Tucked away in the Arroyo Grande Valley on ancestral Chumash land, the Franciscan novitiate is a 13-acre property located in a coastal ecosystem surrounded by live oak woodland, coastal chapparal, bunch-grass grassland habitats, and agricultural/ranch areas. Over the past couple years, novices have been busy at work on different agroecology projects on the property and on a neighbouring historic site.
On the grounds of the St. Francis Novitiate at Cupertino Heights, the novices—since the beginning of the friars’ formation program on the Central Coast of California—have tended to a large friary vegetable garden. Beginning in the year 2020, a few months after the pandemic hit, one novice—friar Cristofer Fernandez, OFM Conv.—decided to take the initiative to enhance the garden and the surrounding grounds by sowing wildflower seeds for native pollinators and to implement companion planting to increase nutrient retention in the soils. The following season, friar Wayne Mulei, OFM Conv. was attentive to crowd control and crop care. The yields of tomatoes, string beans, carrots, peppers, squash, and cucumbers seemed to increase by a significant margin.
In the front of the friary property, friar Cristofer also rehabilitated a large patch of a median covered in non-native invasive ice-grass (a succulent plant introduced from South Africa) with a wildflower meadow. Although ice-plant produces attractive purple and yellow flowers and is used for commercial erosion control, friar Cristofer began the project aware that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife discouraged landowners to use it and encouraged native plant alternatives. Native seasonal grasses and wildflowers have better suited root systems for the local environment and are helpful for attracting beneficial insects and wildlife. Additionally, friar Cristofer was able to embellish the wildflower meadow with a few Umbrian sunflowers.
On a neighbouring property about five miles away, the novices offered ministry time to edify the restoration of a historic cultural site of the region: the Dana Adobe. The adobe is the historic home of Mexican land-grant owner Captain William Dana and his wife Maria Josefa. Their estate was an important stop on El Camino Real between San Luis Obispo and San Lorenzo and the first exchange site for mail in California between Monterrey and Los Angeles. Rancho Nipomo (their ~38,000-acre ranch) played a significant role in the developing economy of the Central Coast. The novitiate property today sits within the historic geographic boundary of the rancho. The novice friars helped break ground and built a “kitchen garden” as a historic demonstration plot for the adobe and their environmental education programs.
In addition to helping the land manager, Ben Lapinski, with other restoration projects, the novices worked steadily over the course of two years (several volunteer days between the two novice classes) to complete the garden project.
Although the garden has some modern features that are not authentic to the 1800’s, the plants and planting method are. The staff and volunteers of the Dana Cultural Center will use the Three Sisters method of traditional Native American agriculture. Everything grown will be edible and even used for products like cups, bowls, containers, or musical instruments.
The bulk of the labor was done by the 2020-2021 novice class (of whom, unfortunately, there aren’t many photos of at work—they were just such diligent workers they neglected to take any).The kitchen garden project was finished in February of 2021. The friars and local community rejoiced at the completion of the project and are excited about the ‘fruits’ it will produce for students and visitors for many years to come.
– friars Joseph Wood OFM Conv. & Maurice Richard OFM Conv.