My earliest memory was when I was 2 years old. I got into trouble. I got caught outside in the tomato patch.
I was sick with chickenpox and was supposed to stay inside. Grandpa told me my job was to make sure the tomatoes were okay, so there I was, sitting in the dirt in a little yellow dress, munching on yellow pear tomatoes. I was just doing my job! To this day I remember the taste of those yellow tomatoes, warmed by the sun. There were other tomatoes on that day and in my life, but yellow pear tomatoes are still my favorite, and I still remember the joy of sitting beside the tomato bushes in the sunshine and slowly savoring each warm, juicy bite.
My earliest childhood was spent as a wild child. While my parents worked my brother and I ran wild on the estate which my grandparents took care of. The estate was nestled in the trees and natural features of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
I remember finding birds eggs in nests. Some had speckled eggs, but if we were lucky, we’d find a Robins egg. They are a brilliant blue. We would watch the nests we found so we could see the baby birds hatch and watch them being fed by their parents.
Quail showed up under the big pine tree every afternoon. Grandma would sometimes bring out bread crumbs for them. She also liked to leave tissue paper. We would be deep in the woods and she would pull out a couple of tissues, which she always kept in her bra, and let them fly. “The birds like the tissue to build their nests,” she would say. We didn’t want her to litter but the tissues never seemed to stay around. Maybe she was right. Regardless, she loved helping all the birds in any way she could.
Clearings on the estate were trimmed to look like natural meadows. They offered pathways to wander the woodlands. The clearings were like rooms. One room would have a vineyard, another an asparagus patch, berries, or a grove of cherries or pears or apples.
The “big house” looked out over a big meadow. The meadow was trimmed as a lawn so that it could be used for garden party entertaining. It was surrounded by beds of flowers that looked natural but were planted. That’s also where the asparagus patch and current berry bushes were. Food was integrated into the landscape, and flowers were everywhere.
Petunias were all the rage at that time and I remember going with my grandpa to look at all the new color releases for the year and putting in our order for the estate. While many flowers were naturalized, the elderly women that owned and lived on the estate wanted to have lots of the latest fashionable petunias. The annual flowers like the petunias were placed in clumps at the edge of the meadow and the woods, making them look perfectly natural. Nothing looked like a flower bed. It was the perfect balance of landscaping and wildness.
Each estate my grandfather cared was several acres in size, and he cared for several, all by himself, even into his 80s. He did not need helpers. The only mechanized tools he used was lawnmowers. He was able to do this by tapping into nature and natural systems.
And he didn’t just do the landscaping, each estate was filled with perennial sources of food. Nature and cultivation intertwined to provide beauty, privacy, and lots and lots of food. Wildlife was plentiful. The only thing that looked like cultivated agriculture was the vegetable patch next to my grandparents’ house. That was the garden where I got into trouble when I was two.
The vineyard was set along the creek, and looked like it belonged there. The grapes served to camouflage the irrigation system which had been built long ago to take advantage of the creek, a big feature in the high desert. All the food grown was integrated into Nature. The asparagus was nestled in the flower beds and the fruit trees grew in groves amongst the birch and quaking aspen. It was all beautiful. It was all abundant. It all looked perfectly natural.
When I was forced to be inside, when grandpa was working elsewhere or the weather was bad, my grandma would teach me about herbs and healing. But she did not cook.
Sometime before I was born, she said that if grandpa complained about her cooking one more time she would never cook again. Apparently he complained. It is said she was a terrible cook. I never found out. She was a woman that was true to her word. It didn’t matter as there was plenty of fresh tasty food outside. My brother and I always found something to eat in the woods.
Grandma was good with herbs and healing, however, with generations of old world peasant knowledge. I learned about rhubarb and cod liver oil, by the spoonful. We had no capsules in those days. Cod liver oil is a hard thing to forget.
A potted aloe vera plant on the top of the toilet was an absolute requirement. You never knew when you’d get a burn, and you wanted to be sure it was close at hand and it was available in winter.
Another requirement was a jar of dried mushrooms. She would lead the annual mushroom hunt for the community each year. I wish I knew now what type of mushrooms we gathered but I didn’t like the taste of plain, dry mushrooms out of the jar (remember grandma never cooked), and so that part of my memory is lost. There were medical reference guides and herbals in the house for reference and casual perusal. I spent countless hours pouring over herbals and field identification books.
By the early years of grade school I could identify any plant in the area, in the mountains, in the foothills, even out in the desert, and I knew which ones were useful. If I ever saw a plant I didn’t know I would look it up and identify it as soon and I got to my grandparents’ house. To this day I somehow can say the name of a strange plant I come across, even a plant I have never seen before, something that surprises me to this day.
Outside Grandpa taught me how plants grow and how Nature works. He taught me how to see patterns and watch how and why things in Nature changed. He taught me about clouds and water. He showed me how to read clouds and the barometer and how to tell when the weather would change.
As we walked around together, he would point out patterns and details. If a plant looked yellow, he explained how that can mean it has too much water, or it can mean the plant has too little water, or it has nutrient deficiencies. He taught me how to tell the difference by showing me the conditions the plant was currently in, and how the yellowing looked different for each problem.
He showed me that you need to keep crops picked so that the plants continue to produce food. If the crops are left growing, then the plants are satisfied that they have successfully reproduced and they stop producing food. However, if you keep the crops picked, then the plants produce more and more, driven by the need to produce the next generation.
He showed me that the strange little divots in the soil were ant lions, and showed me how they trapped ants. He showed me how bugs interact with plants and which ones controlled the pests that damage plants.
I never killed a spider. I was terrified of spiders but they were sacred in the garden. Whenever a spider was in the house they were simply moved outdoors (not by me). To this day I cannot kill a spider, but I no longer fear them.
Grandpa showed me how Nature grows food. He did not need to work hard to keep those estates pristine and grow food. He was, I learned much later in life, much like Masanobu Fukuoka*, a “Do Nothing Farmer.” He worked alone, well, he had me to help him. I was really good at tasting tomatoes! Grandpa was a Master Gardener in the old fashioned sense of the word. He was the first Natural Farmer I met. And he was my teacher.
In the evenings grandpa would have orange marmalade and rye bread for dinner every night. After he had his rye and Walter Cronkite had read the news, grandpa would get out his books and study. He knew that Nature was capable of producing food, and that if we knew how, we could direct Nature to grow what we want to eat, and in large amounts, and in ways that protected Nature and enhanced our health. He knew that when everything in the system was balanced that pests and disease were not lasting problems. This was his life’s obsession. It became mine.
In the wild parts of the estate pests and disease were never problems. In the food crops he grew, problems showed up only occasionally. And if he could keep an infestation from getting out of control, he never lost crops or had to resort to heavy chemicals.
But he did use chemicals. He had three small bottles, each no more than a pint in size. These three small bottles were enough for all the properties, all the acreage he managed.
He had a bottle of Volck oil to kill sucking pests like aphids. He didn’t use it if there were just a few aphids, but would step in if they started reproducing faster than they were getting eaten so they wouldn’t spread and become unmanageable. He used absolutely as little as possible, and he didn’t need it every year. Organic gardening practitioners now use plain vegetable oil, which is just as effective, but we didn’t know that back then.
He had a bottle of Sevin pesticide which was for use in a similar way to control hardier pests. I actually can’t remember him ever using it, but he had it just in case. I often wondered why he kept it.
And he had a bottle of pruner sealer, which we now know is not necessary, but was thought to be so at that time. He liked to graft trees. He made us an apple tree that had 5 types of apples on a single tree. We had moved to a small suburban lot with room for just a couple of trees and having different apples on a single tree spread out the harvest window, so we always had apples, a lot of apples, with just one tree. Grandpa was brilliant.
He also never used fertilizer of any kind, other than an annual spread of steer manure each spring and the kitchen composted scrapes.
He wouldn’t let the rich people he worked for throw away any food scrapes. They had a compost bowl on their fancy marble counters before anyone had ever heard or organic, or compost. This was many, many years before it was fashionable to be organic. In those days organics were for hippies and crazies. But they saw what Grandpa was capable of and willingly complied.
He also mulched everything with composted leaf mold. He had a leaf composting operation tucked back in the trees. The grounds were expected to be immaculate. Fancy estates are no place for leaves lying about.
There, in the dappled shade, was a place to pile newly raked leaves. And he always had a pile of finished leaf mold which he used to mulch everything. In between were three sizes of framed mesh to sift the decomposing leaf litter.
He periodically tossed piles onto the welded wire screen, starting with the biggest size mesh. Whatever fell through stayed in the new pile. Anything not broken down enough to fall through went back into the pile it came from. This way the leaf mold broke down as it was sifted through smaller and smaller mesh. The final pile was finished, composted leaf mold.
This method took only a few minutes once in a while. It offered a place to put any fresh leaves at any time, and a pile of ready to use composted leaf mold at the other end of the line.
He also created soil from fallen trees using an old-world system similar to hugelkultur, so he never had to have trees hauled away, and offered him a rich source of soil. I remember these long wood piles took at least one winter to become soil, perhaps longer, I don't remember. But he didn't use them for planting beds, it was for creating composted soil, just like he learned in the old country.
Even though he managed several large estates by himself, he always had plenty of time for himself. He build a woodshop where he would fashion tools and furniture out of wood using only old fashioned hand tools. Besides being a Master Gardener, he was also a master craftsman. I loved going out to sit by his pot-belly stove and watch grandpa work with wood. He make me my own rake, which he painted my favorite color, green.
But evenings he devoted to study, with me on his lap in his big soft chair when I was still small enough. He knew there was a way to grow food efficiently like Nature does. He studied organic gardening. He bought all of J.I. Rodale’s books, the pioneer of organic gardening, just as soon as each one was published.
He looked at Biodynamic, Bio-intensive, French Intensive, lunar cycles, geo-magnetic and geo-electrical techniques, and so much more, always searching for the secret. How can people grow food using Nature? That was the question he always asked.
Even in the early 60s, the age of “better living through chemistry,” it was obvious that using chemicals to farm was detrimental to the environment and to human health. Grandpa was always very interested in promoting health. We watched Victory Garden and Square Foot Garden on Public Television on Saturdays. We read magazines on gardening and health. We were always searching for the secrets.
My grandfather was the first Natural Farmer I knew, and his search for “the secret” of growing food with the power of Nature became my search. I found the answers decades later when I met Master Han-Kyu Cho of Korea, another Natural Farmer Master, in 2010, about three years after I started growing Specialty Tea commercially in Hawaii. Master Cho had figured out "the secret!"
I had been struggling with growing on land that had been in sugar production for 100 years. Using Master Cho’s method, I reduced my costs of inputs from $200 per month for the tea to $20 per month for the entire farm, including animals. I was able to stop buying fertilizers, pesticides, and animal feed.
The clay, which flat-lined on the first soil test, no available N-P-K, turned to rich soil full of worms, where nothing lived before. The tea field was filled with ladybug beetles, praying mantises, parasitic wasps, and honeybees. The animals never got sick.
The workload was less every year. After seven years most of the chores were simply feeding the animals every day, adding bedding once a month, and a quick foliar spray on the crops once a week. The rest of the time was spent harvesting tea, eggs, and other crops, having tea parties, and spending time with family and friends.
Grandpa and Master Cho have much in common. They are both short in stature with similar physiques, and quiet mannerisms, always observing and learning. Both were true Masters. They could see disease in a plant before there were any outward symptoms, and understood how everything in the garden worked with everything else in the environment. But Master Cho discovered secrets to working with Nature that my grandfather had looked so hard to find.
What were the secrets that Master Cho discovered to grow food using the power of Nature? My grandpa used leaf mold in a way similar to Master Cho’s use of IMO, Indigenous Micro Organisms, but Master Cho took the value of leaf mold and amplified it exponentially, and learned a way to install an entire microscopic soil ecosystem in a single installation, saving years of time in building healthy living soil. He also used the power of enzymes and hormones to direct plant growth to produce healthier food in greater abundance. Master Cho did this by developing what he calls the Nutritive Cycle.
I feel fulfilled by what Master Cho discovered, what my grandfather (and then I) tried to learn for decades. Now it is my turn to pass on this knowledge.
Nature is powerful. It can grow healthy food in great abundance, with little labor by man. When food is grown this way the food becomes medicine and human health is enhanced. And rather than depleting resources, growing food WITH Nature increases topsoil, sequesters carbon and nitrogen, retains water, promotes healthy living spaces for wildlife, and produces no wastes.
Follow me on my journey and learn what these two Masters, as well as many others, know about using the Power of Nature to grow food, and restore the health of people and the planet. Learn to live like my trademark, Be Like Nature™.
*Masanobu Fukuoka, One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming, 1975