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Wendy Johnson Finds Enlightenment through Organic Gardening

In a quiet valley at Muir Beach, outside San Francisco, volunteer farmers till the soil, plant seedlings, and irrigate crops. They work alongside Zen monks and nuns, Western converts to an ancient Asian faith.

This is where organic farmer and gardener Wendy Johnson has spent the past 30 years.

Johnson has gardened all her life. She became interested in Zen while doing graduate studies in comparative religion at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The two interests met here, at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center.

Johnson says she is inspired by the simple lifestyle and traditional farming methods, growing crops without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. "People have been farming this way for generations," she observes, "deriving good food from good land."

Organic gardening has roots in the past

The organic gardening movement flowered in the 1960s and '70s, as people like Johnson took part in a modern revival of traditional farming methods. She has recounted her experiences in a book called Gardening at the Dragon's Gate. The dragon of the title refers to the temple at Green Gulch.

She says the ancient teaching of Zen, with its emphasis on simplicity and appreciation of nature, inspires this farm and meditation center in the green rolling hills north of San Francisco. People come to seek inner peace as they work in the fields, coaxing crops such as leek, kale, lettuce and cabbage from the ground.

A different sort of gardening

While Johnson admits that there are those who enjoy gardening slowly, planting a seedling, then leaning back and looking at the sky, she says that's not what happens at Green Gulch. "[We are] working rhythmically and full-on, but [have] a sense of well-being and relaxation that comes at the end of the day from doing work you love and doing it well and being in connection with the natural world." She says it's an honor and privilege to be able to do that.

There is also time for Zen meditation at Green Gulch, sitting cross-legged in a traditional Japanese-style meditation hall. And there is time to sit and reflect in the meditation garden, with its bamboo grove and small shrines with Buddhist images, decorated with flowers.

The site is open to visitors who come to learn of the center's philosophy and get in touch with nature. Wendy Johnson has also taken her message around the United States, talking about the ties between gardening and meditation. She says listeners are responsive. "In some deep way, you are restored," she says. "Many people say what a sense of well-being and grounded-ness the garden gives them."

She says the first step to creating a garden is cultivating the ground. The next step is fertilization with traditional means such as compost, creating natural fertilizer from manure, shredded leaves and kitchen scraps. Johnson says gardeners must also learn how plants propagate, and then master the mechanics of tending to a garden. "That includes pruning and weeding, irrigating, keeping records of the garden, managing the pests." Or at the very least — she corrects herself — learning to live with pests and respecting the environment.

Branching out to the community

Food from the Green Gulch farms is served at a trendy San Francisco restaurant called Greens, and sold at a popular farmers' market. It is also given to the poor through a food bank and soup kitchens.

Today, Johnson works with teachers in the nearby city of Berkeley in a program called The Edible Schoolyard. Nine hundred students grow organic crops, and work together to prepare and eat the fruits and vegetables. Johnson says she has a great job as a mentor of the young people who teach gardening in the public schools. "[That] is appropriate when you're 60 years old and you've been gardening as long as they've been alive. And then I also get to work with very lively, disobedient and rambunctious middle school students!"

Wendy Johnson says a garden has a life of its own, and successful gardeners respect and learn from it. "I never say I manage the garden," she confides. "The garden really manages me."