The Garden of Learning: The Shasta College Community Teaching Garden, Redding

I was lucky in having been born the daughter of a dedicated gardener mother (aided always by my father) and the grand daughter of two avid gardening grandfathers. Growing up at 8,000 feet on the front range of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, my sisters and I were in and out of the garden all day – a good part of the year. My mother’s quarter acre log-rail-fenced vegetable garden, under towering ponderosa pines, featured all the bounty I could have imagined: sharp spring radishes and tender spring peas, sweet summer carrots, lettuces, chard, spinach and even some tomatoes. Leeks, potatoes, onions. Apples, gooseberries, raspberries, strawberries. Herbs year-round and seasonal sweeps of ornamental flowers: peonies, oriental poppies, shasta daisies – accenting each row and section of the garden. As a child I learned the garden through being shown and being asked to do things my mother needed done – as they needed doing. Photo: The Shasta College Community Teaching Garden, Redding. All photos in this week’s essay are by Susanna Sibilsky and Melita Bena.

In my early 30s, I was lucky enough to live in England and apprentice to a life-long working gardener at a private home. Ann was her name and she wore the same oatmeal-colored hand-knit wool gansey sweater with holes in the elbows to work every day. She very consciously taught me her gardening methods – how and when to top dress the home’s extensive vegetable garden, when to plant each crop, which ones needed to be under netting, which areas were being more carefully rotated, when to harvest the apples and other fruits and how to place them in storage in the root cellar so that the harvest would last all winter; when to prune and propagate from the home’s old fruit trees; what combination of things she liked to layer in the compost bin and how often she liked to turn it and let it sit before using. She was a marvel of knowledge for me and at that point in my life, I was learning with purpose rather than simply by osmosis as it were. Photo: Wayne Kessler, one of the CTG’s advisors points the way for another gardener, Scott.

Learning to garden – no matter how old you are – is one of those life skills that is best learned hands-on, at the feet or knee or elbow of someone experienced and passionate about the craft. It is best learned in situ and over time – because of course gardens and farms by nature are rich and complex, living and lively ecosystems. They are mini-worlds in themselves and different opportunities and challenges, questions and solutions present themselves all the time. As far as I can tell, this is true no matter how long you’ve gardened or farmed. Gardening books and magazines can be very, very useful – and I have multiple sagging bookshelves to support this belief – but watching someone else actually do a gardening task, and then being allowed to do it yourself – is far and away a more effective way to not only learn but understand. I use my books as references, to cross check myself and expand on what I know or want to know more about – but when I need to learn HOW to do something in the garden – there is no replacement for someone knowledgeable showing you how. But not everybody had a gardening parent or mentor and even if you did (as I did) they likely did not (could not possibly) have imparted all you wanted/needed to know for a well-rounded, integrated garden education. Photo: At the CTG, Shasta College students and community members join ranks at whatever work needs to be done.

This is the precise point of the Shasta College Community Teaching Garden in Redding. They ARE the feet, knees, elbows and hands at which we can learn ever more about this essential and wonderful life skill: gardening. To continue to learn our craft in community and to the benefit of our community makes the process and rewards all the sweeter. Photo: Ann enjoys ripe garden reward.

This week I have the pleasure of interviewing two of the garden’s leaders about this wonderful resource.

1. What is the Community Teaching Garden?

The Shasta College Community Teaching Garden is a special, sustainability-education project of the Shasta College Foundation, with the help of the Economic and Workforce Development Division of the college. Photo: The garden.

This pioneer program is intended to promote self-reliance, sustainable practices, regional food security, and ecological literacy by providing information, instruction, and practical experience in sustainable organic food gardening and mini-farming. It is also the purpose of the Teaching Garden to encourage sustainable farming, neighborhood gardening cooperatives and school gardening projects, as well as provide a venue for horticultural therapy and spiritual enrichment. Photo: A group work day at CTG.

The project was originally envisioned by a group of five individuals, James Collins, Garden Manager; Pamela Spoto, Project Director; and, Community Advisors: Wayne Kessler, co-owner with his wife Laurel, of Shambani Organics; Susanna Sibilsky, nutrition expert, gardener and grant writer; and Jeff Lewis, a sustainability consultant to Shasta College. These individuals recognized a need for offering education in sustainable practices to the local and regional community. Specifically, they saw a need for teaching self-reliance in terms of food security and food safety, and more generally ecological literacy, which was observed to be seriously under-developed, even among farmers and gardeners in the region. In the last year, Ann Roach, gardener and assistant to the Garden Manager, has taken the place of Jeff Lewis as a CTG Community Advisor.

2. When was the CTG started?
Photo: The CTG growing.

The project began in November of 2009 with the planting of a winter cover crop on a 1 ½ acre section of land on the North East side of the campus. The idea was to create a garden that would be an exemplar of sustainable gardening/farming practices, applicable on any scale, while offering to the students and wider community inexpensive hands-on practical education in food self-reliance and sustainable gardening practices. Photo: A CTG work day, seeding and raking.

3. Describe the garden site for us: Photo: The CTG plantings include medicinal and culinary herbs and flowers, both for their produce as well as for their companion planting benefits – drawing in pollinators and in some cases repelling pests.

The CTG is part food garden— providing poison-free organic natural fruit and vegetables for the campus cafeteria and a campus garden market – and part seed mini-farm.
Part of our sustainability plan is to grow and breed improved open-pollinated seed for this climate region. We grow warm weather crops like tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, eggplant, cucumbers, beans, corn, squash, melons, culinary and medicinal herbs; as well as cool weather and winter crops like kale, broccoli, carrots, beets, parsley, chard, mustard, spinach, potatoes, garlic. We have young fruit trees, which should provide a significant amount of fruit—peaches, figs, apples, asian pears, almonds, apricots— in the next couple of years.Photo: Gardener Ken offers up a cucumber.

There being no such thing as a safe poison— an oxymoron if you think about it—it is neither logically, ethically nor ecologically defensible to use poisons to produce safe food. Thus the CTG’s motto has become: no poison at any time for any reason. We believe that poisons are never necessary and that insect populations and weeds can be managed safely without them. If not, then the farmer is doing something wrong or ecologically out of balance. Photo: Produce from the CTG is distributed in a variety of ways. Produce sold at the farmers market helps to support the costs of the CTG. In the overalls is CTG Garden Manager and frequent workshop leader, Jim Collins.

We are trying to model and encourage regenerative agriculture as well as sustainable organic methods, our focus being as much on the health and biological activity of the of the soil as it is on the plants we grow in it. We believe in putting back more than we take, which we accomplish with an aggressive cover-cropping program to maintain and increase soil fertility and encourage beneficial insect populations. Photo: Working in the dirt is Project Director, Pamela Spoto.

4. Who participates?
Photo:Everyone from Shasta College students and faculty as well as any interested community member can join in and learn at the CTG.

Students of Shasta College participate in a variety of capacities. Some are enrolled in a work-experience class called work-site learning, in which they are assigned to the garden by choice. One student works in the garden on a work-study arrangement with financial aid. Other students, and community members, volunteer in various aspects of the gardens operation because they like working in the garden.

All work sessions in the garden are supervised by the garden manager or assistant manager and are conducted as ongoing teaching situations so that the students are exposed to a variety of gardening situations, thereby learning a variety of gardening techniques and skills as well as experiencing a lot of philosophical stimulation. Community participation is also encouraged through the workshop offerings throughout the year.

5. What kinds of programs does the CTG offer?
Photo: Wintu, Ted Dawson taught a workshop on the culinary and medicinal uses of California native plants.

We have just completed our second full year of workshops. We offer 2-hour weekend workshops on a wide variety of topics from beginning and advanced gardening; soil, water and insect management to food preservation; seed-saving; growing and rendering medicinal herbs and raising backyard chickens. Workshops at the Teaching Garden are taught by local experts from the community and the Shasta College faculty.Photo: Ron Epperson, seen seated, taught a thorough workshop on safe food preservation.

In the upcoming year, we plan to raise the bar with some more unique workshops like Yoga in the Garden, Birding and Gardening as a Spiritual Practice, among other things.
The on-going operations of the garden in every phase and aspect constitute a learning venue for the community volunteers and students who help and participate on a regular basis. A weekly, 4-hour, open workshop on Wednesday mornings also offers community members, Shasta College students and college staff the opportunity to ask gardening questions and lend a hand.

4. What happens to the produce?

We provide vegetables for the campus cafeteria and a seasonal weekly garden market stand on campus, donations to local food banks, and take-home produce for our garden helpers: volunteers and students. We also produce seed, which we plan to market wholesale to certain seed companies in the near future. Photo: Pepper bounty from the CTG.

5. What are your hopes for the future of the project?

In the coming year, we hope to attain sustainability in terms of managing all of our own financial support through sales of seeds, vegetables and herbs as well as our workshops.
We hope to widen our offerings to make use of the garden as a venue for spiritual enrichment and therapeutic applications. Photo: A lovely Echinacea purpurea bloom.

CTG Founders:

Pamela Spoto: English Professor at Shasta College and CTG Project Director. Responsible for administrative management of the entire CTG project, including the physical garden and the management of workshops. Beyond this, she is also the liaison between the CTG and the Shasta College Foundation, Shasta College administration, faculty and staff, as well as in charge of community relations, program promotion and coordinating student workers and special activities.

Jim Collins: PhD in Integrated Ecology, CTG Garden Manager. In charge of the 1 ½ acre garden site: responsible for planning, soil and crop management, supervising/teaching students and workers, and teaching periodic workshops.
CTG Committee Advisors include community members Wayne Kessler, owner of Shambani Organics; Susanna Sibilsky, nutrition expert, gardener and grant writer; and Ann Roach, gardener and assistant to Garden Manager.

Both Jim Collins and Wayne Kessler contribute regularly to Anewscafe’s gardening section in their column known as Dig This! – look for their work.

Many of our communities are developing more and more community forums for such hands-on learning about gardening and other practices to help our lives be more sustainable and our communities more self-reliant. If you are not close to Redding, look for similar teaching resources in your area – these might include demonstration gardens, local nurseries, gardening clubs and more. Many such regional resources can be found at Jewellgarden.com’s Links and Resources page.

More of my environmental writing can be found in the Chico News & Review, and Pacific Horticulture. Follow Jewellgarden.com/In a North State Garden on Facebook. Photo:

To submit plant/gardening related events/classes to the Jewellgarden.com on-line Calendar of Regional Gardening Events, send the pertinent information to me at: Jennifer@jewellgarden.com

Did you know I send out a weekly email with information about upcoming topics and gardening related events in the North State region? If you would like to be added to the mailing list, send an email to Jennifer@jewellgarden.com.

In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California. Made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico, In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell

In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.

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