Opinion: Green Light 

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The Ecology Center and Laguna’s Community Garden Park 

By Tom Osborne

Sustainable growing and eating are receiving more public attention now than ever before in my octogenarian lifetime. Books, lectures, periodical articles, blogs and more inform us about healthy foods that are locally, organically, and sustainably grown. Over the past few decades, our family’s meals have shifted away from red meat and most animal sources toward plant-based foods. The same is true for many of our friends. 

To better understand this shift, our Laguna chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) recently joined with several other nearby chapters and toured The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. This 28-acre organic farm affords the people of Orange County an example of the thinking and foodways that are consonant with healthy, sustainable living. On a much smaller scale but with comparable excellence, Laguna Beach’s quarter-acre Community Garden Park, at the south end of town, organically grows a range of vegetables. 

Founded in 2008, The Ecology Center started as a dream in the mind of founder/executive director Evan Marks. It now employs 75 workers who tend the crops, run the farm store (that honors SNAP, or food stamps) and school, provide ecologically themed films for the public, operate a restaurant on the property, and much more. The Center reports having between 500 and 800 volunteers. Among the most prominent supporters of the operation is Berkeley’s Alice Waters, the internationally known chef and restaurateur who owns her city’s famed French eatery, Chez Panisse. Waters inspired Michelle Obama to launch her nationwide campaign for organic school gardens.  

Twenty-two CCLers in south Orange County participated in our guided tour of The Ecology Center. Our guide, Jonathan, reminded us that we were standing on the ancestral land of the Acjachemen tribe (called the Juaneños by the Spanish and later Euro-Americans). They practiced organic, sustainable farming, providing a model for today’s Center. Jonathan noted that this property was about all that remained of agricultural Orange County. The goal of the Center was to recapture and adapt to our time that earlier way of indigenous farming. That means growing by four principles of Regenerative Organic Farming: non-pesticide cultivation, soil conservation using low or no tilling, animal welfare, and farmworker welfare, in this case, by paying a wage of $24 an hour.   

What farming methods or systems are used at the Center? The crops rotate on a four-year cycle to prevent soil exhaustion and maximize output. For example, space allotted to growing corn in one season of the cycle might be replanted with lettuces or tomatoes in another season. “Chop and drop” facilitates the rotation by leaving vegetative residues of an outgoing crop atop the soil to promote the growth of a different incoming crop. A chicken-raising area provides natural fertilizer for the entire farm. The City of San Juan Capistrano provides the water, which the Center manages scrupulously by using drip irrigation, rainwater capture, and mulching to retain soil moisture.   

The Community Garden Park in South Laguna offers on a cameo scale a highly innovative, much needed, and award-winning organic garden, founded in 2009. Our family and dozens of others were among those starting this community garden, planned and eternally championed by Ann Christoph. This public garden has won a slew of awards for design and environmental achievement. Its lore is known in the San Francisco Bay Area, where a teacher in Albany had students read Tom and Gayle Joliet’s book fable, Alani and the Giant Kelp Elf, set in the garden. This green space, moreover, has its own band and holds several festivals each year while providing workshops on how to prune and otherwise care for our plantings. Visiting Tibetan Buddhist monks on several occasions have blessed this little slice of Nirvana.    

Beyond growing veggies, the Community Garden Park has grown friendships throughout south Laguna and our entire town. At the height of the COVID pandemic, the Community Garden Park was my refuge, my place of beauty and solace. Both The Ecology Center and our Community Garden Park are pointing a way forward amid the tumults of our time. Let’s visit and support these spaces. It’s in our enlightened self-interest to do so. 

Tom Osborne is an environmental historian and co-leads with his wife, Ginger, the Laguna chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. [email protected]. 

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