Spring 1998

By Norma Jean Langford

From the ferry landing, day-trippers wander past a marina crowded with yachts. On Sausalito’s main street, they window-shop Versace gowns, jewelry and paintings, but commuters head for a wedding cake fountain flanked by cement elephants. Here a ceremonial stairway rises straight and steep into the cliff face, and from it trails fan out along property lines to backyard gates.

Sausalito’s residential streets wind across the cliff face. On the uphill side, stairways and cleated driveways disappear into terraces of China blue agapanthus. Downhill, garages cantilever out into space like boxy bowsprits, and blackberries grow as big as two thumbs – accessible only to birds, the dropoff is so steep. At a switchback near Harrison Avenue, on an eighth of a mostly vertical, east-facing acre, Sausalito’s only farm clings to its niche.

“I wanted to do something different – specialty organic vegetables,” says Catherine Schepens Wainer. “So the first year we grew a little bit of everything, little squares of beets, lettuces, baby potatoes – I was just learning. We had watercress planted at each catch basin. One day a chef offered $10 a pound for watercress, and the next day I pulled all the lettuce.”

Her farm, Sausalito Springs, depends on an ancient well built by Chinese laborers before the turn of the century. “Captain Harrison used to live on the estate,” she says, indicating a clump of bamboo and ginger uphill. “He used to sell firewood and well water to ships – fishermen, whalers, lumber ships. They used to roll barrels up the hill, fill them up, then roll them back down.”

By 1988, when Catherine began to consider farming, the lot had been taken over by a huge compost pile and wild loquat trees. Princess vines grew up the telephone poles and across the wires. The well, a 20- by 15-foot ellipse, had a rotted redwood top. “My husband and I put the canoe in there, cleared all the edges – then rented a mud pump. We had two men shoveling mud for a month. Then they built a form inside the old well and poured cement.”

Following the natural slope of the hillside, the Wainers built nine terraces, each 6 feet wide and 3 or 4 feet deep, resting on an underlayer of rock and clay similar to slate, called “chert.” They used redwood and treated posts “installed the year before they were prohibited,” says Catherine. “They’re green and last longer. We’ve never had to replace them, but when we do, it will be with cedar or redwood.”

Then they installed two submersible pumps. One boosts well water up to a Japanese feature in the estate above, a little stream that tumbles over rocks among bamboo and trees. The stream then cascades from terrace to terrace into the watercress through a system of pipes and catch basins, back to the well. Each catch basin is fitted with a thick wire screen to prevent leaves from clogging the pipes.

“The water is always flowing, which oxygenates it,” says Catherine. “Watercress likes oxygenated water and clean minerals, iron and calcium.”

The other submersible pump serves sprinklers that irrigate the plants and keep them cool. During the peak summer season, she sets the sprinklers to go on every hour, from 8 to 4, for half an hour, “and if the nights are hot and still, I’ll add some other times to it.”

The Wainers filled their terraces with compost from the original pile. “A wonderful little man from El Salvador screened it for us so we didn’t have to purchase any topsoil, except for one little corner,” and Catherine continues to make new compost from the estate using grass clippings, oak leaves, Japanese maples, coastal California oaks, anything small. The compost is finely screened before it’s applied to the soil.

For fertilizer, she uses rock dust high in minerals that she gets from another certified organic farmer. “We mix it with compost or steer manure, or in winter, chicken manure.” She adds lime to the well water every two weeks to keep it clean.

To maintain her organic certification, she sends in a soil sample every couple of years. “You make a list of everything you buy that is an off-farm input – when you bought it, the rate you spread it, what brand you used … They [California Certified Organic Growers] send it to a lab and you get a form back which tells you the content of your soil. They’re pretty stringent. You need to add things to the soil, not just take things out. They want to know if you have good growing practices.”

Her French watercress, Nasturtium officinale, belongs to the mustard family. It grows naturally in eddies of streams in California, and in the gutters below her farm, carried in the storm drain.

“We got the seeds from France. It takes longer – two-and-a-half months – than lettuce before it becomes a harvestable crop. Every year I think it will all die. I’ve actually collected seeds, but never used them because it reseeds itself … and now we’ve developed our own variety. When it blooms, it makes a flower similar to alyssum, a spike with a long stem, seed pods, and fewer leaves.

“What works with watercress is constant harvest. It’s not like tomatoes, where you have to wait six months, and all kinds of things might happen. Watercress grows really fast. In 24 hours, you can tell the difference. You step in it, and two days later your footprint is gone, and it’s growing in that space.

“Once you harvest lettuce, the plant starts to die. But watercress will continue growing in the bag and stays really fresh for a week in that bag. Larger leaves will turn yellow, but new shoots will still grow at the base of the leaf.

“The cultivation of watercress is a French and English tradition. They consume in England as much watercress as Americans consume iceberg. Growing it is a family tradition, handed from father to son. Methods have not changed in 200 years.”

Because Catherine has family in Belgium, she has visited watercress farms near Ghent.

“There they cut it with a knife, then bunch it, pack 12 or 24 bunches in a box … and it wilts. So they put ice on top. Then the ice bruises the watercress, and by the time they get it to market, it looks terrible. In restaurants, they need to prep it because it comes in bunches.

“When we harvest, we cut with scissors – tops only – pack it in two-gallon zip-lock bags, two pounds at a time, $22 a bag.

“Our product is ready to go on the plate. It gets a double wash here, and we hydrocool it – set it in the shade under the sprinklers and the breeze comes through and the sprinklers come on and it gets stiff and crisp and really cold.

“We supply some of the best restaurants: Queen’s Restaurant in Fort Mason, Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, some of the Real Foods restaurants – Fog City Diner in San Francisco, Buckeye Roadhouse in Mill Valley, Wolfgang Puck’s Post Rio Restaurant in San Francisco. We don’t have a marketing problem, we have a production problem. We could sell twice as much.

“I have never seen such a small farm that’s financially viable. But what makes this work is we’re right next to the market. I can be at a restaurant at 7 a.m, when the chef has two minutes to chat, when the product is fresh. I walk in … and the chef either knows what watercress is, or doesn’t and won’t use it. They usually call that day and say, ‘Bring us more.’ ”

Urban farms are the way of the future, Catherine believes, because the greatest food costs are packaging and transportation. In addition, “If you buy services from the person next door, you’re giving your community a life of its own,” she says.

Catherine’s peak season runs from April to August or September, followed by an in-between season. During a Sausalito winter, when the nights are longer and the sun lower, watercress doesn’t grow so much, so in January she shuts down for a month.

“We had a freeze here once, ice on the waterfalls, and all the watercress froze. Some of the beds returned because it reseeded, and in other beds the stems resprouted.

“Watercress doesn’t like wind. It likes to be protected, moist. We get winds from the plains in the spring, but we turn the sprinklers on.”

Weeds don’t plague Catherine. “We get some grasses, but it’s not a problem.

“The raccoons come to play in the water. We have goldfish, some tree frogs – they’re so small, I have no idea where they are – snails, slugs, earwigs, critters of all sizes and shapes, a lot of ladybugs, a whole world at the bottom in the mud, and we just let them be. We cohabit. Snails and slugs eat the damaged leaves.”

She doesn’t fret about vandalism or theft because neighbors look out for each other. “They all like this – we could have had a condo here.” Newcomers bought the house next door because they loved the view of the garden and the sound of running water.

Catherine leases her farm from the uphill estate. In addition to the water she pumps to their Japanese brook, she provides water to several other landscapes nearby. She spent about $24,000 to start her farm and needs about $5,000 a year to keep it going, mostly for land taxes and electricity. “This is a low cost operation. No tools. No machinery. No advertising. We’re right next to the market, and I get orders all the time that I can’t fill. We gross about $30,000 a year.”

She hopes to expand, probably in western Marin near Tomales or Reyes Station, so she’s training Tori Kingsbury to be her field manager. Most of her own watercress education has come from the National Agricultural Library in Washington, D.C., from a French book, and from trial and error.

What advice would she give? “Come spend a month here.”

Norma Jane Langford, a freelance writer, lives in Massachusetts.

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