we can mitigate the effects to some extent.

We’d better start honing our mitigation skills if we want to keep enjoying ripe local tomatoes, because we might have those summer heat extremes with us for some time to come. Believe it or not.


A Sad Farewell to Ecology Action – but Big Plans Ahead!

by Laura Navarro

Navaro mug shotI am sad to say that my internship with Ecology Action is coming to an end!  😦

I have had a great time here and have met some amazing people. I have learned more than I expected and I worked harder than ever before. This was an amazing experience and I am very grateful to all the people who made it possible.

These last two weeks have been extremely hot, it’s almost as if Willits is punishing us for leaving. I am not very motivated to work in the garden when it is over 100℉ so I have been just taking it easy and not working too hard. The main task for these two weeks is harvesting fava beans. We pulled water off the favas a while ago so the soil is dry and the roots of the plants have died. I can just tug on the stock and the whole plant comes right out of the ground. I saved some of the beans for myself to take back with me. Another task that we have for these last two weeks is flatting the winter brassicas. Rachel said that most people start their brassicas a little too late; she suggests starting them in late June. I flatted kale, broccoli and cabbage to take back to the UOP garden.

We had our last class at the coastal garden where we talked about garden planning and received a certificate of attendance. We have finished the basic classes that Ecology Action provides – the classes will continue now to an intermediate level of garden planning. I really enjoyed the classes and I wish I could continue to the intermediate level. It was sad saying goodbye to the other students and the Ecology Action staff that I would not see back at the ranch, but I hope to keep in touch with everyone in the class.

Wednesday, August 2nd, was our last day in the garden, but it was too hot to be working in the garden. Instead, I spent most of my work hours cleaning the house to prepare for dinner. We planned a huge dinner to celebrate our completion with zucchini lasagna, potatoes, and fruit salad, with champagne for dessert. The house was full of people who wanted to celebrate with us!

On Thursday, we went up to the dining hall for breakfast and to say goodbye to the local Ridgewood Ranch community; Ellen gave us Seabiscuit t-shirts. I had an exit interview with Rachel and Justin while enjoying our final coffee break. I then spent an hour picking Mulberries to take home with me. After I filled a jar up with berries I was ready to pack up my car and say my final goodbyes.

Leaving the ranch was bittersweet; I met some amazing people and felt right at home in Mendocino County, but I am excited to get back to Stockton and start new projects in the garden at Pacific. I hope to have my own section of the garden this coming year to practice the biointensive method. I am leaving Ecology Action with so much knowledge, excitement, and plenty of seeds and flats to start my garden. I couldn’t be happier with how this internship turned out, I am so glad I did it!

Look Ma! I Survived!

by Pauline Montemayor

Montemayor mug shotLet’s set the scene here.

Imagine, if you would, a serene garden with about ten people in it. Three of them (let’s name them Rachel, Justin, and Laura) are clumped together and discussing the tasks to be dealt with that very day. The rest of them are either walking through, barely getting their morning started, or they’re already busy with whatever garden task they need to do. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. It’s peaceful. The smell of morning dew is still in the air, the mourning doves are cooing. Cue Rossini’s “Ranz de Vaches” (A song most everyone’s heard in Looney Tunes cartoons without knowing what it’s called. So here’s a link:

Now coming into the scenery is a baby deer, a fawn. It’s cute, right? There is something odd about this scene, however. We have a fawn, but no mother. Where is she? Well, rest assured that Mother Doe is safe and sound behind the fence, and out of the garden. Little Bambi, however, is not.

Let’s pan back to Rachel, Justin, and Laura. The three of them are mid-conversation, until each of them pause and furrow their brows into a look of confusion. Because running past them is Little Bambi, in a panic. Chasing the fawn in a full-on sprint is a girl, who appears to have raided GI Jane’s wardrobe. She’s already out of breath, yet hurdling over the various crops and other obstacles. She’s not chasing the deer out of fun, let’s make that clear. Instead, she’s channeling her inner Border Collie and is herding the scared animal out of the garden so it can get back to its mother and therefore not do any more damage to the plants. It’s a win-win. However, things aren’t boding well. Little Bambi is nowhere close to an exit and and is still running across the field with the girl right behind it, hurdling over snake and gopher holes. That is until the girl stops dead in her tracks. She inhales sharply at the sight in front of her and then utters a few expletives as she exhales. She has, inadvertently, found where Ridgewood Ranch keeps their bee colonies. So, she waits a moment and weighs her options. Run and chase the deer from behind the hives with the risk of getting stung multiple times? Leave? Wait?

Then she decides to toss a rock towards the deer, in hopes of scaring it out of its hiding place. Success! The fawn bolts out. By this time the girl has squatted in the tall grass so she won’t be seen. She waits until the deer is close enough to a gap in the fence and then sprints after it again, yelling to scare it and make it run. “GO BACK TO YOUR MOTHER!” the girl screams and Little Bambi does just that. Now the girl can breathe and take her sweet time heading back to the trio, Rachel, Justin, and Laura.

Saving a fawn. All in a day’s work.

Just kidding.

My day was barely getting started.

With my internship coming to an end, one would think that I’d be used to the wildlife on the ranch. But with animal encounters like mine, it’s pretty damn hard. Remember: snake catching in the bathroom, rattler decapitation, bunny staring contests, and now deer chasing. However, what I have gotten used to is the work and working in the heat despite my sweating like an NBA player. I’ve gotten so used to it that I’m not sure if I can part with it so easily. And even though some of the tasks were meticulous, I was able (and this might just be me) to get through it by turning it into a game. For example, whenever we had to flat seeds I secretly raced against Laura and wouldn’t tell her why I was exclaiming “Yes!” She later figured it out.

In my last two weeks, I was dreading the day I had to leave. At Ridgewood Ranch, there was never a boring moment and I enjoyed the freedom that came along with living on a 5,000 acre property. I got a huge share of agricultural education while also having my share of fun. I gave myself a refresher on archery and got to practice it. I do remember Rachel’s word of advice on the topic, and that was: “Not at people.” Suffice to say, no one was harmed in Pauline’s archery practice except Pauline. I wound up getting a large welt on my forearm from the string’s recoil.

In addition to that, I also learned more about the history or Ridgewood Ranch before Charles Howard owned the property. Apparently there was a family who lived on the property during the mid-19th century and was made up of about thirteen children. Nine of the thirteen children died tragically after contracting diphtheria from a traveler who stayed at the property. As a result the children, along with their father, were buried on the property. Where on the property? A little less than half a mile from the house I stayed in. I had to ask one of the longtime residents a question that had been burning in my mind since day one, but I was too chicken to find out the answer to until the last day. The question was: Is this place haunted? Now I’m a scientist and rely on data for my education, so it’s expected that I don’t believe in ghosts. But I also grew up with a superstitious mother. The short answer to my question was: Yes. So when I packed up my bags and loaded up my car to head back to my air conditioned home I couldn’t help but say this in my head as I left. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you. I meant no harm. So please don’t haunt me, curse me, hover over me, and/or sing ‘Unchained Melody’ while I handle clay. Just please don’t make your presence known because I will sh*t myself.”

Just give me some acreage, seeds, tools… Reflections of an Ecology Action Intern

By Pauline Montemayor

Montemayor mug shotI killed a rattlesnake. I didn’t think I had it in me, but I did. Before anyone calls PETA on me, there’s good reason as to why the snake had to go. One, the snake was just outside the entrance to the garden and could have easily bitten an unsuspecting passerby. It was also a juvenile rattlesnake that barely had its rattle, therefore we’d have been more unlikely to hear its warnings. Two, Kevin, my housemate, had already concussed it so I felt it was better to put it out of its misery. I decapitated it and buried its head. Why the latter? A lot of the people I told the story to have asked me that. The thing about snakes (especially the venomous types), apart from being slightly hypnotizing to watch, is that their nervous systems remain active sometimes hours after decapitation. What this means is that the snake can still bite and inject venom. Therefore burying the head is much safer for everyone around. Additionally, since this was a juvenile snake there was no telling how much venom would be injected if it were to bite.

Now that it’s been cleared up, here’s an update. As far as work goes, it hasn’t been monotonous in the least bit, which is definitely a good thing for someone like me. I’m the type that checks out once I feel like I’m simply going through the motions of work, and when that happens I feel very restless. In this time I’ve also found which tasks I’m much happier doing, and those are the ones that require lots of movement and manual labor. Weeding plants, and other tasks that require some degree of meticulousness have become something that can only be done in short spurts. I’ve learned that I need a challenge, something to distract me from the heat of the day. Therefore U-barring and clearing beds have become my favorites and tasks that I am sometimes specifically assigned to.

Outside of work, I have become more friendly with members of the community and have been participating in their nightly dinners. As a result I’ve been finding myself more and more attached to this place and I’m dreading the day that I have to leave. It’s peaceful here and I often find myself relaxed by the sounds of all the animals outside (even the loud horse whinnies). My only bad experience thus far has been the one regarding a snake in the bathroom and me having to come to the rescue. Because, really. Who could expect that?

I feel like this experience has motivated me even more into buying a plot of land and putting a farm on top of it. Forget a fairy-tale wedding, or a giant mansion. Just give me some acreage, seeds, tools, and a plethora of animals and I’ll be happy. Bonus points if I also have a 1970’s Toyota Land Cruiser.

Consolidating Lessons Learned at Ecology Action

By Laura Navarro

Navaro mug shotI can’t believe how quickly my internship is coming to an end! This is already the sixth week and I only have three more weeks of the internship to look forward to. This is a bittersweet thought, I have made great friends here and have fallen in love with Mendocino County; I could see myself living here after I complete my degree. At the same time, I look forward to getting back to Stockton and starting new projects in the Robb Garden at the University of the Pacific. I hope to implement the 8 biointensive principles in the UOP garden, and I would love to have a few beds of my own as well.

The weather has been very good to us these past few weeks, around 90 degrees at the high, which permitted us to get a lot of work done in the garden. The summer cover crop has been removed, the grains have been harvested, and the winter plants are starting to get flatted! One day we spent so much time harvesting grain that my socks and shoes were covered in the prickly grain hairs. The grains were so mature that they were shattering (the grain was falling out of the grain heads very easily), which made bundling difficult because we wanted to save all the loose grains. We harvested potatoes in a bed and were surprised to find pretty good yields! These potatoes were put in the ground a little too early, and Rachel had been expecting very low yields, so we were pleasantly surprised to find a nice amount of potatoes.

We are coming to an end to our internship so I am starting to make a list of all the things I want to do before I leave the Golden Rule Garden. I want to make some flats to bring home, collect as many seeds as possible, learn how to make pesto and a few Kenyan dishes, and make a list of all the literature people have suggested to me. I want to make sure that I leave with all my questions answered and long-lasting relationships with the amazing people I have met while being here. This has been a great experience so far and I wish I could stay even longer but I am excited to share what I have learned with people back at home.

Tiger Quickness in the Garden at Ecology Action

By Pauline Montemayor

Montemayor mug shotI discovered something about myself since being here. It’s that I could, indeed, sweat like an NBA player. Right when I was getting into the swing of things, like waking up much earlier than I would on summer vacation, we were hit with a heat wave. We don’t have the luxury of air conditioning anywhere on the farm. Therefore, our workdays were to begin much earlier in order to beat the heat, but our duties remained the same. That same weekend, though, I was in for a treat. I rode a horse bareback with very little guidance from the horse’s owner, Ellen. The experience definitely blew any trail riding experiences out of the water, especially since I had the opportunity to control the horse as I pleased.

But besides that, my adjustment to life on the farm has been easy. As far as the work goes, I have been able to grasp new techniques quickly and become a U-bar master. According to the garden manager and mentor, Rachel, the speed of completing tasks by past interns had been “notoriously slow.” However, Laura and I had surprised her. In one morning, specifically within two hours, we were able to clear, shape, and amend a little more than 100 square feet (not an easy feat because of the amount of manual labor involved.) Soon, it became the norm for Laura and I to ask what needed to be done next instead of Rachel nudging us along. As for classes, it’s been a challenge for me to find the motivation to sit and pay attention. This is especially true when these classes take place outside in the blistering heat.

Another intern has come along to join us. He’s a sixteen-year-old, who once lived in the Golden Rule community five years ago. Although he’s familiar with the area, he’s still new to some of the practices in the garden. So to make it a bit easier on Rachel (who already works her tail off), Laura and I have been teaching him the ropes. Outside of work, though, it’s a bit of a comedy seeing this teenager interact with my other housemates. For me, especially, it’s a bit surreal because of the fact that I’m ten years older than him and do not understand some of his pop culture references. I’m sure he feels the same way, considering he had to ask what a VHS tape was.

All in all, my experience thus far has gone unchanged. Everything is still very exciting and I anticipate more learning opportunities in and out of the garden.

July Heat in the Ecology Action Garden

By Laura Navarro

Navaro mug shotThe past two weeks have flown by! The week of July 18th was extremely hot with temperatures rising to 111 degrees, and apparently we have already beat last year’s record high. Although I worked in the garden at the University of the Pacific, I am not used to working in such hot weather. I’d find myself taking a lot of breaks and was easily irritable during this week of hot weather. But I got through it and was rewarded with cooler weather the following week! I keep asking locals what they expect the rest of the summer’s weather will be to like and they all talk about heat waves to be expected in July.  I am hoping the weather stays below 100 degrees so that I can work comfortably. I want to be able to give my full attention to the plants and learn as much as I can, but this won’t be easy if I’m frying in the sun.

Despite it being hot, we have been getting a lot of work done in the garden. The garden has been going through some amazing transformations and already looks very different from when we started. The grains are being harvested and baby plants are getting transplanted into the beds. I wish I was doing the six month internship so that I could be here when the baby plants are being harvested. I’d like to be able to witness the full life cycle of the plants that I started from seed. Maybe I will come back up and visit when it is time to harvest the plants that I started.

Speaking of seeds, I have found a new passion in seed saving. I have been told that since 1903, 93% of the known fruit and vegetable varieties have gone extinct! This means that there is only about 9% of the corn varieties left in the world, 8% of the tomato varieties left, 7% of carrot varieties left…and much more has been lost! We often talk about animal extinctions and our efforts to preserve the endangered animals species, but there’s not much talk about plant extinction. These plant extinctions are just as important as the animals; in fact, I would argue that they are even more important because plants feed the world. With the changing climate and our demand for food increasing, preserving plant varieties is becoming more important. This has sparked a new interest in seed saving for me. I’d like to save seed from every crop I grow from now on, especially heirloom and rare varieties that are at risk of becoming extinct. There is a great documentary that I recommend watching called Seed: The Untold Story. This documentary sheds light on the challenges farmers have been facing and the importance of saving seed.

With every passing day I think of this internship less as a one-time experience, and more as the first step to a path of agriculture and sustainability. I am grateful to have this opportunity and I plan to continue on my path after the internship is over!

Gophers and Snakes and Barn Cats – First Impressions of Ecology Action

By Pauline Montemayor

Montemayor mug shotThey weren’t kidding when they said the site would be rustic. Upon my arrival to Ecology Action’s site called ‘The Golden Rule’ at Ridgewood Ranch I noticed two things: it was quiet and it had a story to tell. There were several pieces of infrastructure that were built around the early 20th century, one of them being the home of Seabiscuit’s (y’know, the racehorse?) owner, Charles Howard. Although some have been restored and are currently used as a tourism site, there are still some buildings that have yet to receive that treatment. But my affinity for architecture and construction projects isn’t the point of this blog. Rather, it is my experience of the first two weeks at Ecology Action.

My first week on the farm, of course, was introductory and I mostly shadowed the garden manager to get a feel for the methods they use in the garden. One of these methods was double digging, or ‘U-barring’ as they call it. The point of this form of plowing is to extend the nutrient-rich layer of soil. Typically this layer is about six inches thick, but with double digging the layer may extend from eighteen to twenty-four inches. Quickly I became well-versed in the art of ‘U-barring’, mostly because I enjoyed it (and still do). It’s just a great distraction from the heat since I have to lift a thirty to forty pound steel contraption. Although u-barring has become one of my favorite activities, there were more adventures waiting.

On the first day when I didn’t have to shadow one of the garden managers, I got myself into one hell of a predicament.

I had to catch a snake in the bathroom.

It’s a bit of a long story, but all that really matters is the fact that said snake was not venomous (it was later identified as a gopher snake) and the poor girl who tried to use the bathroom was rescued by yours truly. Within the week I also saw a California King Snake, had staring contests with a few hares on several occasions, saw another gopher snake, held a baby gopher (which was promptly taken to be relocated to a spot that wasn’t going to be plowed), and made friends with the barn cats.

Apart from the labor-intensive activities that were done I also attended class at the Jeavons Center at a different location – The Mountain. Although the course was meant to enrich our learning experience, a lot of it wasn’t new to me. This was mostly because I’m the type to learn better outside of a classroom and actually put the learning objectives to use. In the first two classes, we’d gone over methods that I had already been using (like the double-digging). I’m not too sure as to what else we will be learning, but I’m more excited to use them rather than reading about them.

Although this has just been the first couple weeks, I am still approaching some of the methods with some skepticism.

Holy Guacamole! The Life of an Ecology Action Intern

By Laura Navarro

Navaro mug shotI want to share with you my experience with Ecology Action so far. I have been with Ecology Action for two weeks now and holy guacamole it has been such a treat! I have been placed at The Golden Rule site in Willits, California. The property of The Golden Rule is five thousand acres! Five thousand acres of beautiful land that I get to call home for the next two months, complete with a redwood forest, a lake, a cattle ranch, a poultry farm, horse stables, beehives, and a beautiful garden. There is so much to do and see on the property, it is impossible to ever be bored at The Golden Rule. Plus, the community is very friendly, I feel like I have joined a huge family of unique and talented people who can’t wait to share their knowledge with me. This is the perfect place for someone like me who is trying to learn as much as possible everyday.

Each day I learn more and more about sustainability and the Biointensive method. Grow Biointensive is all about sustainability; the goal is to grow as much food as possible on as little land as possible without adding in any inputs. It takes 2 acres of farmable land to grow a complete diet for a typical U.S. family, but with the biointensive method it takes an eighth of the area to grow the same amount of food! This is done using eight Biointensive principles: deep soil preparation (double digging), the use of compost, close plant spacing, compatible crop combinations (plants that enhance each other’s growth when planted together), carbon-efficient crops (60% of the growing area is dedicated to carbonaceous crops that will be used for compost), calorie-efficient crops (30% of the growing area is dedicated to root crops that produce large amounts of calories per unit of area), and the use of open-pollinated seeds (preserving genetic diversity).

It is important to use all eight of the principles in order to be sustainable, otherwise the gardener can have negative effects on the land – which is not the goal of Grow Biointensive. Some of the advantages of the Biointensive method include: at least 50% less purchased fertilizer, soil building 60 times faster than nature (this is very important because the amount of farmable soil in the world is depleting quickly), ⅛ of the area needed, 200%-400% increase in caloric production, 94%-99% less energy, and 67%-88% less water. Grow Biointensive is a spectacular method of agriculture, I believe that the world is in need of this method, especially with resources (such as farmable soil, water, and open pollinated seeds) depleting so rapidly.

In addition to learning about the Biointensive method, I have been becoming more familiar with the grim future ahead for agriculture. Less and less farmable soil is available every year yet the world has more and more people to feed everyday. In countries like the US it takes about 2 acres of land to grow the diet of one person! So with a growing demand for food but depleting land for growing food, the human race will soon face a troubling situation, and that is starvation. The agriculture industries around the world will need to adopt new methods in order to maximize efficiency and sustainability in order to feed the world’s people. Grow Biointensive can help increase crop yields with less resources, so less starvation will happen with Biointensive agriculture!