Camp Joy Featured in the Winter 2022 Issue of Edible Monterey

“Celebrating 50 years of edible education at Camp Joy”

Written by Emily Beggs
Photography by Doriana Hammond

Just off Highway 9 in the San Lorenzo Valley lies Camp Joy Gardens— a humble headwaters of California’s early sustainable agriculture movement. Established in 1971, the eden-like family farm is a hidden treasure in the redwoods and operates as an educational non-profit. Evergreen forests enshrine the farm’s diverse row crops, orchards, goat pens and beehives, which have been tended by cohorts of students and apprentices for more than 50 years. Camp Joy is far from alone in offering teachings on organic farming in the Monterey Bay area, but its notable founders and picturesque grounds have made it a Santa Cruz Mountains landmark, preserving a local legacy of connecting to nature through food production.

As I approach Camp Joy’s wide farm gate, a giant wood and metal sunburst, I’m greeted by a trio of McNab collies napping with one eye open under pear trees and a tangerine 1963 Chevy flatbed truck streaked with purple flames. Everywhere bees hum, and the riverine scent of the valley mingles with the fragrance of herbs and blossoms planted to please them.

For dozens of apprentices, summer campers and home schooled children, the rainbow patchwork garden and stained glass studded main house with its large, airy kitchen have served as a temple of sorts. Camp Joy is a place where many hands labor together under a shared covenant with the natural world, venerating the industrious honey bee and archiving the gifts of each season in ciders, jams, pickles, teas, salves and seed libraries. I’ve come to interview Jim Nelson, co-founder and legendary beekeeper, and Towhee Huxley, his daughter and Camp Joy native, both as a curious writer and a former student. In the late 90s, I was a summer camp participant ecstatically chasing insects down arbored garden pathways and filling my pockets with dangling string beans, wild blackberries and perfumed lemon verbena leaves along the way.

According to Nelson (with a little help from Bob Dylan), it was “a simple twist of fate” and “good fortune” that brought a 4½-acre former horse pasture under the stewardship of a group of UC Santa Cruz dropouts. Nelson and Beth Benjamin, daughter of American abstract classicist painter Karl Benjamin and to whom Nelson was formerly married, originally learned about the land during a visit to their mentor’s office at UC Santa Cruz. There, they spotted a letter pinned to the wall from Boulder Creek resident Cressie Digby offering up the property that would become Camp Joy Gardens. They accepted that offer and with a lot of help from friends, built a home, barns and a series of simple dwellings on the property.

Nelson and Benjamin’s mentor was Alan Chadwick, a man whose distinguished green thumb left its technicolor floral imprint on gardens from the United Kingdom to South Africa and then westward on to a sunny slope adjacent to Merrill College at UCSC. Nelson describes Chadwick, born in Southern England in 1909, as “other worldly folk,” a man who “seemed like he had stepped out of the pages of the library.” A lover of nature poetry penned by symbolist and romanticist poets like Yeats, Keats and Milton, Nelson was drawn to the former Shakespearean actor turned gardening revolutionary, known to intersperse fragments of English folklore with erudite discussions of nature’s exquisite inner workings. Chadwick more than occasionally barked his instructions on how to appreciate and attend to a garden, and was notorious for what Benjamin has described as “mercurial moods,” which left many students hungry for his teachings yet unable to access them. But it was in Chadwick’s garden that the seeds for Camp Joy were sown, germinating as a place where the garden itself serves as mentor and muse.

“Alan was hard,” Nelson recalls. “People wanted to learn his method, away from him.”

Like Chadwick but without the hard edge, Nelson is known for his playfulness, singing, love of the arts and fascination with nature—wild and cultivated. During my visit, he reveled in the magic of having held a hummingbird in his hand in order to free it from the barn loft—the same loft where his daughter Towhee was born in 1976.

In contrast with Chadwick, the form of education that Nelson helped establish at Camp Joy is about freedom, joint effort and weaving the learner into every aspect of farm life, from sprouting seeds to communal cooking…

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