Mark Maltas pioneered sustainable gardening on the North Coast

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Visiting the tasting rooms, their gardens and the local farms, often organic, is a delight that we can all savor. And some of these farm businesses want to offer more than a deal. They want to create lasting experiences for visitors and connect them with the richness of life and food in our region.

Forty years ago, these experiences were largely new and rare. Ideas we now take for granted – the importance of healthy soil for growing healthy plants, conserving water, gardens for beneficial insects, and researching flavor-rich vegetable varieties – don’t were not widely understood in the early 1980s. The benefits of gardens and farms for our psyche, their ability to evoke small paradises and places of real or imagined nostalgia, were not often mentioned. The early practitioners who often promoted these principles were not taken seriously. And it’s helpful to take a look at their trailblazers as we move into uncharted territory with climate change.

One of those early practitioners was Michael Maltas, the first garden manager of the pioneering and internationally recognized 6-acre organic public garden of (now former) Valley Oaks Ranch at Fetzer Vineyard in Hopland, Mendocino County.

Across the garden, the wine tasting room has turned into a gastronomic and oenological center, creating a foundation on which many others have built. The development of the garden, with the support and interest of the Fetzer family and the UC Cooperative Extension, has also helped to integrate the principles of organic viticulture into commercial agriculture in the region. As they say, it all started in a garden.

“The organic switch that we were a part of is now everywhere. I’m not sure I’m still relevant, ”Maltas told me recently. “That was a long time ago. But making places beautiful never gets old. Maybe I wanted to make a Garden of Eden.… We didn’t sit down much.

In 1985, Maltas was named Organic Gardener of the Year by Organic Gardening Magazine for his efforts in owning and farming 5 acres in Missouri. The award brought it to the attention of Jim Fetzer of the Fetzer family, who was in the early stages of plans to significantly expand the family winery and vineyards and develop a garden at the brand new Valley Oaks Ranch in Hopland. . Jim and Mary Fetzer offered Maltas a job, which he turned down.

“I was blunt and didn’t care what people thought,” Maltas recalls. “I was not impressed with their knowledge of horticulture (at the time), and their idea of ​​what the garden should be like was vague. But Jimmy had the intuition that a garden could lead somewhere.

Maltas eventually accepted the job offer and moved to Hopland with his then wife Suni, young son Madrone and granddaughter Joanna.

Without much direction in the first year, he decided to recreate what he had done on his farm in Missouri and designed a highly managed 6-acre organic garden of vegetables, herbs and fruits with strictly measured rows of beds. – raised bands designed for maximum efficiency and with drip irrigation, a relatively new concept in the area at the time.

He initiated a regime of cover crops and compost making for healthy soils and used biodynamic practices. The garden project was filled with a changing profusion of edible plants and flowers in an economically utilized space. He emphasized production, minimized water use, was weed-free, and was essentially a redefinition of the standard idea of ​​what an organic garden should be, propelling it into the modern world.

First influences in South Africa

Maltas described the incredible landscape of Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) where he grew up as filled with wild animals and birds, blazing with tropical trees like the jacaranda and traditional British plants like lavender, all growing wild in the benign climate and rich red. ground.

Although his mother always had a garden around the house and he raised parrots in aviaries that he planted with native plants, agriculture and horticulture only caught him after he obtained a bachelor’s degree in geography, geology and psychology from the University of Cape Town. . From there he left for England.

After a privileged education, he found himself essentially penniless, without connections, without a prestigious school of reference and without a country to return to because of the civil war in his country of origin. His early years in England were as a struggling immigrant.

“I had to work harder than anyone else to not be an unskilled laborer for the rest of my life,” he recalls. He later apprenticed on a 600 acre organic farm in Buckinghamshire. There he had an “insatiable urge to learn things.” He never ceased to “pepper the farmers with questions.”

A chance encounter introduced him to a preparatory study program in the humanities at Emerson College in Sussex.

“For the first time, I was interested in everything,” he recalls. “I wanted to be a doctor, a teacher, a farmer. Many Americans were in college at the time, and they invited him to America, where he went on a “gap year” to work while deciding what to focus on in sophomore year.

Pivotal introduction to biodynamics

At that time, in the United States, there was a booming back to earth movement. Maltas has hitchhiked from farm to farm with experiences ranging from the scientific to the spiritual to ‘horrible’. Returning to Emerson College, he focused on the Biodynamic Agriculture course and learned about organic principles and ecology in agriculture, farm input-output dynamics, self-sufficiency, animal husbandry and biodynamic principles. His biodynamic background made him in great demand when he landed in the United States and he accepted a job at a Waldorf school in Sacramento, where he managed the garden and taught gardening.

In 1981, he and his wife decided to move to Missouri, eager to grow and grow most of their own food.

Instead, he recalls, “plagues of locusts devoured the laundry on the clothesline and ate the bark of young fruit trees. There were plagues upon plagues.

With extreme temperatures, tornadoes and plant diseases suddenly decimating crops ready for harvest, farming in Missouri was a real challenge.

“Nature (or the Midwest) quickly destroyed my beliefs in a beneficent force that should gladly support naive (biodynamic) / organic practitioners,” he said.

Despite this, Maltas brought these ideas with him to California, where his work has influenced many in the field, including me.

Kate Frey’s column appears every two weeks in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: [email protected], Twitter @katebfrey.

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