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Going Native

Utopia isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. When Boonville resident Ken Montgomery arrived here 36 years ago, he hadn’t read the fine print in the Utopian Primer that specified making a living was part of the program.

KenMontgomeryIt’s not that Ken was opposed to work. One doesn’t receive degrees in subjects covering exotic pursuits such as horticulture, botany, and fire ecology, one doesn’t become a research scientist and teacher, and one doesn’t become employed at places like the Los Angeles County Arboretum and UCLA without tremendous dedication. In mid-career, Ken had accomplished many things in the fields that had called him ever since he can remember. But when he informed his colleagues of his decision to leave the intense world of academia in order to move his family to the North Coast, they told him he was crazy. But, as he could not be talked out of his decision, his became another adventurous family packing up and making a home in Anderson Valley. It was 1978.

Logging had been king here for a hundred years, but by then the stands of trees had pretty much been hammered and change in the Valley was in the air. Ken’s move was timed with young people arriving with dreams of getting back-to-the-land and making a different world that would never be confused with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New one. But for Ken, joining the community came more naturally than trying to reform it. He and his wife purchased a parcel of flat land in Boonville directly across from Anderson Valley High School and set up a plant nursery intending to have a sane life and to pursue his passions with all things “natural world.” He made friends with the neighbors, joined local groups and put his two children in the schools, though a few old timers teased him about growing and selling plants that they ripped out at every occasion. So far, so good.

It has taken Ken most of his years here to admit he is not a born retail merchant. Oh, he and his wife did the work, all right.  They created the first-ever nursery in town, Anderson Valley Nursery, selling plants, garden starts, seeds, trees, supplies and all the accoutrements of the business. But the joy eluded them and when your heart’s not in it . . . well, there are novels written about that.

Looking back, he should have read the signs earlier. By the mid-Eighties he was working 14-hour days to make ends meet and not feeling very fulfilled. So he gladly responded when the Central Valley commercial bare-root fruit tree grower, L. E. Cooke Co., approached him to breathe new life into the Sierra Beauty apple. Ken explains that apple varieties fall in and out of favor, and though once hugely popular, Sierra Beauty had become largely forgotten. This, of course, meant there were few trees available from which to obtain bud wood for grafting, the necessary means to clone descendants. It turns out that Philo’s George Gowan still had mature trees on his land and in short order Ken and George got the Sierra Beauty back on its feet. He admits to pride now when he sees catalog listings for it, knowing the essence of those trees came from right down the road.

Around 1990, a series of events urged Ken to cut back his operations in the nursery and garden center and to move into the life of a wholesale grower.  U.C. Cooperative Extension asked if he would consider propagating Italian oil-type olives that might be grown commercially in Mendocino County.  Tapping into his training both in horticulture and genetics in this way excited him.  With cuttings from the U.C. Davis olive variety collection, Ken grew more than 200 plants, which were distributed to cooperators for field-testing.  Supported by a university grant, the olive project encouraged him to return to his passion for other plants from the Mediterranean.  While in Los Angeles, he had developed several rockroses and worked extensively with rosemary and lavender and he picked up where he had left off.  He bred and introduced two new cultivars of lavender – the lovely inter-specific hybrid ‘Lisa Marie’ named after his eldest daughter, and ‘Ken’s Best’, a vigorous selection with great taste and fragrance.

Another Mediterranean tree of interest was Italian stone pine, the species that produces edible pine nuts, used in authentic pesto. Ever inquisitive – the dominant trait of geneticists and breeders – Ken thought to look into growing edible-seeded Piñon pines native to the desert Southwest as well as Gray (Ghost) pine from the inner Coast Ranges and Coulter pine from the Sierra foothills.  Thinking that the potential market for pine nuts was huge, he felt sure that he could do what he loved and make some money.  There was one small drawback to this project being profitable: Piñon pines grow very slowly, often only about an inch a year.

In 1993 the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg was searching for a new Executive Director and having been a long-time volunteer there, Ken got the job.  For almost three years, he traveled to the coast during the week, while still maintaining his Boonville nursery on weekends.  He effuses about the Gardens and its mission but never really got used to the climate of Fort Bragg, especially the chilly summers.  Nevertheless, the experience was profoundly important.  It brought a degree of closure to his 30-year academic career.

When that period ended, Ken returned home with a renewed sense of purpose for native plant propagation and watershed restoration.  As a joint venture between his nursery and the high school, he co-created the Mendocino Natives Nursery Project to lead two programs for students. First was the development of a nursery and greenhouse at the high school to contract-grow local Native American food trees and shrubs. Second was the restoration of habitat on a 3-acre site along Anderson and Robinson Creeks using those plants:  Oaks, buckeye, California bay, madrone, toyon, California blackberry and wild rose.  Although not planned, the site also provided an historical perspective and new insight into connecting with local food.

Over a 12-year period, more than 40 students were mentored and trained as paid interns.  Funding came from a combination of nursery plant sales, grants and private donations and Ken is grateful for the support of public agencies, foundations, community groups and volunteers.  In 2011 Ken handed the project to Linda MacElwee and Patty Madigan of the nearby Navarro River Resource Center.  With the help of volunteers, Linda has created an interpretive Creek Trail through the area as a resource for teachers, classes and the community.

What is restoration of habitat?  When land becomes spoiled through man’s activities or through natural causes (such as fire, landslide and erosion), as one of its sensibilities – as one possible solution – our culture now sees that effort should be made to return that land to its natural state.  Of course this is not true in many places, but projects that do garner this treatment become the focus of extensive skill and appreciation.

Restoration is not a matter of planting some trees from a local nursery and throwing grass seed shipped from Kentucky.  Because local ecologies developed over millennia, simplistic approaches to fixing their complex webs fail on many levels.  Vegetation in every location is site-specific, which means each type of plant, its range, and even the location of each specimen is the result of a vast wisdom we humans are just beginning to be able to imitate.  It is the job of meticulous, crazy people like Ken to marshal a range of scientific disciplines to assess, understand, configure and implement such projects.

Therefore when looking for plants to use for restoration, one tries to draw genetic material from as close to the site as possible, say, within a mile or two.  Reaching out farther, plants in a particular watershed are likely suitable for use in that watershed.  Beyond that, one tries to find adjoining watersheds of matching characteristics. Sometimes, though, compromise between high standards and common sense isn’t possible.  For instance, California State Park guidelines are so strict that if plants are not available from or adjacent to the project, the whole activity can be scuttled.

Though Ken has to be prodded to move outside of congenial ease, he expresses dismay at the assault humans are making on the environment.  “Earth doesn’t have to be destroyed for us to live on it,” he says.  When considering the effect of capitalism, commerce and corporations, he admits to fighting a deepening cynicism.  While he maintains good relations with most local vintners and vineyard people, he states that the way wine grapes are grown nowadays is not farming; rather it is industrial land conversion.  Ken laments that the changes that have occurred in Anderson Valley since the early 1980s have never been discussed as public policy and have never been voted on.  He advises the younger generation to be cautious about accepting the Brave New World now upon us, to question the change, to find out who’s behind it and to act accordingly.

Appropriately for residents of this locale, he recites Daniel Boone’s maxim to move twenty miles west into the wilderness every ten years to escape the influx of people who dragged with them the world he was trying to avoid. Fortunately for us, unlike Mr. Boone, Ken won’t be moving west. At age 71, he’s at the stage of seeing the wisdom of hunkering down and tuning certain things out. And since culture is running amok, someone has to stay to repair the damage.

Standing back one sees Ken’s work evolving over the decades in a way similar to the plants that are so much of his life—slowly, deliberately—from retail nurseryman to plant breeder to native plant propagator to restoration mentor.  Joyful to be helping the next generation of plant people, he teaches in the California Master Gardener Program and is active as a consultant.  He is available by appointment and his nursery is open on occasional Saturdays. Behind the scenes, he and one part-time employee have embarked on custom propagation and contract growing.  Most of the plants they will produce are for projects over the horizon – restoring habitat as well as damage from wildfires, construction mistakes, and disasters that have not yet happened.  Ken takes the long view and the natural world is better for it.

(This is one of a series of articles by the AV Foodshed covering food and agriculture in our area. The entire series of Connecting with Local Food may be found at

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