Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Master Garden Innovator Alan Chadwick


From Dave Smith
Ukiah

In 1967, a massive buildup of troops in Vietnam occurred, along with the hippie Summer of Love in San Francisco. The culture was in chaos, at war in Vietnam and at war with itself. Big agriculture was destroying family farms and growing bigger, ever bigger. During that year, Chadwick, an artist, violinist, Shakespearean actor, and master gardener, was hired to create a Student Garden Project on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz. Working only with hand tools and organic amendments, Chadwick and his student assistants transformed a steep, chaparral-covered hillside into a prolific garden, bursting with flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees. The informal apprenticeships that students served with Chadwick would eventually lead to the development of the current Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, where over a thousand apprentices have been formally trained in what he called “the method.”

The history of the garden on the UCSC website has this to say about Chadwick’s legacy:

Chadwick introduced a unique approach to gardening, which he called the “biodynamic/French intensive” method. Chadwick set to work on the stony soil with a vengeance, using only the Bulldog spade and fork that Smith & Hawken would one day make popular. By 1969 the brushy hillside had been transformed. From thin soil and poison oak had sprung an almost magical garden that ranged from hollyhocks and artemisias to exquisite vegetables and nectarines. Students were taught how to ”double dig” beds to loosen the soil to a depth of two spade blades. The Garden’s carefully tended beds, enriched with compost, bone meal, leaf mold, and other amendments could produce up to four times the abundance of traditionally managed plots from the same space.

Chadwick didn’t just strive for quantity. His upper class upbringing in Edwardian English society had left him with exacting tastes and an appreciation for fine food that he passed on to his young charges. In an era when all supermarket lettuce was iceberg, all potatoes Russet, and apple choices were either red or green, the Garden boasted heirloom varieties of vegetables, fruit and flowers. This was more than two decades before “California cuisine” would make radicchio, purple beans, and fingerling potatoes standard fare on restaurant menus. ”It is not much of a stretch to say that Chadwick and those who trained with him were responsible for the interest in distinctive fruit and vegetable varieties that we see today,” says Garden Manager Orin Martin.

Rejecting anything synthetic, Chadwick also helped spur the organic gardening and farming movements, with their craftsman-like approach to soil building and plant care. He used organic inputs to enrich the rocky soil and deplored the use of chemical pesticides. He preached composting — “Life unto death and death unto life” — and emphasized the soil’s fragility, warning that, ‘The skin of the Earth must be approached with great sensitivity … it is fragile and must be protected.”

Alan’s techniques worked wonders on the inhospitable hillside. In a 1969 article, Sunset magazine called him “one of the most successful organic gardeners the editors have ever met. Mr. Chadwick believes that a healthy plant is not likely to be eaten or overcome by pests and his intensive kind of culture is such that the plants do stay in great health.” Sunset’s editors marveled at the transformation of marginal land into an abundant garden, reporting that, ”At times during the peak of the flower season, the students cut and placed ten thousand blooms a day at the help-yourself kiosk on the main campus road. And last year the gardeners grew, picked and supplied the college cafeterias with 1 3/4 tons of tomatoes.”

Beth Benjamin, a freshman in 1967, recalls, “Alan was simply the most fascinating human being on campus for me. Soon nothing else seemed to come into focus but his garden. I was unhappy and doing poorly in my classes, but in the garden I vibrated with the colors and the smells and the stories Alan told us about the plants and his travels and the new skills I was learning. By April, I convinced my counselor that I wanted a leave of absence, and I could finally devote my full time to the world of plants. As an apprentice, I worked from dawn until dark and was filled with his dreams and our common task of bringing the garden into reality, breaking new ground and tending what we had already planted. He had flaming temper tantrums, told tales, gave us dinner parties, fed us from his own bread and ham and cheese, threw dirt clods at us and laughed as he hid behind the compost piles. He taught us the joy of work, the discipline to persevere in order to make a dream come true even when we were hot and tired, and the deliciousness of resting and drinking tea after such monumental labors. … I think of Alan almost every day still, thirty years later, and smile with the memories and with gratitude for all he gave me.”

Alan went on to establish garden projects in Marin, Covelo and elsewhere. His student apprentices are now scattered throughout the United States and abroad, growing food and flowers and vineyards organically… many of them established here in our own local farms and vineyards in Mendocino County… including the Frey family in Redwood Valley and the Decater family in Covelo. And John Jeavons of Willits, author of How To Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible, On Less Land Then You Can Imagine, has used the method to train thousands of Third World peasants to feed themselves.

Alan Chadwick – July 27, 1909 – May 25, 1980


  1. More about Alan Chadwick’s history and his gardening techniques, including a video of his famous garden in Santa Cruz along with some of his recorded lectures, can be found here:

    Alan Chadwick, a Gardener of Souls

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