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!


Ecology Action Interns

by Patty A. Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director

Thanks to a generous gift from former University of the Pacific Regent and co-CEO of Whole Foods, Walter Robb, the Pacific Garden Program is able to sponsor two students to take up summer “Grow Biointensive” internships at Ecology Action farms in Northern California. This summer, we have sent up Laura Navarro and Pauline Montemayor, both Environmental Science majors at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. Laura also worked during the past academic year as a Student Garden Coordinator in the Ted & Chris Robb Garden on the Stockton campus.

Laura and Pauline are sending down regular updates on their experiences at Ecology Action, and we will publish their updates on this blog – stay tuned!


Laura Navarro


Pauline Montemayor

Potato Love

My Love Affair With Potatoes
By Patty A. Gray, Pacific Garden Program Director

PotatoesI recently dug out my first harvest of potatoes from the Robb Garden: a little clutch of warm-hued Yukon Golds huddled atop the soil, ranging from ping pong ball-sized to fist-sized, promising a couple of tasty meals at least. As I began to gather them up and toss them into a canvas bag, something in the motion, and the feel of the smooth skins, and the thunking sound of potato against potato in the bag triggered a memory.

Russia, 2001. A potato field in the Republic of Mari El, in the rich and fertile Black Earth region. I’m walking a row alongside members of the family I am staying with, picking up potatoes that their tractor just churned up, dropping them, thunkety-thunk, into a large canvas bag standing at the end of my row. The potato field was this family’s mainstay, supplying their own needs as well as a surplus to sell at market. Eating potatoes day after day, year after year, did not diminish the family’s enthusiasm for these “earth apples”. When it came time for a lunch break, they eagerly started a small campfire right at the edge of the field and roasted a few potatoes by snuggling them in around the coals and setting a metal bucket over them. The anthropologist in me relished observing and participating in this example of social behavior; the hungry human in me relished the taste of freshly-roasted potatoes, and the satisfyingly full feeling in my belly.

I think that was the moment when I became infected with potato-love, and the first chance I got, I started growing my own potatoes. That chance was when I moved into a small house – a glorified cabin, really – in Fairbanks, Alaska. The gardening season is brutally short there – the last spring freeze happens in mid-May, and the first fall freeze can be expected in early September – but the extreme day length makes gardens burst into action almost overnight. I planted a raised bed full of German Butterballs, a mouth-wateringly savory little tuber that is unmatched if you favor waxy, salad-type potatoes (which I do, voraciously). After planting, I had a few seed tubers left over, and I decided to just dump them in some leaf litter along the side of my driveway. Let them take their chances, I thought. The raised bed produced a bumper crop, which I found pleasant enough; but what amazed me was that the potatoes sprouted up even in that leaf litter, and yielded a respectable amount of creamy potato flesh. At that point I became convinced that you could grow potatoes anywhere, and I resolved that I would never be without a potato patch in any garden I tended.

Imagine my amusement some years later when it became clear I would be moving to Ireland, seemingly the ancestral land of the potato (which of course it isn’t: potatoes are a quintessential New World crop, hauled back to the Old World by travellers who knew a good thing when they saw it). I grew a bed full of potatoes each of the eight years I lived in Dublin, and never once had a speck of blight – the Irish are of course potato experts by now, and blight-resistance is built into pretty much every variety of seed potato you can buy. My problem, however, was that I disagreed with the prevailing Irish opinion on which potato varieties are the best to eat. Irish tastes run to those big, floury potatoes, which I find bland, unless you slather them with butter and salt – which is, as it turns out, what any eejit (idiot) should know you are supposed to do. I remember trying to convince one Irishman of the merits of my beloved waxy/creamy varieties, and he actually had a gag reflex right in front of me. Alas.

So of course upon taking up my current position as Garden Program Director at the University of the Pacific, I knew I would grow potatoes in the Robb Garden right here on campus. Potatoes had so far not been among the crops planted in the Robb Garden, and when I shared my plans, some asked incredulously, “Isn’t it too hot?” Ah, but that is the beauty of the California climate: there is a growing season for everything. Planted in early February, during a rare break in the torrential spring rains this year, our two small beds of potatoes are now yielding their golden treasure.

Any potato-love out there? We’ve got tubers to spare!