Not quite two years ago, I took an organic gardening workshop at Esalen Institute, led by Robert Hartman, graduate of the UC Santa Cruz farm internship program and coordinator of the CSU Hospitality Management Education Initiative and Shirley Ward, Manager of the Esalen farm and garden. On the first day, at Robert’s direction, we stood together in a circle, uncertain and expectant. Each of us in turn was to step into the center and tell the group our garden dreams–goals for the workshop, longer term imaginings, whatever moved us at the moment. Anyone who shared a given dream stepped into the circle with the speaker, then stepped out. Though we were a little awkward at first, this exercise quickly showed how much we had in common–and was great fun besides. Over the next 5 days, we learned–and did–a vast amount of things around Esalen’s famous farm and garden (with time off for baths, of course). At the end of the workshop, I sat down with Robert to talk about organic gardening, the future of food, and why it matters. He has graciously agreed to have the interview posted here. Enjoy…then get out and get your hands dirty!
PH: Tell me how you got started in organic gardening.
RH: Well, in 2003 I went to the Optimum Health Institute in San Diego and decided that I wanted to go raw. Going raw is such an enlightening experience, and my heart opened. I fell in love with the organic garden they have on site. I learned about trench composting and other techniques that make small-scale organic gardening simpler than I had imagined it could be. So I got very excited, and decided that I wanted to learn more. When I went home, my now ex-wife asked me to join her in taking some landscape horticulture classes, which I did. I fell in love with plants and came to understand that they embody the principle of generosity, which I wanted to support. I got into it and was enjoying it: I liked learning about it, all the science that was behind it. I knew about the organic farming apprenticeship program at UC Santa Cruz, applied, and was accepted. So I went, and lived on site in a tent for 6 months on the campus, and it was one of my life’s peak experiences. I learned so very much—probably the main thing I learned was how different food gardening is from landscape horticulture, which deals with perennials. Plants that grow big enough to produce fruit in one growing season, for example, are very hungry compared to perennials, so they require very different care. You follow the same principles, but it’s amplified, much more concentrated. I learned a lot there but I realized that most people don’t have 6 months to devote to learning those skills–and I’m not sure that you need to go into it that intensively for a home-scale garden anyway—but people do need enough information to get started. I thought a week would be a good start on that information, and started working on how to boil down what I learned during those 6 months into something that would be manageable for most people. I met Shirley [Shirley Ward] about a year after finishing the apprenticeship, in 2006. A work party of new apprentices was coming to Esalen for a work day and there happened to be one extra seat in the car, so I grabbed it. That day, Shirley and I got to talking about soil. The first thing she asked me was what did I think about the soil at Esalen? So I told her (laughs). At that time she was working at the gazebo school, but was helping out that day in the garden. The thing about that question that was so profound is that’s really the key question, how’s the soil—it’s the most basic and the most profound question you can ask about a garden. Because she asked that question, I knew she was someone worth talking to, that she really had it going on. From there we talked about not just the soil but the vision of gardening in that place, and she and I both had a similar vision for the potential of the Esalen farm and garden as an educational resource for organic gardening and sustainability. So we started planning an educational program that would be accessible to people who only have a week or a weekend. This workshop is the first week-long course in that plan.
Esalen garden & chicken tractor
PH: What do you hope to accomplish with the workshop? What do you hope participants will take away?
RH: The purpose of this workshop is to equip people who don’t know anything, or not very much, with the right mindset for approaching organic gardening: basic information that they need in order to understand what’s happening in the garden, a basic understanding of what they need to do to start a garden and have it be successful. A lot of people will do trial and error in a garden and get discouraged when things don’t work, and think they can’t garden. It’s not true: they can, but a lot of times they see something and don’t know how to recognize what’s going on in their garden. So the purpose of the workshop and what we hope folks will take away from it is a gardener’s sensibility and a basic understanding of how gardens work—what systems and practices are involved, why and when to do things, and so on. They can pick up the ‘how’ once they have that.
PH: The ‘why’ is really critical—the ‘what’ can be gotten from other sources, such as books and the internet, but knowing why is fundamental.
RH: People want the ‘how’ also, they really want more hands-on, so we have to blend all of it together. People want the how-to; they want to feel like they’ve done it. That makes sense, because there’s nothing like being shown. You can talk and talk about stuff, but if somebody shows you and you get to practice it, then you got it, it’s in your body. We did a lot of hand-on in this workshop, and next time I think we’re going to do even more.
Robert shows how to prune a fruit tree
PH: What’s a good, easy way for someone without much experience to get started?
RH: A workshop like this is ideal. An alternative would be to take a horticulture class at a local community college, adult education center, or similar resource—you learn a lot of theory in those courses, but you need that. Another way is to get involved in a community garden.
PH: Why is organic gardening important to you?
RH:There’s going to come a day, and many of us may live to see it, when the trucks stop rolling in to the local Safeway. Transporting food an average of 1100 miles in a refrigerated truck is not going to be economical for much longer. When that day comes, I still would like to eat. And as it turns out, food that’s grown locally is much higher quality, if for no other reason than that it’s picked ripe. When you pick fruit green you lose about half the nutrient value. There are some fruits that will ripen off the tree, but many won’t.
PH: And many commercial varieties are bred specifically for transportability, without regard for flavor or nutrient value.
RH: Exactly. Both flavor and nutritional value are much higher for locally grown food—those often go hand in hand. It’s much easier on the environment; we’ll leave that much more fossil fuel for our grandchildren, and it’ll buy us time. My sense is that we’ll be able to run the electrical grid for another 100 years—so we’ll have TVs, the internet, and that stuff. But what we’re not going to have is liquid fuel. The fundamental commodity that sustains civilization is food—and when we run out of fossil fuels we’re in trouble because our current food system is so dependent on fossil fuel, particularly liquid fuel, that when it runs short food prices will skyrocket. We saw that just this year—when oil prices spiked, so did food prices, about 2 weeks later.
PH: People don’t think about how much petroleum is involved in the food supply—it’s not just transport, but also fertilizer, motorized farm equipment, and so on.
RH: Artificial nitrogen fertilizer is huge—and so is water, on those large-scale farms, and water is going to be an issue as well.
PH: Water requires a lot of fuel too, to pump it and distribute it.
RH: Water’s heavy, moving Sacramento delta water to southern California expends a lot of energy. And when we run out of fuel to do it, that’s going to stop. Also, agricultural water is typically used very inefficiently when it’s large-scale. The bottom line is if we converted all the lawns in the suburbs to market gardens, we could feed the major cities–and then some–off that land, because when you plant intensive beds you get about ten times the production per acre compared to planting row crops with tractors. The nice thing about tractors is that there’s a huge gain in labor efficiency, but in terms of utilization of the land it’s very inefficient.
PH: And large-scale monoculture is terrible for the environment.
RH: Those big, vast areas of monoculture are weak, and they also require pesticides and herbicides. Plus, that land is getting systematically depleted due to the ecological imbalance. On the whole, in 50 years, the way I see it, those big tract farms will only be producing grain, if they still exist at all. Anything we eat fresh, lettuces and other produce, will have to be produced within a day’s drive—or even a day’s horseback ride—of the cities. It’ll have to be grown close enough to get there without refrigeration and still be fresh. The sooner we get on that transformation of our land use policy, the sooner we can guarantee that our grandchildren will eat. Maybe that sounds too pessimistic, but the sooner we do it the better.
the garden at Esalen
PH:You’re actually more optimistic than I am by projecting this out about 50 years: I think it could happen much sooner. Peak oil, for example, is a big concern.
RH: My understanding about peak oil is that we reached it in December 2005. The only people who actually know are the CIA, and they’re not talking. If people understood what that meant, maybe they’d get on it. Fundamentally, I believe people will make good decisions if they’re given the truth, and that’s another thing I’m trying to do: I’m trying to say to people you’ve got to learn to grow food so you can teach your kids, and they can teach their kids, because otherwise you can’t guarantee that your grand-kids are gonna eat. If you want to set things up so you don’t know, when you die, whether your grandkids are gonna be alright, that’s your business. But personally, I want to know.
PH: That relates to the prime directive of permaculture, behaving responsibly toward future generations.
RH: My grandparents came over from Hungary, and made sure that my father got a high school education. They worked hard, they were poor, and they struggled their whole lives. My dad got a high school education and put himself through college. They came here to have a better life for him. He worked hard all his life to have a better life for me, and any children I might have, to get us set up. That, I think, is what a good parent does. People want to do that, they just don’t know how—the tendency is to go along with the system the way it’s set up, and not necessarily think there’s something wrong with the setup. In a lot of ways, there’s a lot of really great things about the current setup—it’s just that it’s not sustainable without lots of oil. Since it’s not sustainable without lots of oil, and it’s pretty clear we’re going to run out or run low in the lifetime of our children or grandchildren, we have to start educating ourselves and each other about what to do. The way I see it, if people can eat, they can figure out the rest. If people are starving, they can’t figure out anything. Starving, angry people are not rational. So let’s figure out how we’re going to feed ourselves first. Then we can figure out the rest.
PH: What are some challenges you’ve faced in your exploration of organic gardening?
RH: Well, this will sound odd because it may not seem directly related. My biggest challenge as an organic gardener is my dysfunctional upbringing—my inability to naturally relate to other people—because I was raised to be a rugged individual. As a gardener, it’s really about communion: it’s about communion with the plants first, and then it’s about communion with the other people who also love plants. Communion with plants is easy. Communion with other people who were also raised to be rugged individualists—that’s harder. Things come up, and have to be sorted out. I struggle with that every day—how am I going to establish a relationship and communion with the people that are with me at any given time? My feelings get hurt, my back goes up, and then I’m not communicating clearly. Or I make mistakes and someone else’s feelings will get hurt, their back’s up, and how do I make amends for that? Having compassion for myself and for other people is a constant challenge. One of the nice things about this workshop is that the focus really is on acquiring skills—personal growth issues do come up, but the focus is on sharing this wonderful body of knowledge and practice. So the people who come to this workshop want that. When things arise there’s a context for dealing with it because everybody’s here to learn as much as possible about organic gardening in the short time we have.
PH: What are you most proud of?
RH: In life, or in gardening? Well, in life first. Back in 1984 I was working for Sun Microsystems as a technical writer and I wrote some of the first manuals that introduced beginners to the UNIX operating system. This was back when everybody was still scared of computers, and back then it was necessary to explain to people how to use this stuff—they didn’t understand it, and it was new and scary and weird. It’s the same sort of thing when it comes to organic gardening, when people don’t understand it or they don’t know what they’re dealing with in terms of annual crops, there’s an approach that works. If you use that approach, then people get it and they’re successful. And as soon as they have some success, the thing takes off.
lettuce seedlings ready for transplant
PH: So you have to demystify it, as well as decoding whatever language may be specific or new to what you’re trying to communicate.
RH: That’s right. Whenever somebody says the phrase ‘double digging’ I cringe, for a couple reasons. One because it’s not double digging: it’s digging, and poking holes. It’s really just shifting dirt around—but it is opening the soil up to twice the depth of the shovel. You don’t have to dig it up to open it up, but you need it open to that depth because that’s the depth of the roots and roots need air down that far. Why do they call it that? I don’t know, but that’ what they call it. I can’t change the terminology so I have to explain it. That’s just one thing that scares people—oh my god, I’ve got to double dig! But actually you don’t. There are other ways, like the straw bale ‘instant bed’ method that we talked about this week. That’s what I’m gonna do from now on—I’m gonna do that for three years, and then the soil under those will be fabulous. What I’m most proud of related to organic gardening is this workshop, and the supporting materials for it. I worked hard on those, and Shirley contributed immensely to them too. I’m not sure what effect the software manuals really had, but they certainly helped at least a few people understand what they were dealing with. So I played a part in the emergence of the computer culture, maybe a minor part, but I believe it made a difference. And now I’m in the right place to make a difference with the emergence of a new focus on gardening as a culture—if I can help raise awareness of the importance of gardening and the value of home-grown, neighborhood-grown, locally-grown organic food that people actually participate in, then I’ll have been involved with two great things in this life. I should be happy with just the one, but it looks like I have a chance at another one. Where things are at with organic gardening is the same place they were at 25 years ago with computers—people are starting to wake up and say ‘what is this?’ and all that’s needed is high quality information about how to approach it. Once you get the right approach, everything becomes easy. The people who come out of this workshop, when they go home, organic gardening is going to be easy for them: for the rest of their lives, they’ve got what they need to succeed at that skill.
squash blossom at the Esalen farm
PH: What’s your favorite thing about organic gardening?
RH: OK, the food obviously! But also communing with plants. You’re out there, the plants start talking to you, you start seeing in a different way. When you see a plant that’s just radiant, just glowing at you and you know it’s happy and productive, it’s growing, it doesn’t get any better than that. I don’t care if it produces anything or not, it’s just so beautiful. It’s exploding with life.
PH: What’s your least favorite thing?
RH: I was going to say making compost, but I actually don’t mind that. I don’t even mind the stink. Is there anything I don’t like? I didn’t use to like breaking new ground, but with the straw bale trick I don’t think that’s going to bother me again. Three years of growing in straw bales on top of the ground puts enough humic acid in the soil so it will be easy to break it.
PH: What do you see as the biggest obstacles to getting more people involved in organic gardening?
RH: Rugged individualism—you can’t be a successful gardener in isolation. Well, you can for a while, but not long term. But it’s so much easier…when a homeowner thinks about having a garden, they think they’re going to have to do everything, and they think there’s no help. They think it’s going to be a chore, a responsibility, and they don’t reach out to experts in their neighborhood. I don’t care where you are, within three blocks of you there’s someone who’s been gardening for 20 years—all you have to do is find that person, ask them questions, and they will help you. The other thing is people don’t really understand the scale of a home garden, so they think it has to be a big deal. When they think of a fruit tree, they picture something 30 feet tall, but that’s too big: the ideal fruit tree is 8 feet tall. Pruning an 8 footer is a 2-hour project; pruning a 30 footer, forget it—and the harvest from such a big tree is overwhelming. People need to understand that a good garden is a match between the amount of time they have to deal with it and size of the garden. They need to size it according to what they can really do, not according to what their idea of a garden might be.
PH: What’s the most common mistake people make when they start out?
RH: Not getting a soil test. People think they’re growing plants, but what they’re really doing is creating conditions for the plants to grow. Most of the plants we cultivate for crops originated in the Nile delta, where it floods every year and you get a nice deposit of airy, rich alluvial soil—and that’s what those plants like. The precise composition of the soil doesn’t matter; what matters is that it’s structured like that: lots of nitrogen, lots of microbial life, all the stuff that sweeps in from central Africa to the Nile—there’s so much life in that stuff. It’s really active, vibrant, living soil. So get a soil test and ask for organic suggestions, and amend according to what they tell you, using organic ingredients. What they won’t tell you is to inoculate the soil with beneficial microorganisms. You can do that yourself with unpasteurized worm castings. Once you do that and there’s a good crop of microbes in the soil, you can grow anything.
the garden at Esalen
PH: The workshop is called ‘the heart of organic gardening.” What does that mean to you?
RH: It has two meanings for me. One is trying to boil it down to the bare essentials that people need to know in order to be successful, the heart of the approach. And the other is the love of it, the lovingness of it—the beautiful, loving ethos of communing with your soil, your land, your plants, your life, the sun. There’s a heartfelt sense of joy that comes from organic gardening.
PH: What have I not asked you that you think people need to know?
RH: I guess the last thing I would say that a workshop like this is only the beginning—like the world of computers, as people get more and more involved they find there’ a more to learn and more and more to do. The things that kids are doing with computers now are amazing, like virtual reality. But there’s an actual reality that you can plug into, that involves life, and creatures of all different sorts. When you stick a trowel in your soil for the first time with the intention of growing food, you step into a new understanding of the world. So be open to that: it will change you, and it will open you up to a whole dimension of life that you didn’t know existed.
newly transplanted baby lettuce
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