My experience in the Farming Basics course at Wild Willow was surprisingly transformative. I entered the course with the intention that I would learn something about how a) to grow vegetables for my own consumption and b) I might help poorer or marginalized people gain access to good quality food. I had some trepidation because I really knew nothing at all about plants or gardening or growing food and came in with some childhood memories of miserably weeding my mother’s garden. But very quickly I found that I love getting my hands in the dirt, weeding is incredibly satisfying, and I felt a sense of accomplishment at the end of every single day that far surpassed anything I’d ever experienced in 35 years working in an office. This has fundamentally altered my direction in life as I now seek to further my learning and experience with the inattention to become a full-time sustainable farmer.
The intensive course was intense and this made keeping up with the reading challenging. However, Gardening When It Counts was an excellent book and well written. His perspective was clearly stated and this made it easy to compare his context with ours and be able to apply his principles even when his actual advice was not appropriate for the coastal southern California climate. The second book is one I’ll use as a reference for years to come, though it was not one to “read” like a text. Those books, along with the basic tools that were part of our materials, were excellent and should continue to be part of the course. I wish The New Vegetable Growers Handbook was organized by plant family, but since it is not, I’ve copied that part of the syllabus because learning about related plants in families was very useful. So much so that the next book I want to read is Botany for Gardeners, so I can learn more about how to identify plants by family.
However, the most invaluable aspect of the course was working on the farm itself. Whether it was prepping beds or creating compost or pulling weeds or sowing seeds or planting or feeding goats and chickens or harvesting for CSA boxes or laying and fixing irrigation, the opportunity to get out there and do the actual work built our confidence and allowed us to gain experience that no amount of reading and lectures would have ever accomplished. It is one thing to learn about the soil food web, it is entirely another to sift finished compost or see what happens when new seedlings don’t get enough water. Being able to harvest beautiful vegetables right at the beginning of our course was incredibly motivating. And all the real life challenges we encountered and learned or speculated about how to deal with — squash mosaic virus, overwatered tomatoes, gophers and rabbits and squirrels, sow bugs, nut sage grass, irrigation breaks, plantings that don’t come to fruition and so much more. Even though the soil at Wild Willow is better than most places in San Diego County, we had plenty of farming challenges and mishaps to help us learn.
Our class group was extraordinary and that really added to the experience of the course. Likely because of the intensive nature, we became quite close, sharing lunch everyday (preparing lunch together most days), discussing future possibilities, appreciating each others’ perspectives. Each one of us came with a different idea and different intentions and the made our interactions very rich. Whatever you can do to encourage student mingling & discussion would make future courses that much more powerful.