My dear departed mother, God rest her gardening soul, was a nature lover and an avid gardener who couldn’t wait to get seeds in the ground as soon as it thawed. She would refer to the garden in her poetry as one of her “places of refuge.” Unfortunately, she was a single working parent of three children, and her passion for gardening was not matched by the availability of the countless “leisure time” hours the avocation requires to sustain garden productivity and to cultivate the sense of gardening as a “healing experience.” This fact is painfully imbedded in the memories I have, when at the behest of my mother’s plea for help, my siblings and I would gloomily march out to the garden to assist my mother in pulling out the overgrown weeds that often frequented and quickly overcame my mother’s gardens. For us, the garden was not a place of refuge, but a mini-garden-gulag, where we suffered as under-aged slave laborers. Only my mother’s profound and infectious love of nature transcended the painfulness of this experience.
Generally not one to allow my experience of misfortune to dictate my future success, I took the entrepreneurial approach, putting my hard earned horticultural skills to work, and began earning an income at a very young age, employed in the exciting and “profitable” field of horticulture. Horticulture, like any other disciplines in the arts and sciences, requires the serious devotee to “pay one’s dues.” Suffice it to say that I paid mine, engaged in countless hours of mowing lawns and performing back-breaking yard work for hire. Later in life, while in my early teens, my family moved “out west,” eventually finding a home in the Hollywood Hills of
Years passed and I was attending college while still living in the midst of urban
I began my work with HOT by researching existing innovative strategies for combating inner city hunger and malnutrition. I had the opportunity to travel around the
The first phase of my work involved creating a “food self-sufficiency” team that was responsible for developing Certified Farmers Markets in low-income communities throughout the
I expanded the HOT program to include the development of an Urban Agriculture project that included directing land access, developing and managing four urban agriculture demonstration sites ranging from 1/6 to 11 acres (totaling 21 acres of land) in cultivation at locations in low-income neighborhoods throughout the Los Angeles region. I acquired technical assistance, zoning variances, permits, and licenses, contracts, etc., building cooperative relationships with city, and county, and state officials. One site was under the power lines, another on a section of the yet un-built 105 Freeway, and another on a vacant lot.
I developed resources, solicited donations, and participated in an economic viability research team. I organized the first major urban agriculture conference in
During the last 30 years, I have accumulated many similar experiences that have called upon me to dig into both my horticulture and leadership skill sets. It has been a rich career, but I do not want this to be a review of my life work experiences, as fascinating as they might be. Please allow me to shift the focus to how the experience has affected my philosophy of leadership. Along the way, I met some remarkable gardeners and leaders; mentors in other words. In addition to my mother, I had the good fortune to get to become acquainted with a few other great souls who inspired greatness in me through the garden, including:
- Earl Ambeau, a community gardener in South Central Los Angeles, who taught me how to hoe a row, plant beans and peas, and how to be an urban farmer.
- “Jolly” Batchellor, the famous and good humored horticulturist responsible for starting the renowned Ornamental Horticulture Department at
, California State Polytechnic University , who taught me that academic horticulture has a wonderful history and tradition. Pomona
- Ed Barnes, once professor of agriculture and founder of Land Lab, and now Vice President of Administrative Affairs and Chief Fi
nancial Officer for Cal Poly Pomona, who taught me that horticulture skills are transferable into the world of business as well as academia.
- Amalia Vasquez, Indigenous Guatemalan (Mam) Midwife, Weaver, Herbalist and Gardener, who taught me that our relationship to the earth is fundamental to our life being. Each of these leaders demonstrates remarkable skills that cross-fertilize the domains of leadership and horticulture.
Horticultural leaders sometimes emerge in the mass culture, and one of my favorite “horticultural” films is “Being There,” from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski. Peter Sellers stars in the movie, masterfully and hysterically portraying a humble gardener, perhaps developmentally out of step (or is it the world’s development that is out of step?), who through a series of hilarious circumstances becomes an advisor to the power elite of the planet. At one point in the film, the President of the
“I found Mr. Gardiner to have a feeling for this country that we need more of. He likened us to a garden. To quote Mr. Gardiner, a most intuitive man, ‘As long as the roots of industry remain firmly planted in the national soil, the economic prospects are un-doubtedly sunny. Gentlemen, let us not fear the inevitable chill and storms of autumn and winter, instead, let us anticipate the rapid growth of springtime, let us await the rewards of summer. As in a garden of the earth, let us learn to accept and appreciate the times when the trees are bare as well as the times when we pick the fruit.’”
I reference this passage with the hope that my philosophy toward life and leadership is not received without good humor and understanding, classifying me as some sort of mixed-up fringe horticultural / organization development character who takes gardening far too seriously. Deep down in my heart and soul, I believe that one of the human race’s most useful functions is to be good gardeners upon the planet earth. Horticulture is a framework of stewardship that, in its best light, is a practice of cultivating places of treasure, creating places of rescue, and fostering regeneration. I truly believe organizations can be also become places of cultivated treasure and transformation.