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Celebrating the Gardeners at Esalen Print E-mail
Written by Ann Shepphird   

Amigo, Shirley and WendyThe article below was first posted on this site on May 5, 2010, after I attended an organic gardening workshop led by three people I call the rock stars of the gardening world: Amigo Bob Cantisano, Shirley Ward and Wendy Johnson (pictured, from left to right). I recently attended another workshop they led up at Esalen Institute, this one called "High Summer in the Full Moon Garden: Growing Food and Ourselves on the Esalen Land." As with the last one two years ago, it was surprising to me -- given the level of knowledge being imparted (one participant said she felt she'd wandered into a Harvard-level education) -- that there were just seven of us taking the workshop. On the other hand, I feel incredibly blessed to be able to spend such quality time with three such amazing people and feel that not only my gardening but my life is fuller as a result. Should they offer the workshop again (and I sincerely hope they do), I highly recommend it. In the meantime, here are some great starter tips for gardeners that I compiled after the last class.

A funny thought occurred to me midway through the organic gardening workshop I took last week up at Esalen: In recent years, we’ve turned a lot of chefs into celebrities or even, really, rock stars. And yet the gardeners and farmers – who are so important in providing the actual materials for that food – remain anonymous. I think that's too bad because, let's face it, I don’t care how good a chef you are, you can’t make a good caprese without a great tomato.

So, here’s to the rock-star gardeners, three of whom  -- Amigo Bob Cantisano, Shirley Ward and Wendy Johnson – led our workshop. All three are passionate and knowledgeable but also offer their own unique perspective when it comes to gardening, with Amigo providing the science, Wendy the art and Shirley the intuitive. The information they provided was amazing (if, at times, a little overwhelming) and could (and has) filled books. After awhile, though, some patterns emerged and I was able to coalesce at least some of the information into four categories that provide a good place for newbie gardeners to start (click "read more"):

1. Soil. Organic gardeners will tell you that they don’t grow plants they grow soil. And the most important component to that soil is rich organic material and one of the best ways to achieve that is with compost. Compost compost compost. It’s the building block of good soil. If you don’t have the space to make your own compost pile – which, when we made one at Esalen reminded me of making a big (and I mean BIG) ole lasagna -- you can buy it. To make sure it’s good, here’s a test you can use: put a little of the compost into a spoon and then pour hydrogen peroxide over it. If it reacts by bubbling up FURIOUSLY (furiously being the operative word -- even poor compost will bubble a bit) then it’s good compost. Amigo also suggests using your eyes and ears: "Good compost should smell like the forest after a spring rain and your eyes should be see crumbly, soil-like qualities that are dark brown, not black."

Esalen soilAlso good for the soil is the use of a cover crop, or green manure, which are crops such as alfalfa, bell beans, barley, buckwheat, clover, grasses, mustard, oats or vetch that, instead of being harvested, are mowed down and into the soil, where they add nitrogen and other elements. A good source of information about cover crops is the Peaceful Valley catalog, which also sells cover crop mixes depending on your needs.

2. Seeds. According to Amigo, the number one mistake gardeners make is planting seeds too deep. The rule of thumb is to cover the seed with three times the dirt. So if the seed looks to be about 1/8 in size, it should only go about 3/8 down, which is really just a light brushing of soil over the top. A book they all recommended more than once for those who want to learn more about seeds is (appropriately enough), Seed to Seed.

3. Pest control. To keep your garden protected from the bad bugs (aka pests), you’ll want to create a habitat that makes the good bugs (aka beneficial insects, which, lucky for us, there are a LOT more of out there) happy so they’ll keep the bad bugs in check. In other words, you can put all the ladybugs you want into your garden but they’re not going to stay if you don’t create a diverse habitat that makes them happy and that means flowers and herbs (providing nectar and pollen) that can be put in along the sides or at the ends of a bed.

If you have pests – or want to avoid them – here’s a great resource that will walk you through the process, starting with the crops you’re growing: If you’re dealing with ants (which I am) you can try Tanglefoot and if you’re dealing with snails or slugs, try Sluggo.

4. Resources. There are many books out there on gardening – some of which just make you proud to be a gardener (like Michael Pollan’s Second Nature and Wendy’s book Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate) but, for practical purposes, there are two small guides that, according to Amigo, will cover 98 percent of what you need to get started. One is the Johnny’s seed catalog, which offers extensive information on how to grow each of the seeds it offers. The other is How to Grow More Vegetables* by John Jeavons. If you want more, a good comprehensive look at organic gardening is Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Gardener.

Like I said, this is just a small sample of the kind of information learned at the workshop and everybody's garden is different and has different needs. As Wendy said (quoting one of her teachers), when it comes to gardening "in general, everything is specific."

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