Master gardener Orin Martin celebrates 40 years at the Alan Chadwick Garden

Photo of Orin Martin in the Alan Chadwick Garden
Orin Martin in the Alan Chadwick Garden on July 11, 2017, his 40th anniversary on campus. (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.)

Every morning at about 7 a.m., Orin Martin takes a slow stroll through the Alan Chadwick Garden, soaking up the quiet as he observes the verdant beauty around him.

"There's a saying that the best fertilizer is the footsteps of the farmer—or, as I like to say, the shadow of the gardener," says Martin, who this month celebrates his 40th anniversary with the UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden.

At 68, Martin could retire, but he isn't remotely interested.

"When I'm here at first light, with the fog lifting, it's a transcendental moment," he says. "Like when you hear the first few notes of a John Coltrane saxophone solo, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up, and every cell in your body knows you're alive."

Thus speaks a man in love with his work. Martin remains fully engaged with all aspects of his job as manager of the Alan Chadwick Garden: planting, propagating, pruning—and passing on the knowledge he has acquired over four decades.

"I get to hang around really bright, motivated Gen X'ers and Millennials who go on to succeed at things I would never dare to try," Martin says of the students and apprentices with whom he shares his days. "I just love these kids. They are so intrinsically motivated. They want you to teach them, and they want to go out and do things. They're the light of the world."

If it sounds like Martin has the dream job, he'd be the first to tell you no one would have predicted it 40 years ago.

This snapshot of Orin Martin is pinned to a garden bulletin board that is crowded with yellowed newspaper clippings and faded notes.

An unlikely gardener

"Growing up, gardening to me was an onerous chore my old man made me do when I messed up," Martin recalls.

That changed after his arrival in Santa Cruz from Boston in 1969. Having dropped out of college and evaded the draft, he landed in town, heard about the fledgling campus garden, and began to spend time up on the hill. 

Only two years before, Alan Chadwick had been hired by the university to establish a campus garden. He chose the steep, rocky, poison oak-covered hillside below Merrill College to prove that gardens can flourish anywhere.

And flourish it did, without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Chadwick, a charismatic man who attracted a loyal band of hardworking students, introduced biodynamic, French-intensive gardening, using compost to enrich the soil and tight plantings to outcompete the weeds. Martin volunteered in the garden and was inspired as the hillside came to life. Off campus, he helped establish a network of local community gardens. In 1977, a few years after Chadwick left, when UC offered Martin a job managing the garden at the princely salary of $600 per month, he snapped it up.

Before long, the Apprenticeship in Ecological Horticulture was reinstated, following a lull in the wake of Chadwick's departure, and Martin's career as a master gardener and professional educator began in earnest.

As a teacher, scholar, scientist, and poet, Martin considers himself a perpetual student, still curious and inquisitive. Looking back on 40 years, he smiles and says, "I've never had a real job. I have no academic background. I've learned by the seat of my pants."

Orin Martin in his element, teaching. (Photo by Elena Zhukova.)

Trial and error yields success

The farm and garden are "outdoor laboratories" for university research on pollinators, soil biology, predatory insects and parasites, crop yields, weed suppression, and more.

"We had no idea about the vast complexity of soil biology, but by happenstance, we created the Farm and Garden with tremendous biodiversity above and below the ground," says Martin. "This was way before anyone talked about sustainability or food systems or food access. There was no organic food industry."

Today, the Farm and Garden operate under the auspices of the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), which is the oldest university-based organic research and education facility in the country.

"Orin is a miracle of mentorship. He is a classic teacher, driven equally by his wonder for gardens and the pure joy he gets in seeing his apprentices and students learn," says CASFS Executive Director Daniel Press, a professor of environmental studies. "If Santa Cruz ever has a 'Gardener Laureate,' Orin Martin should be the first one.”

And like sun-dried seed pods that crack open to cast their contents far and wide, Martin and the other Farm and Garden instructors have spread their knowledge literally around the globe by training more than 1,500 apprentices and a growing number of undergraduates, and by publishing texts, handbooks, and online manuals.

Sharing knowledge

The apprenticeship today is a full-time, six-month residential program; it was scaled back from 12 months in 1981, in part because participants found it challenging to take that much time off—and instructors were drained by the intensive style of teaching with no break between sessions.

"We teach in the apprentice tradition, working side by side in the field," says Martin. "Teaching is superimposed on the maintenance and upkeep of the garden."

Field work is fused with the scholastic model: apprentices receive 800 hours of field instruction and 300 hours of classroom instruction. For instructors, the workload has increased over the years as CASFS has added a formal internship program for UC Santa Cruz undergraduates. Now, in addition to teaching 39 apprentices each year, Martin and his colleagues teach 25 UCSC student interns each quarter—and turn away an equal number who would enroll if they could. "It's a mini-apprenticeship with instruction in soil and bed preparation, propagation, crops, fruit trees and pruning, soil fertility, and cover crops," says Martin.

More than 100 varieties of apples thrive in the Alan Chadwick Garden, where more than 250 varieties of peppers have been grown over the years, says Orin Martin. (Photo by Elizabeth Birnbaum.)
More than 100 varieties of apples thrive in the Alan Chadwick Garden, and more than 250 varieties of peppers have been grown over the years, says Orin Martin, shown here hoeing garlic. (Photo by Elizabeth Birnbaum.)

A legacy of doing things for people you may never meet

All around the Farm and Chadwick Garden, the legacy of previous apprentices is evident.

"For 50 years, people have been doing things for people they might never meet," says Martin. "Starting with clearing the brush for the garden and taking a pick axe to the rock-hard soil."

Subsequent cohorts installed irrigation, built greenhouses, broke sod to establish the Farm, and—always—nourished the sandy, nutrient-deficient soil.

Today, the garden's soil is "dreamy," like a three-foot layer of chocolate cake, says Martin. 

The science of soil systems and organic farming has advanced exponentially, as has the knowledge of Martin and other professional staff. And today there is a vibrant network of graduates, who support and open doors for each other as urban farmers, environmental educators, community gardeners, and more.

"It's a great experience to get in on the ground level of anything, but people who come now experience the maturity and robustness of the program. I don't know which one is better," muses Martin.

Orin Martin during the celebration in his honor on July 11, 2017. (Photo by Melissa De Witte.)

What's next

After years of operating on soft funding and being better-known off campus than on, the Center is enjoying increased visibility and greater financial stability.

"We'd be better-suited to a community college," says Martin. "And yet it's great for both sides of the equation that we are here. Educational fashions change, and now internships and hands-on learning are in vogue."

A legendary storyteller, Martin's tale of his own affiliation with the Farm and Garden is rich with references to others who have traveled the path with him, including Founding Chancellor Dean McHenry ("a Lompoc farm boy who knew the value of the ag lifestyle") and Louise Cain and Phyllis Norris, wives of faculty members Stanley Cain and Ken Norris ("in another time, Louise and Phyllie would've been the CEOs running companies, but they were faculty wives, and they poured all their energy into this place"). So many have been part of what Martin calls the "narratives of grace" that have enabled this unique program to endure.

"They could see the germ of this place even before organic farming became trendy," he says.

Although he diligently avoids bureaucracy (he functioned for years without email and rarely uses the telephone), Martin has been an ardent advocate for the Farm & Garden. Above all, he is beloved by apprentices and colleagues. One even named her baby after him.

On July 11, a small group of apprentices, staff, and friends gathered amid the resplendent roses of the Alan Chadwick Garden to honor Orin Martin for 40 years of service.

Martin spoke first, pausing to compose himself as he recognized the 1,500 apprentices who "dug up the meadow… and made the soil," as well as his colleagues and CASFS leaders. "I guess what I wanted to say is thank you," he said.

Among those paying tribute was Christof Bernau, a 1994 apprenticeship graduate and garden manager of the Farm who has worked alongside Martin for almost 20 years. He read from a poem written on the occasion of Martin's 25th work anniversary by then-apprentice Erin Barnett: "Like all good farmers, Orin is still growing, still learning, and still immensely dedicated to the craft."

Damian Parr, research and education coordinator for CASFS, spoke affectionately of the garden and Martin's role in it: "You facilitate everyone's connection to it. You've been a 'yes.' That's how I think of you. You've been a 'yes' to everyone who wishes to connect with this place."

Presented with a trademark yellow pad and a Sharpie, Orin said: "I'm a rich man. I have no money in my pockets and I have holes in my jeans, but I am a rich man."