San Francisco Chronicle – October 30, 2004
By Sheila Erwin, Special to The Chronicle
It’s a hot day in October, and outside near the garden boxes at the Taylor Maid Farms Coffee/Tea Warehouse in Sebastopol, yellow jackets swirl around our heads and ankles. But Marjorie Wallace, 78, better known in Sebastopol as the Garden Goddess, and a lifelong environmental activist, seems to be immune to them.
“They don’t bother me none, do they bother you?”
“Yes, they do,” I say tartly, having been stung more times than I’d like to remember. I swat at them with my sweaty hands, remembering the bad dreams I’ve had about them.
“Don’t wave your arms at them, they’re attracted to that,” Wallace says, looking cool as she rocks serenely in a weather-beaten gray rocker. Her wrinkled hand repeatedly slips from the rickety rocker’s broken arm. However, she sits just long enough to humor me, and hands me a sprig of lemon verbena to sniff before she tends to her garden.
For eight years, Wallace has taught Sebastopol how to grow organic food. Her fertile Eden, once an acre at the Sebastopol Community Garden, is a now a portable garden planted in apple boxes donated by Taylor Maid after the land she used was purchased by Sebastopol Skate Park. She attributes much of her holistic gardening knowledge to growing up on a ranch in Wyoming, where her ancestors were homesteaders. Both her parents were farmers and passed on their knowledge of herbs and plants to their children.
“In my day, there was no use of pesticides, and we only used horse and cow manure. We grew everything we ate but the flour, sugar and the coffee.”
Neighbors helped erect the log house of her childhood. “It was all made of cottonwood logs and chink, mud and straw used to fill in the middle. Neighbors always helped each other, and when a child was about to be born, a couple of women were chosen to assist at the birth.”
Wallace talks to her plants, convinced that her encouragement affects how they grow. She believes plants have feelings, and I agree, but I’m a black- thumbed gardener, and the plants don’t seem to appreciate me the same way.
“You’re sure looking pretty this morning,” she says to a monstrous purple butterfly bush.
The bush spreads across an entire apple box and reminds me of an old Tarzan movie where the villain is devoured by a gigantic fern.
Wallace sticks her strong, thick fingers into a crate of deep black loam full of writhing worms, and encourages me to do the same. I close my eyes and gingerly stick my pinky in, withdrawing it quickly with visions of fleshy invertebrates crawling up my arms.
I learn that the worms are fed organic scraps, and their waste, or castings, releases nutrients into the soil. Vermiculture also greatly reduces the volume of garbage, as 1 pound of worms can eat a half-pound of food scraps a day.
Inside their eight boxes, worms are fed cardboard, coffee grounds, coffee cups and employees’ discarded lunches.
Wallace glows with motherly pride as she shows me the lush rope of vines with full ripening gourds adorning a fence. “See this gourd over here?” she says. “That will be sold to an artist in Sebastopol who will make them into lamp shades and musical instruments.
“Here’s another gourd. See this tiny white one? Hippies make espresso cups out of them.
“People keep stealing my gourds,” Wallace says with irritation. “So I try to hide them behind some of my other plants. Once they came at nighttime and stole a wheelbarrow with plants in it.
“When we had the community garden, homeless people used to help plant and spread the compost. I never had to ask them. The next day the work would be completed.”
The garden guru has taught all the employees of the warehouse to cultivate plants. “They are thrilled to see their garden become more beautiful each year,” Wallace says.
“Some of the kids once thought that you had to plant at midnight with the new moon. It doesn’t matter what time of the night it is, it’s just that the root crops, onions, turnips, carrots and beets, go deep into the earth and need the light of the moon to flourish. I’ve also taught them to recycle pallets, something they hadn’t thought was possible.”
Wallace attributes her good health to eating raw foods. “When I come here to tend the plants, I eat strawberries, celery and radishes for breakfast. Now I’m strong enough to move a bed,” she says with a laugh.
Her long white braid falls over her shoulder. She lifts up a bedraggled brown stem of burdock and frowns, noticing how dry it is.
“Burdock is an important plant; it can be used in stir-fry and used like ginseng.”
Burdock, she tells me, is also an herb known for its detoxifying and antibacterial effects. I notice that there’s not a single plant Wallace can’t identify and describe the medicinal properties of.
Inside the warehouse, she introduces me to Coalmine, a spiked blue-haired rocker from the band Spindles, who gives her a hug.
“I’ve been to his concerts and enjoyed them,” she says.
Many of Coalmine’s fellow band members also work at the warehouse. The employees give her ear-to-ear smiles as they pass by. And I realize that I’m in the midst of a living archetype, the mother, the nurturer, the healer. .
That night I dream that I’m in a community garden humming with people just like me, learning to garden. I’m in awe of the lush and vibrant red, green and purple leaves of lettuce I’ve grown, and I notice a rhubarb plant drooping for lack of water. Wallace appears with a white pitcher of water. Her loving hands guide me, and I wake up knowing that I’ve been transformed by the garden goddess.