Beth Benjamin: Horticulturalist

Cultivating a Movement

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Read the full text (PDF) transcript of the oral history with Beth Benjamin.

208 Beth Benjamin. Photo by Bob Grunnet.

Arriving at UC Santa Cruz in the fall of 1967 for her first year of college, Beth Benjamin was immediately drawn to the colorful beds blooming on a hillside below Merrill College. By springtime, she had joined the core group of young people working in this new campus garden under master horticulturalist Alan Chadwick. One of very few women to enjoy Chadwick’s steady mentorship during this period, Benjamin eventually arranged for a leave of absence from the university to devote herself to the garden—a hiatus that became permanent when her passion for the project overtook her interest in formal schooling.

Benjamin married another Chadwick protégé, Jim Nelson; in the early 1970s, the two of them moved to four sunny acres in Santa Cruz County’s San Lorenzo Valley in order to build their own blooming Eden. Still thriving in 2009 as a non-profit educational organization, Camp Joy Gardens offers, according to its mission statement, “a model for an alternative future, a trial ground to experiment with, develop and practice organic techniques and explore related philosophies and ideas.” Camp Joy sponsors farm apprenticeships, educational offerings for children and adults, and a community supported agriculture program. Locals flock to the Gardens’ annual spring plant sale and its fall harvest celebration, which features dried-flower wreaths, varietal honeys, and other Camp Joy bounty.

Eventually, Benjamin and Nelson amicably went their separate ways. Since then, Benjamin has worked a number of jobs, including several years with Renee Shepherd’s garden seed company. Although she has not lived at Camp Joy in more than two decades, she remains actively connected to the enterprise. She also volunteers with the Friends of the [UCSC] Farm and Garden—sustaining the legacy she helped create more than forty years ago.

Sarah Rabkin interviewed Beth Benjamin at Rabkin’s home in Soquel, California, on June 30, 2009.

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