On August 6, 2021, Gabriel Howearth, a gardener extraordinaire, seedsman, pioneer of the organic farming movement, biodiversity champion, and co-founder of Seeds of Change, was involved in a tragic accident near Lo de Marcos, Mexico. After attending a concert with friends, he was a passenger in a truck that was swept away during a flash flood. The truck was found later but Gabriel was not, and he is presumed dead at age 67. Those close to him believe he possibly was washed out to the Pacific Ocean. His family has given the American Botanical Council (ABC) permission to publish this tribute.
Gabriel was born on February 26, 1954, in Los Angeles and grew up in Southern California. Among his activities, he was a choirboy and an Eagle Scout, played baseball and tennis, enjoyed surfing, and studied Latin for four years at Servite High School in Anaheim, California. He also enjoyed astronomy and gazing through his telescope, watercolor painting, and playing musical instruments, including his acoustic guitar, electric guitar, and sitar. Throughout his youth, his interest in plant life grew, whether it was planting watermelon (Citrullus lanatus, Cucurbitaceae) seeds or bringing home a twig that eventually produced delicious Calimyrna figs (Ficus carica, Moraceae).
At 18 years old, at Fullerton College in Fullerton, California, he reportedly started his first garden. “I was interested in diversity even then,” Gabriel was quoted as saying in a 1990 article in the Los Angeles Times. “I planted vegetables, flowers and culinary herbs. And I always farmed organically.”1
During his college years, he took every opportunity to travel in his green and white Datsun pickup. Some of his destinations were Monument Valley on the Utah-Arizona border; Antelope Canyon near Lechee, Arizona; and his favorite stop: Arcosanti, an experimental town in central Arizona that the Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri established.
He attended and graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UC Santa Barbara), where he majored in music and computer science. There, he was impressed and motivated by the farming and practicality of a local Santa Barbara community of Hutterite people (a branch of Anabaptists). The diversity of Santa Barbara in the 1970s inspired Gabriel when he later developed the Seeds of Change farm (originally a seed-saving company) in Gila, New Mexico, and the Buena Fortuna Botanical Gardens in Baja California Sur.
Gabriel did his graduate work in architectural landscaping at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UC Santa Cruz). There, he studied with Alan Chadwick (1909–1980), an English master gardener, horticulturalist, innovator of organic farming techniques, and student of Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), an Austrian philosopher and founder of the biodynamic approach to agriculture, which is similar to organic agriculture but also uses spiritual and astrological methods.1
At UC Santa Cruz, Chadwick had set up a garden based on the “French intensive” method, in which plants are grown within a smaller space and with higher yields than other traditional gardening methods. Gabriel also later studied with Peter Dukish, who was another student of Steiner and was starting a significant community garden and tree-planting project in Los Angeles. Around that time, Gabriel earned the nickname “Farmer Gabriel.”1
Chadwick told his students that if they really wanted to learn about farming, then they should study with Indigenous peoples. So, Gabriel, whose grandmother was part Rarámuri (an Indigenous people of northern Mexico), farmed with the Hopi, O’odham, Pueblo, Quechua, and Rarámuri tribes in North and South America. But, “it wasn’t until I tried to break my farming destiny and attend acupuncture school in Santa Fe that I realized that the Spirit wanted me to keep farming in New Mexico,” he was quoted as saying.1
In 1984, the elders of San Juan Pueblo, a Native American community about 30 miles north of Santa Fe, invited Gabriel “to help them develop skills that would allow them to return to the native lands they had all but abandoned in favor of city-based US government jobs,” he was quoted as saying. “They wanted to regain their once-thriving and now fast-disappearing culture rooted in the soil.”1
Gabriel, two village leaders, and three apprentices started a three-acre test plot with about 300 plant varieties. “Part of the San Juan project involved searching for many types of old seeds that had been preserved for generations in gourds, pots, and other vessels as well as in the adobe walls of buildings and in the root cellars of traditional [Native American] pueblos throughout the region,” Gabriel was quoted as saying. “Someone found some seeds of the sacred red corn [Zea mays, Poaceae] of San Juan, which hadn’t been grown for 40 years, and planting it again felt like a spiritual homecoming for me.”1
Gabriel also successfully grew native varieties of black garbanzo beans (Cicer arietinum, Fabaceae), chili peppers (Capsicum spp., Solanaceae), melons (Cucurbitaceae), and squash (Cucurbita spp., Cucurbitaceae), and reportedly introduced or reintroduced amaranth (Amaranthus spp., Amaranthaceae) and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, Amaranthaceae) to the area.1
That experience inspired Gabriel to start Seeds of Change in 1989 with Kenny Ausubel, an author and filmmaker who also co-founded Bioneers, and Andre Ulrych, a macrobiotic chef and organic foods expert. By 1990, about 700 plant cultivars grew at the company’s 120-acre farm in Gila in southwestern New Mexico. The farm had a 250-day growing season and bordered about 3 million acres of national forest. Many of the plants grown on the farm were high in amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and protein.1
“This region is an overlap of the Atlantic, Rockies and Madrean regions, and these conditions give us the potential to grow one third of the world’s flora varieties on this farm with collections of plants that grow in similar ecologies worldwide,” Gabriel was quoted as saying.1
“We’re specializing in growing hardy, high-nutrition foods that are drought-tolerant and require very low maintenance,” he added. “Our goal is to get all kinds of people, even those who work and have limited leisure time, to grow their own food — in their backyards, on their balconies, or on their rooftops.”1
By the late ’90s, he found a 10-acre piece of land (which expanded to about 20 acres) in the town of La Ribera on the Sea of Cortez in Baja California Sur. There, Gabriel created perhaps his most impressive garden: The Buena Fortuna Botanical Gardens. With a year-round growing season, this desert coastal land on the Tropic of Cancer has an abundant water supply from an aquifer fed by the Sierra de la Laguna, a mountain range at the southern end of the Baja Peninsula.2
At Buena Fortuna, Gabriel, with his then-wife Kitzia Kokopelmana, tended more than 3,000 tropical plant species from around the world, including many rare species. In the “kinship” gardening system, which groups together species in the same plant family but from different parts of the world, plants from Chile, Ethiopia, India, Madagascar, Oman, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Southeast Asia, and Yemen flourished under Gabriel’s care.2 According to Kokopelmana, she plans to continue the work of the Buena Fortuna Botanical Gardens with two of her and Gabriel’s sons (email, January 19, 2022).
In a Bioneers interview, Gabriel said, “The plants and seeds we grow are shared with other botanical gardens and private collectors so that they can be preserved in different situations. The strategy is to make sure that whatever you collect you spread to each continent that has a similar climate, so that if there is a climatic condition (or some other cause) in which that plant species perishes, it will be preserved in another part of the world.”2
In 2008, Gabriel and his family were living temporarily in the town of San Pancho, Mexico, to escape the hurricane season of Baja California. One sweltering day in September, he and his son, Aloe, went swimming and developed severe earaches. Aloe’s infection cleared up, but Gabriel’s led to meningitis and pneumonia. He was in a coma and was given a 10% chance to live. Subsequently, he was temporarily unable to walk, speak, or swallow and had to be fed with a feeding tube. He continued to rehabilitate and improved significantly but never fully recovered. Still, he maintained his enthusiasm for biodiversity and organic farming.2,3
Ausubel recalled first meeting Gabriel in 1985 in Gabriel’s “magical ark of a garden” at San Juan Pueblo. “Standing in the enchanted biodiversity garden in ‘the Land of Enchantment,’ Gabriel oscillated between looking like a hippie surfer and a biblical prophet,” Ausubel wrote (email, September 29, 2021). “I had never seen anything like this [garden]. It was a biodiversity wonderland…. Gabriel knew and loved each variety as if it were his extended family. The garden was bursting with vitality, imagination, and breathtaking beauty.… Gabriel and I went on to found Seeds of Change in 1989 as the first national organic biodiversity seed company. The intention was to spread ‘backyard biodiversity’ through backyard gardeners and small farmers. We were part of a new wave of eco-agriculture, organic foods, and, above all, seed diversity.
“Gabriel lived for the healing of the planet he so passionately cherished and revered,” Ausubel added. “So many of us have benefited from his vision, inspiration, and activism. In the early days of the original Seeds of Change biodiversity farm in Gila, New Mexico, I will always remember him as the vital, unstoppable force of nature out there on the land for 18 hours a day with an all-star team of tanned master gardeners. I called it the Olympics of organic farming. May his spirit shine on and continue to inspire and activate us.”
Rosemary Gladstar, an herbalist, author, and founder of the United Plant Savers (a nonprofit plant conservation organization), first met Gabriel in a garden in Applegate Valley, Oregon, in the early 1980s. “From that first meeting, I recognized him as a brilliant, impassioned plant genius,” Gladstar wrote (email, October 5, 2021). “He had a profound knowledge of plants, farming, and gardening, which seemed like an innate part of his spirit. In many ways, he reminded me of a wild-haired, barefoot version of Luther Burbank, another plant genius who gardened with a passion.
“For all of us who happily garden with heirloom seeds today, we have Gabriel, in large part, to be grateful for,” Gladstar added. “A true visionary in every sense of the word, Gabriel brought his vision alive in the extraordinary gardens he created and left behind to continue to educate others and beautify the Earth. I bow my head knowing this brilliant, humble plant emissary is no longer with us, but I’m grateful to know that his legacy lives on through his gardens, his teachings, and the hundreds of varieties of seeds and plants that he helped preserve for future generations.”
Gabriel also founded and directed Siempre Semillas (“Always Seeds”) AC, a Mexican nongovernmental organization (NGO) to preserve seed diversity through teaching and planting. He consulted for many projects, including “Dreaming New Mexico,” a Bioneers’ initiative intended to provide a blueprint for a local food system at the state level.4 In 1999, he also helped design ABC’s educational gardens at the organization’s historic 2.5-acre headquarters in Austin, Texas.5 Gabriel created his last garden with his brother, Desmond, in Grass Valley, California. Its purpose was to teach and feed his family in a post-pandemic climate.
To those who knew him, he was a passionate, optimistic, and tireless defender of plant diversity and an amazingly creative horticulturalist and permaculturist (one who practices permaculture, a system of agriculture that emphasizes renewable natural resources and enrichment of ecosystems) with a profound green thumb.2 Gabriel Howearth is survived by his mother Maria; brothers Bob, Desmond, and Jack; former wife Kitzia; sons Aloe, Iaos, Kumar, and Quetzal; daughter Maya; grandsons Ryker and Willie; and granddaughter Kiara. He is predeceased by his father Douglas and brother Gregory.
- Roderick K. The New Naturalism: A New Mexico Gardener’s Living Laboratory: Agriculture: Seeds of Change organic farmer seeks to put diversity back into the food chain. Los Angeles Times. November 29, 1990. Available at: www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1990-11-29-fo-7177-story.html. Accessed January 8, 2022.
- Mangan A. A Tribute to Gabriel Howearth, Champion of Biodiversity. Bioneers website. Available at: http://bioneers.org/a-tribute-to-gabriel-howearth-champion-of-biodiversity-zmbz2109/. Accessed January 8, 2022.
- Howearth G. Six Months Later. Permaculture Guilds website. April 1, 2009. Available at: www.permaculture-guilds.org/pipermail/scpg/2009q2/004201.html. Accessed January 8, 2022.
- Dreaming New Mexico. Bioneers website. Available at: http://dreamingnewmexico.bioneers.org/?_ga=2.178490212.1763335641.1641588083-583854914.1638304663. Accessed January 8, 2022.
- Engels G. Renowned Horticulturist Designs ABC Gardens. HerbalGram. 1999;47:12.