“It was the era of flower power, 1967, when I started the garden. I was exercised by that slogan,” Dr. Paul Lee recounted as he explained the role of UC Santa Cruz’s Chadwick Garden as a catalyst for the organic boom in the Santa Cruz region.
The first organic garden in any university in the country was named after world-renowned botanist Alan Chadwick, who traveled here to introduce biodynamics to the Santa Cruz region, said Lee.
A spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, biodynamics serves to create a diversified and balanced farm ecosystem where the farm itself focuses on sustainability and fertility. Chadwick taught and inspired an array of apprentices who use the garden, which led them to begin their own production farms.
The three-acre garden’s yield is sold outside the entrance of the campus weekly, is munched on by the agro-ecology program’s staff daily and has been used by UCSC’s dining halls. With a current staff of over 20, the program relies primarily on Chadwick’s biodynamic method to maintain the small-scale agriculture and horticulture production model. A few of the methods used include the careful use of organic fertilizers, close spacing of plants in raised beds and maximum soil aeration and drainage.
“It was the inspiration for organics in the entire region,” Lee said. “Chadwick was then identified with the origins and importance of the organic movement.”
Harboring a diverse collection of food crops, ornamentals, over 120 types of apples, fruit trees and other native California species, the garden is used by students, faculty and researchers as an investigation and teaching site. UCSC’s first chancellor, Dean McHenry, admired the popular project so much that with his support, the administrators were able to establish the UCSC Farm in 1971. The farm expanded to a 30-acre field and is used for educational purposes.
The early years of the garden faced scrutiny from the science departments and some community members who wanted to see the garden shut down. The UC’s vice chancellor of agricultural sciences even received a memo from a concerned citizen about wanting to close the garden.
“They thought organic meant artificial synthesis, not some old idea of the integrity of organic nature,” Lee said. “They thought, ‘What the hell is he talking about?’ They thought the garden was a hippie plot designed to further embarrass them.”
Lee taught philosophy at Harvard and MIT prior to beginning his career at UCSC in 1966, where he began teaching classes in religious studies and history of consciousness. He founded the Chadwick Garden and the religious studies program — a major no longer offered — as well as various houseless projects in the city.
Lee explained that without Chancellor McHenry’s firm support for the garden it would have been shut down. Even today, Chancellor Blumenthal continues to express his pride in the garden, considering it a pedagogic pillar of the UCSC campus, Lee said.
Today the term “organic” often refers to artificial synthesis, during which “organic chemistry” artificially synthesizes anything organic from inorganic sources, Lee added.
During its early years, the opposition saw the people who used the garden as a cult eschewing all chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“I responded to him by saying I think it’s a better learning experience for the students to watch things die because they’re not using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides,” Lee said.
The organic movement sparked by the garden reignited the physicalist/vitalist conflict, a topic that will be taught alongside the garden’s history by Lee this spring. He describes the conflict as a scholarly retrieval in the philosophy of science, where physicalism takes the lens of reducing everything into matter, and vitalism says the integrity of organic matter should be preserved.
“There’s a fight almost to the point of a war going on between the late stage of the self-destruction of industrial society and the renewal of organic nature, and the latter is losing,” Lee said, adding that this personal mantra is reaffirmed to him every morning when he reads the news.
The Chadwick Garden serves Santa Cruzans not only by providing organic foods, but also by standing as a historic landmark, one which evokes critical thought on the future of the food industry and humanity’s connection with nature.
An excerpt from Lee’s book “There Is a Garden in the Mind” reads, “It was a place of haunting beauty, especially if one caught Chadwick, his shirt off, sitting among the hydrangeas, the columbine, the foxglove, and the hollyhocks, looking like Nature Boy himself, or the Green Man, talking to students about the properties and effects of the herb thyme … and then see for themselves all the life-forms that sprang into being at the touch of his green thumb.”