Organic Gardener Shares Knowledge

When organic gardener Alasdair Coyne, 35, left his native Scotland for Ojai a dozen years ago, he was astonished at the variety of plants, the year-round growing season--and the large garbage cans overflowing with trash and yard clippings.

“In Scotland, people had tiny garbage cans because they used everything they could in other ways,” Coyne said of his motivation for helping found the nonprofit Recycling and Environmental Action Program (REAP), which has operated a monthly curbside collection program in the Ojai Valley since 1978.

Coyne’s inherent dislike of wasting resources of any kind, including his own time, has grown into a passionate activism for other environmental causes.

Although he is happy tending his two-acre garden around the spacious home he built overlooking Ojai--where he gives monthly workshops on food production and drought-tolerant landscaping--Coyne’s convictions also have taken him to congressional hearings in Washington to urge the designation of Sespe Creek as a wild and scenic river.


According to Coyne, if Ventura County residents used more efficient plumbing and irrigation fixtures, the amount of water saved would nearly equal the amount a dam on the Sespe would provide, and at a much cheaper cost. Others, however, say that even with conservation, the county may desperately need a dam.

As secretary and conservation director for the nonprofit Keep the Sespe Wild Committee, which has 5,000 supporting members, Coyne has turned the home he shares with his wife, Eloise, into the headwaters of a flood of correspondence to save the Sespe.

On Saturday, he was on his hands and knees showing a group of amateur gardeners how to install drip irrigation so that not a drop would be wasted.

Coyne is also an advocate of using natural mulches to prevent water loss. He also uses compost, fish emulsion and other natural soil improvements, wire baskets to deter moles and gophers from attacking plant roots, soap sprays for aphids, orange peels to attract sow bugs and cheap beer to seduce slugs so they can be killed with a shovel or hoe instead of chemical-laden pesticides.


His year-round garden boasts 200 plant species and 40 varieties of fruit trees, including mango and jujube. He even grows his own wheat to grind into flour for bread.

Despite his extensive plantings, prunings and hand-dug weedings, Coyne said he devotes only about three hours a week to his garden and never has to go to the store to buy any produce.

“I use my time efficiently,” he said. ‘It’s a fascinating pastime. If people spent more time in their gardens, growing their own food, think of the resources society would save in packaging and trucking.”

The son of an agricultural biochemist, Coyne was raised in Scotland, educated in France and Germany and able to join his father in Kenya for a summer to further broaden his agricultural studies. He worked as a gardener at Brockwood Park school in England, established by philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, until the Krishnamurti Foundation of America paid Coyne’s way to Ojai so he could cook at the Ranch House for the thousands who flocked to the the philosopher’s annual talks. Coyne later took care of the restaurant’s herb garden for years.

Darlene Rand, a recent workshop participant and an Ojai psychotherapist, marveled at Coyne’s “wonderful tips and easy-to-do” techniques. He also shares them in a monthly column for a local magazine.

“I learned it’s not so complicated to be an organic gardener,” Rand said. “I took pages of notes and have already started to use them. Now I wish my gardener would go to one of his workshops.”

“It’s absolutely certain that people in 50 years will be enjoying life with much less personal use of resources, whether they like it or not,” Coyne said. “If they are educated about those issues, which I hope to help them be,” he said, ‘they will be able to make better choices and adapt their lifestyles rather than being forced to change because there is no other way.”