Gardening at the Dragon's Gate: At Work in the Wild and Cultivated World


Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate is fundamental work that permeates your entire life. It demands your energy and heart, and it gives you back great treasures as well, like a fortified sense of humor, an appreciation for paradox, and a huge harvest of Dinosaur kale and tiny red potatoes.

For more than thirty years, Wendy Johnson has been meditating and gardening at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in northern California, where the fields curve like an enormous green dragon between ...

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Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate is fundamental work that permeates your entire life. It demands your energy and heart, and it gives you back great treasures as well, like a fortified sense of humor, an appreciation for paradox, and a huge harvest of Dinosaur kale and tiny red potatoes.

For more than thirty years, Wendy Johnson has been meditating and gardening at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in northern California, where the fields curve like an enormous green dragon between the hills and the ocean. Renowned for its pioneering role in California’s food revolution, Green Gulch provides choice produce to farmers’ markets and to San Francisco’s Greens restaurant. Now Johnson has distilled her lifetime of experience into this extraordinary celebration of inner and outer growth, showing how the garden cultivates the gardener even as she digs beds, heaps up compost, plants flowers and fruit trees, and harvests bushels of organic vegetables.

Johnson is a hands-on, on-her-knees gardener, and she shares with the reader a wealth of practical knowledge and fascinating garden lore. But she is also a lover of the untamed and weedy, and she evokes through her exquisite prose an abiding appreciation for the earth—both cultivated and forever wild—in a book sure to earn a place in the great tradition of American nature writing.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Wendy Johnson shows how the garden and the shared table reconnect us in a profound and visceral way to the earth. A beautiful book and an invaluable resource.”—Alice Waters, founder, Chez Panisse

“Wendy Johnson follows in the footsteps of Thoreau . . . Her book is succulent, full of surprises, wise, tender, tough, and delicious to read. It is for everyone who wants to live a rich, deep, life.”—Jack Kornfield, author of A Path With Heart and After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

“A glorious book . . . deep philosophy with dirt beneath its fingernails.” —Bill McKibben, author of The Bill McKibben Reader: Pieces from an Active Life and The End of Nature

“Truly magnificent, a treasure—one of those rare books that you hope, without knowing, will appear in your life. It will keep you in good company for years and years.”—Deborah Madison, author of The Greens Cookbook and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

“A bountiful harvest of wisdom, humor and passion by a master gardener who has spent a lifetime cultivating the soil and the spirit.” —Will Rogers, President, The Trust for Public Land

“This book is a long memory of a relationship with earth.  I am in utter awe of the gusto with which Johnson tells her story.  Read one paragraph and you'll long to hold dirt in your hand.”  —Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind

“Part Zen Koan, part love poem to the land, part master’s manual in the art and craft of gardening, Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate satisfies body, mind, and soul like a really good meal.—Michael Ableman, farmer; author of Fields of Plenty

“Flower and fruit of a lifetime’s horticultural experience, this master work goes far beyond the practical gardening advice it offers in abundance. Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate is full of profound meditations on the chemistry and poetry of botany, geology, and natural history, all rendered in Wendy’s unmistakably rich voice. An instant classic.”—Norman Fischer, teacher and founder, Everyday Zen Foundation; author of Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up

"If Earth took a human voice, it would be Wendy's: wry, fierce, passionately attentive to detail, and so startling in its wild freedom it's almost scary. . . . This book is a tonic to the soul. I dare anyone to read it and not be shaken into a fuller, gladder life.” —Joanna Macy, author World as Lover, World as Self

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553378030
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/26/2008
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 601,239
  • Product dimensions: 7.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Wendy Johnson is one of the founders of the organic Farm and Garden Program at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County and now lives with her family in nearby Muir Beach. A Buddhist meditation teacher who is deeply engaged in environmental work nationally, she is an advisEr to the Edible Schoolyard program of the Chez Panisse Foundation and has helped to establish many garden programs in public schools and local communities throughout the Bay Area. Her column, “On Gardening,” has appeared in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review for more than ten years. This is her first book.

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Read an Excerpt

Valley of the Ancestors

The Voice of the Watershed

In Chinese there is an old word composed of two root characters: shan (mountains) and shui (water). For the last thirty-some years I have been gardening, meditating, and teaching in both a mountain and a water landscape on the edge of the San Andreas Fault line in the Bay Area of northern California. I lived for much of that time at Green Gulch Farm, a Zen Buddhist meditation and retreat center with a working organic farm and garden. Green Gulch Farm is located on the western margin of North America, about a half-hour’s drive north of San Francisco, at Muir Beach in Marin County. Now I live nearby, still in the deep bottomland of Muir Beach on that delicate seamline where solid earth floats, buckling and shifting without notice.

Green Gulch Valley is a very old place. The soil was formed under the Pacific Ocean, the deepest and largest ocean in the world, which now breaks at its edge. Green Gulch soil is really compressed ocean bottom, heaved up millennia ago to become dry land. Made of the intensely folded and faulted rocks of the Franciscan complex, this bottomland soil includes Mesozoic marine sandstone and shale, chert, seafloor volcanic rock, and rare metamorphic rock interlaced with compressed marine fossils. When I look deeply I see that we are growing lettuce on the bottom of the ocean.Mount Tamalpais, the sacred mountain of the native Ohlone tribes of the Bay Area, rises abruptly from the steep ocean cliffs at Muir Beach, climbing two thousand five hundred feet to its summit. Diaz Ridge, the foot ridge of Mount Tamalpais, defines the northwestern boundary of Green Gulch Farm, while Coyote Ridge, another part of the Coast Ranges, marks the southeastern margin of our watershed. In between these craggy coastal mountains, the green dragon snakes out to the sea.

Brush and ink paintings of Chinese landscapes show endless misty mountains molded by running water, or still lakes reflecting raggedly clouded peaks. These landscapes are never solid, never static. Always in motion, they move just below the rolling fog. The great thirteenth-century Zen master Eihei Dogen writes in his “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” that the green mountains are always walking and that they travel on water as well as across land. The mountains and rivers of this time and place are also never only what they seem to be.

I first read the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” in 1975 at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Tassajara is a seasonal monastery and retreat center in the Ventana Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest that, like Green Gulch Farm, is a branch of the San Francisco Zen Center. I copied the sutra out by hand and still reread it every year. “Although mountains belong to the nation,” wrote Dogen, “mountains belong to people who love them.” Gardeners are mountain-and-river pilgrims. We commit ourselves to the landscapes we know and love, traveling over their jagged terrain step by step. When I slow down and read the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” carefully, or when I step up close to a Chinese scroll, I always find a tiny human figure tucked between the folded canyons of the green mountains, meandering with the aid of a crooked pilgrim’s staff through the shallow backwaters of rivers without end.

The first time I saw Green Gulch Farm I was on foot, and feeling like that tiny pilgrim lost in a Chinese landscape painting. When Peter Rudnick, not yet my husband, and I decided to leave the mountain wilderness of Tassajara in the autumn of 1975 to help San Francisco Zen Center establish a small organic farm at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, we decided to make the pilgrimage to Green Gulch on foot.

I had been working in the garden at Tassajara and I did not want to leave, but Peter was eager for the move. He loved change. So, in high spirits, he led our hike out, while I dragged along like a reluctant exile. The Tassajara tomatoes were just coming into color, and I was walking out. The dark opal Japanese eggplants were finally growing plump and ready to harvest, and I was walking out. The work positions at a Zen monastery are rotated every year, which is supposed to keep Zen students from becoming attached to one job or one identity. But it was too late for me, far too late. I had already dedicated countless hours of precious Zen meditation to plotting the layout of the Tassajara garden: ‘Touchon’ carrots sowed in early April in the lower garden would follow the winter crop of Chinese cabbage. By late July the carrots would be pulled and followed by a sowing of rhubarb chard for next autumn’s kitchen. A blood sample taken from any part of my body would have confirmed the bitter truth: I carried in every corpuscle the incurable obsession of gardening.

It took us three full days to walk out of the wild and geologically young mountains, the age of the Himalayas and just about as sheer. Eventually I picked up my pace, the call of the coast pulling me now through the Ventana Wilderness. It was almost dark on the third day when Peter and I finally pushed out of the chaparral underbrush into the dark redwood canyons of the coast above the Big Sur River. We smelled of the loneliness of walking for hours on unmarked trails. Woodsmoke from our nightly fires filled our hair. I was repeating lines from the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” to myself as we walked, as a magical incantation so that I would never forget Tassajara. “If you doubt mountains walking, you do not know your own walking; it is not that you do not walk, but that you do not know or understand your own walking . . . at this moment, do not doubt the green mountains’ walking.”

I remember the cool winds coming up from the redwoods of the Sur River canyon as we headed northwest to the coast. We heard the thick blood of the river pumping through the granite veins of the canyon. Far in the distance white shorebirds circled in slow hypnotic gyres below us, calling and sailing on the updrafts, the ocean a scant five miles away. It was almost dark by the time we finished our descent to the river canyon. We made a fire of broken redwood branches and oak leaf duff and cooked the last of our carrots and potatoes into a stew. We had a little hard bread left over and a heel of leathery Parmesan cheese. We ate without speaking, too tired to talk. I lay down and watched the stars appear at the top of the ancient redwoods. Peter rolled out our sleeping bags while I tracked the appearance of the North Star in the dome of the night.

In the closing hours of the night, when the coals of the stars were banked in the soft gray ash of dawn, we were wakened by the thunderous sound of a redwood tree falling in a steep side canyon of the river. We heard the tree creak and break, fifteen or sixteen loud reports like cannon fire, and then the long downward surge of the falling giant. The sound went on forever as the tree crashed down through other redwoods and finally fell on the thick duff litter of the forest floor.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Into the Tangle     ix
Valley of the Ancestors     3
The Voice of the Watershed
Getting Down to Bedrock
A Forest Thicket
Gardening for Five Hundred Years
Root Teacher
The Garden Makes the Gardener     53
The Blue in Beets
North Star Plants
The Three Sisters
Leave the Flowers to the Wind
The Threshold Oak
The Living Soil     87
The Ground of Beginner's Mind
True Grit
The Flow of Fertile Soil
The Web of Life
Life into Death into Life     121
Nature's Round
The Breakdown Ball
Arranging Garbage
Spreading the Wealth
Tending the Garden     163
Bare Noting
Water So the Soil Can Dry Out
Flowers Fall, Weeds Thrive
Cutting Through
No Trace
Gardening with All Beings     205
Pest or Guest?
Stiff-Spined Pests
Scarab Beetles and Assassin Bugs
Medicine and Disease Subdue Each Other
The Dung and Drool Garden
Returning to Origin     261
Inward Seeds of Fire
Purity and the Horsetail Fern
Propagating Mystery
Roots and Shoots of Eden
Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha
Gift-Bestowing Hands
Beauty Counts     311
Divinely Superfluous Beauty
Plotting Paradise
The Wind of the Family House
Tales of Eden
Harvesting Fields of Greens     359
No Anonymous Food
The Mamadella's Garden
Keep the Links Alive
Dragon Greens
Resources     401
Permissions     428
Acknowledgments     429
Index     431
About the Author and Illustrator     445
About San Francisco Zen Center     446
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2010

    Do Not Miss This Book! ! !! !

    DON'T MISS THIS! IT IS EXCEPTIONAL!!! One of my all time favorites! I have read it again and again,,, I too loved EVERY page! Covers a wonderful variety of basic gardening elements, down into the very soul of the gardener.. BRILLIANT!!!!!!!!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 1, 2009


    My interest in the bigger picture of "gardening" began in 1972, this story begins then and is as relevant if not more so today. It is a beautifully written journey back to the garden. I loved every page.

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