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Memories of a groundbreaking garden in Mendocino

(Earlier this month, Kate Frey introduced readers to Michael Maltas, her mentor at the former Fetzer Valley Oaks Ranch. She continues his story, recounting his efforts to develop the ranch’s storied gardens.)

I met Michael Maltas in the summer of 1986, when he and Jim Fetzer stopped by the former New Boonville Hotel in Anderson Valley where I managed the half-acre garden for the hotel’s restaurant.

Maltas and Fetzer told me about their plan for a 6-acre organic showcase garden in Hopland, very near where I lived. To me, it was unbelievable a project with such scope and ambition could be happening in a rural area like Mendocino County.

Later that summer, after the owners of the hotel departed in the middle of the night, abandoning the business, I started working on “the garden project” at what was then Fetzer Vineyard’s Valley Oaks Food and Wine Center. At that point, it was just a plan on paper, and earmarked for a not-very-promising site on the ranch.

Maltas, director of the project, recalled that the Fetzers didn’t shy away from big undertakings.

“They epitomized the American bigness. It seemed extravagant, especially after Missouri where Suni (Metzer’s wife) and I scrounged everything,” he said, referring to the time he farmed 5 acres in America’s heartland after emigrating from what is now Zimbabwe.

There were many initial challenges. The carefully planned 6-acre cover-cropped site became a lake the first winter. As the water retreated, a big French drain was installed. A bulldozer ripped the soil before it had dried sufficiently in spring and turned the heavy clay soil into giant chunks of compacted cement that had to be pulverized into powder.

Our first plantings of tomatoes, melons and peppers grew poorly in the white powder-like soil and were subject to spider mites. All the fruits were sunburned from weak foliage cover. It was very discouraging and a problem obviously not quickly remedied. The second winter, with much of the garden precisely laid out in raised beds, water pooled in the garden interior, and the plants and cover crops died from lack of oxygen and root rot.

Despite these setbacks, and with the rest of the ranch undergoing rapid reconstruction, there was real time pressure to create the showcase Maltas had described to the Fetzers.

Because the winter cover crops needed for building organic soil wouldn’t grow under the waterlogged conditions, Maltas needed vast amounts of organic material. Jim Fetzer suggested using the mountains of grape pomace at the winery, then considered a waste product of winemaking.

“Before I knew it, multitudes of giant trucks arrived and covered the whole site with 6 inches of pomace,” Maltas said. The resulting cover crops were 2 to 3 feet high and dark green from root oxygen, nutrients, the California sun and water. Thanks to the red grape pomace, the garden began to take off. Permanent beds became softer and more friable each year and pathways harder and harder.

“We got strong growth early — quicker than the Biodynamic manual suggested possible,” Maltas said.

I had been growing vegetables organically since my childhood in Berkeley. But Maltas, with a British horticultural and agricultural background that then far surpassed typical American experience brought a completely new level to my approach to gardening. These skills have been essential in all my international projects and have translated worldwide.

What to plant?

We looked for vegetable varieties that would grow well and express rich flavors in the clay soil, the long hot summer and cool wet winter of Hopland. But Maltas was stunned by how little information was available.

Extensive variety trials ensued. We planted about 25 to 30 varieties of each type of vegetable, plus many types of flowers, table grapes, herbs and fruit trees. We sourced seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange and seed companies with hot summer climate zones, like Texas.

Each season brought surprises. Some vegetables were ambrosia like the Galia and Crenshaw melons; others were extremely bitter like the lettuce black-seeded Simpson. Large butter lettuces like Nancy melted in the mouth and brown buttercrunch lettuce like the Italian Canasta had nutty flavor.

Maltas’ plan was to quickly narrow the varieties to the best. Journalists who visited the prolific, vibrant site loved all the varieties and photo opportunities it presented. The garden morphed into a demonstration variety trial garden, with almost daily tastings on a table under the big oak tree in the garden’s center.

“No one else was doing this at the time, and it really caught the press’ imagination.” Maltas said. The garden attracted writers from the Los Angeles Times to The New York Times, and even Vogue magazine. Journalists, economists and scientists visited from Japan, Europe and Australia as well as executives from major corporations like Cargill and American Airlines.

“When they came, they were impressed,” Maltas said. “The project had credibility.”

Noted chef John Ash joined the Fetzer company and with staff set up in the new demonstration kitchen next to the garden. The well-preserved 1890 barns were converted into a hospitality center, tasting room, guest rooms and courtyards. Festivals like the Celebration of American Regional Cuisine in July 1990 followed, with celebrity chefs and guests like Julia Child presenting regionally focused dishes.

Winery visitors, journalists and distributors were given extensive educational tours and tastings focused on the line of quality grapes and wines produced with sustainable and organic viticulture practices intersecting with organically produced food from the garden.

The essence of it all was the setting in the beautiful, rugged hills and fertile valleys of Mendocino County. Watching visitors’ faces and expressions as they toured the garden and tasted the cornucopia of produce with wine in the midst of such vitality was a moving experience. It has inspired every project I have undertaken.

The Fetzer family sold the company to Brown Foreman Corp. in 1993. The culinary, hospitality, garden and other departments were downsized in 1996. I became garden manager in 1996 until 2006, when the property was closed and later sold.

“When I see people now who visited the Garden Project, and former employees, their faces light up,” Maltas remembered. “They all say it was fantastic. It was an era that we took in stride because we were in it.”

And it’s an era that influences many still.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at: katebfrey@gmail.com, freygardens.com, Twitter @katebfrey, Instagram @americangardenschool

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