Gardening Science

The Monterey Bay area has an exceptional environment for agriculture, commercial horticulture and residential gardening. The combination of moderate climate, fertile soil and —usually—adequate moisture supports successful growing and attracts expert horticulturists and botanical researchers.

Last week, the 34th annual Eco-Farm Conference drew some 1,200 farmers, scientists and policy makers to Pacific Grove’s Asilomar Conference Grounds to learn from each other and advance the organic food movement another step into the future. We can all appreciate the work of these visionaries to protect our shared environment and produce healthful foods for our dinner tables.

One of the Eco-farm speakers, Michael Phillips, spoke of the holistic cultivation of tree fruits and berries, with clear vision and practical experience. Later, at Cabrillo College, he conducted a 3.5-hour workshop on this subject, sponsored by the Monterey Bay Chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers. I will discuss his fascinating ideas in a future column.

Cabrillo College presents its own Horticulture Lecture Series in the fall. I will pass along information on the next series when it is announced.

Another local resource for gardeners is the UCSC Arboretum’s Ray Collett Rare & Extraordinary Plants Lecture Series. (Ray Collett was the Arboretum’s founding director.) The most recent talk was given by Tim Miller, PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, titled “A Brief History of Clarkia: What a Little Annual Flower Can Tell Us About Big Evolutionary Patterns.” Clarkia is a California native plant named for William Clark, who—with Meriwether Lewis—explored the western United States from 1804 to 1806.

One more science-oriented resource is the UCSC Arboretum’s California Naturalist Program. This program, now in its third year, introduces participants to the wonders of California’s unique ecology and engages them in the stewardship of our natural communities. This is an intensive program that combines a science curriculum, guest lecturers, field trips and project-based learning to immerse participants in the natural world of the central coast. Participants are certified as California Naturalists. This year’s program starts on Thursday, April 3rd. The last meeting is Saturday, June 7th. Lectures will be from 7:00- 9:30 pm every Thursday with most field trips on Saturday or Sunday.

Gardening is applied science, as well as aesthetic experience and healthful exercise.
A complete gardening experience includes occasional digs into the sciences.


The Ray Collett Rare & Extraordinary Pllants Lecture Series

Ray Collett Extraordinary Plants Feb-Apr 2014

Future talks (Arboretum Events Calendar)

California Naturalists

Exploring Edible Gardening’s Larger Issues

Gardening is usually an individual, contemplative activity. Sometimes, we engage in planting, pruning, weeding and other tasks with a friend or a group of friends.

Countless gardeners have pursued this satisfying work for millennia, unconcerned by the larger context of advances in agricultural technology, political and economic struggles and growing concerns over sustainability.

Such issues abound in the world of ornamental horticulture, but are more intense and consequential in commercial farming.

These issues are the focus of the 33rd Annual Eco-Farm Conference, which happens next week at the Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. This event, organized by the non-profit Ecological Farming Association, is about educating, networking and celebrating. It combines joyful commitment to farming organically, sharing ideas and successes in the field, and exploring concerns over policies and practices that favor so-called “conventional” farming.

In fact, “conventional” farming depends on synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and employs practices that have been introduced since World War II. Many advances have made large-scale agriculture more efficient and productive, but too often those advances also generate social impacts: fewer natural food choices, declines of taste and nutrition and long-term damage to the environment.

Such alleged problems of course are debatable. We cannot treat them fully in this brief essay, but the Eco-Farm Conference supports valuable in-depth discussions.

Many of the Conference’s sixty workshops are designed for professional farmers, but here are some sessions that relate most directly to consumers.

  • GMO Labeling: Capitalizing on the Momentum of Proposition 37: That recent initiative lost narrowly by 2%, but it catalyzed a national conversation about the deceptive, untested, and novel proteins added to the American diet.
  • Teaching Farming and Gardening in Waldorf Schools: Topics include garden-based woodworking, herbal studies, growing and processing grains, and integration of classroom math and science lessons.
  • The New and Old of Organic Insecticides: Improved methods for managing insect pests using organically approved natural materials.
  • Fresh Rx: A Prescription for Improving Healthy Food Access in Low-Income Communities: Strategies to improve community access to fresh produce, including farmers’ markets in low-income areas, CSA programs, community gardens, nutrition education, cooking demonstrations, and produce distribution by food banks.
  • Preparing for Climate Change: Thinking about and preparing for climate change, water scarcity, and extreme weather.
  • Farm Bill Update– What’s In It and What Does It Mean to You?: Update on the status of the Farm Bill and the standing of key organic and sustainable agricultural programs, including conservation, organic certification cost share, and others.

The Eco-Farm Conference runs from Wednesday, January 23rd to Saturday, January 26th. For more information, visit the conference website:

This conference presents a positive vision of the future for all consumers and home gardeners. It is gratifying that it happens in the Monterey Bay area.