Mark Rice

Surrounded by sugar cane at the Altadena Community Garden.

Surrounded by sugar cane at the Altadena Community Garden.


master gardener, educator, nature’s advocate, community organizer, visionary

Mark Rice has been planting seeds in and around Pasadena for more than a decade.  His favorite activity is to teach kindergarteners the fun of playing with worms, sticking their hands in mulch, and seeing how interconnected life is.  If he had his way, every school and home would have a learning garden that functioned as a place to grow plants, food and more connected citizens.

Here is our recent conversation which features art in gardening, climate change, Pasadena Learning Gardens, collaboration and the future of the planet:

What is the mission of Pasadena Learning Gardens? What have been some of its most valuable accomplishments?

The mission was originally to help communities reconnect to nature and our food, and evolved first to building resilient communities and later expanded to helping us reconnect to our communities, our selves, our place, and our time.

Over the years we’ve supported the birth and rebirth of multiple learning gardens and have taught hundreds of adults and children to grow food and understand why “real” food is healthier than “franken” food. We’ve also facilitated a number of community dialogs looking for ways to collaborate to identify common goals and use local expertise to provide solutions that profit driven systems are not delivering.

Tragically, we found that our culture’s scarcity thinking impedes collaboration and this needs to be changed. This is made more painful in light of what we’ve learned in the garden, from bees, to microorganisms, to whole systems that make up nature – nature models collaboration in ways we must strive to understand let alone emulate.

How would you describe the trend in recent years for the development of urban community gardens? What has been the driver for their creation?

Historically necessity has been a big driver. Food access, food security, financial concerns have all been significant drivers. Ironically / wonderfully, this has led to the building of community. In the UC Master Gardener Victory Garden Classes we offered, I came to realize that it was the community that emerged; with its shared sense of meaning and identity, empowerment, and a re-connection to natural systems that ended up being the greatest benefit we offered. The same is the case in many community and school gardens, especially those that are largely community supported.

In addition, many families have converted their front yards to growing edibles, how much land does a family need to grow a significant amount of food at home? Can you live off the land in the city?

It’s possible to get a lot of food from four beds that are 3×6 feet. Four, because to maintain production it’s important to rotate crops and this makes things easier. A number of people do harvest a significant amount of food off their land in the city but it is a full time job. I’ve found it is best to grow the things that you love and are more difficult to attain (because of price or availability). Again, more than food, it is an issue of empowerment. 

You have mentioned many times the joy you receive while working with children in elementary schools. What is it about those moments that are so extraordinary?

Kids are amazing. I find that working with kids in a garden reveals an enthusiasm and openness that brings me significant hope. Our curriculum is based on microorganisms in the soil and in our gut and the profound level of interconnectedness this demonstrates.

If we can change the trajectory of our youth towards informed consumption and a little humility when it comes to nature, the benefits over that child’s life to the child and society are significant. Kindergartners in particular have proven to be capable of great focus and presence, something that I’ve found much less of in our city run high schools.

Nature certainly has suffered due to human impact, how might we better connect city dwellers to the environment to understand more intimately the outcomes of our actions?

This gets right to the heart of the issue as I see it. I think we do understand the outcomes of our behavior and work extremely hard at avoiding this truth and rationalizing our behaviors.

We are in the midst of the 6th great extinction where for the first time in history life is being exterminated by a group that is part of life. I witness diabetic moms sneaking candy bars, school nutrition “experts” bringing fried food to share with overweight parents, troubled kids suffering from obesity being “rewarded” with candy and sodas, and people who survive this life by indulging in outrageous consumption – I think the future will judge us harshly.

And I deeply appreciate how ingrained this behavior is, in me and the world. Overwhelmed? Not sure what to do? Lot’s of us in that club, but we need a new one.

How has climate change impacted gardeners?

We pick the plants and can replace even trees so gardens can adjust. However, for instance, last year most people had terrible pest problems with their tomatoes due to the high temperatures and this year there will be almost no apples grown in our neck of the woods due to last winter’s heat.

For nature there is a bigger issue as it can’t be managed as closely. For example, we have lost millions of trees in California due to the drought, this has also caused all pines to under produce sap which makes them much more vulnerable to fire and pests, so we really can’t even calculate the size of the loss.

Where do you go to find a place of rejuvenation?

Do you have processes that you use to re-center and re-energize yourself?

I find solace in music, art, meditation and community. In each case I look to experience the connection that I find at the root of all life. I used to be a very enthusiastic meditator looking to attain some level of enlightenment.

Now, while I still find meditation of great value in cultivating a more calm consciousness and giving me more focus, I have also seen that we are aware of this connection (the enlightenment that I pursued) and my goal now is to stop working so hard to not see it. I love a great meal with friends, but curiously am finding that I need to look into the darkness – in my personal and collective life – with equanimity and compassion if I’m to really re-center myself.

Would you describe yourself as an artist? If so how does artistry manifest itself in community gardening?

For a number of years I was very involved in facilitating small groups, one of which was The Artist’s Way. Working through the materials it became clear that nurturing and adjusting the flow of a group’s interests and concerns was something that I loved and was my creative outlet. I now believe that we are all called to honestly communicate what we are experiencing and I’ve challenged myself to paint, draw, write and play more music.

Who has influenced your thinking about working with nature and why?

I grew up in Northern California and have spent a lot of time in the Sierra’s between Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, and frankly nature has taught me the most about nature. I have always admired John Muir and his finding that by going out he was going in. I love Michael Pollan’s work and used the video of Botany of Desire with many groups. I studied Environmental Ethics at UC Santa Cruz as an undergrad and think highly of Thomas and Wendel Berry, Annie Dillard, and more recently I love what Prince Charles has written, in particular his small book “The Future of Food”.

For someone who generally kills plants instead of causing them to thrive, what suggestions do you have for a brown thumbed person to grow at least some of my food?

It’s really all about being a little ahead of the curve. Putting the right plant in the right spot at the right time makes life much easier. There is no way to cram for a garden, other than perhaps buying plants instead of growing from seeds, though the later is much more cost effective (especially as you can save seed) and provides access to many more varieties.

Now if you seem to have the feared black thumb of death, I’d recommend starting small, some herbs and a couple things you really like. And document what you do (when and where you planted the crop, what variety you grew, and what problems arose. Then you can get much more helpful assistance from a local nursery or the Master Gardener helpline.

The stress of our intense summers also necessitates more vigilance and perhaps growing some kale over the winter will be more satisfying. Also, I have a “gardening” tab on my website with lots of Southern California specific gardening tips and resources.

How do we as humans figure out how to work together effectively in small groups without killing each other in order to solve the complex problems that we face these days?

Another hat I wear is the Garden Coordinator for Hathaway Sycamores where we work with emotionally challenged youth. These kids have helped me see that our primary hope is to cultivate a more connected existence and this comes from owning and releasing a lot of painful memories. Time in nature, time in silence, time in honest community, all seem to help us cultivate a greater level of emotional intelligence and focus, these being what I see as a priori skills that seem sorely missing in our educational systems.

I also have been working with the Ojai Foundation and their “Council” process where we integrate traditional indigenous processes with an awareness of our current understanding of psychology and neuroscience.

This has been the big eye opener for me. Plants in nature, along with organisms in the soil and above it, collaborate with an efficacy that shames many human organizations I’ve witnessed, and for me it highlights the impediments presented by our egos and self image.

How do you feel today about the future of the planet?

I often claim to be a long term optimist and believe / hope there is truth in the cliché that it is darkest before the dawn, because frankly it’s pretty dark. It is a tragedy what is going on with many of the human constructed systems we have in place. Education, food production, transportation, healthcare and big pharm, even spiritual development, etc. etc.

The hubris that we know better than nature, with the primary driver being profit, needs to be more fully examined. I see kids on the fast track to diabetes drinking multiple sodas, I see people driving personal trucks to go to the market or church, I see food that no one even a hundred years ago could imagine, and I think of the environmental degradation and human oppression my comfort relies on.

That said, while I don’t see the dawn I do see an amazing array of people who care deeply and are putting their backs and their dollars into finding new solutions. I tell the kids that every time they have something to eat they are voting, for their health, for the environment’s health, and for balance in our economy. I really believe that the solution is deeply linked to honestly connecting to our communities, our environment, our society and ourselves.

Surrounded by grapefruit in Altadena.

Surrounded by grapefruit in Altadena.