Meryl Gwinn. File photo
Meryl Gwinn. File photo

By Meryl Gwinn

Tucked inside the agricultural corner of San Juan Capistrano, the antique Victorian-homestead headquarters of the Ecology Center blends quietly with the backdrop of the Spanish Mission city, and serves as a treasure trove of ideas and inspiration for healthy and eco-friendly living.

Entering the center, which borders the oldest working farm in Southern California, is like going back in time, except that the energy in these parts is anything but static. The center’s one-acre is home to the general store, surrounding gardens, greenhouse and eco labs and has quickly become an exciting venue linking the past and future, creating an engaging niche for community events and educational outreach.

The Ecology Center’s mission is simple: to inspire positive change to the environment of Southern California. Their concept—empowering people with tangible tools to create healthy communities—addresses real questions such as: How do we ensure the future health of our oceans? How can we make our homes healthier? How do we manage food supply and waste? How can we support the children of all species for all of time?

It’s a refreshing endeavor and Evan Marks, the center’s founder and executive director, is creative in his pursuit. And in a time when our local paradise is facing some burdening changes, the center seeks to unite our community in a fun way to provoke big ideas.

So what does that look like? Regular workshops, lectures and cooking classes emphasize healthy and sustainable practices. Seasonal community table events host collaborations with local chefs where meals are prepared from ingredients harvested directly from the grounds and enjoyed with new friends in a picturesque courtyard setting. Like-minded people come together to practice permaculture, natural building techniques and renewable energy solutions. Ecotoberfest is on the calendar for the end of this month, celebrating the “drink local” movement with live music, fresh baked fare and a local brew master discussing the sourcing and production of organically crafted brews. The balance of responsible environmental work with joyful appreciation of the community connection is fundamental here.

Visit and park in the dirt lot shared by the neighboring South Coast Farm Stand and be greeted by a wonderland of native plant species all labeled and marked for medicinal, craft or food relevancies. A medley of lavender and citrus beckons you deeper into the neatly landscaped gardens, and a farm cat may even stroll across your path. Suddenly, you’re not on the freeway anymore.

Enter “Tools For Change,” to find a simple yet modern general store, full of classic provisions, eco-approved home and skin care products, DIY kits, backyard manuals, and freshly jarred local honey, jam and nut butters. The Victorian home housing the store was originally built by the Pony Express rider, Joel Congdon, in 1878 on Orange County’s first walnut grove. The structure was the first wooden house in town, constructed from California Redwood and rock from the Great Stone Church at Mission San Juan Capistrano. Beside the store, it is fitted with an adorable vintage kitchen for events, as well as a library and mini museum documenting the history of our county in terms of food, water, shelter, energy and transportation.

Just outside, wide-eyed young people cruise the Waste Lab, where chickens help illustrate the zero-waste concept. Garden scraps are fed to the chickens, then their waste is added to compost to feed the garden. The chickens provide fresh eggs as well. The core message is one of sustainability, answering the question: How can I give more than I take?

Following an afternoon here, you can’t help but leave with a renewed sense of responsibility and enthusiasm. The project begs the questions: How can we live closer to nature’s perfect model? What can I do to help my environment to thrive?

The answers are all about preserving traditions that have worked for ages—such as food preservation and rain water collection—while creating tools to adapt to today’s challenges, like installing a grey water system in your home.

So then, what better location to bridge this gap than the relic that is the Congdon House?

Gracefully put by Jeff Davis, director of outreach, “As one of Orange County’s oldest standing embodiments of the past, (the Congdon House) serves to remind us that we must act today to rejuvenate the environment for the generations to follow.”

Check out their website at and take a visual guided tour of the property. You may just find yourself inspired by the many resources offered to get activated in your own sustainable practices at home. Then share them with your neighbor and contribute to a healthier, happier movement and give back to the land that we love.

Meryl Gwinn has a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology, has studied yoga, health, food, and humans around the globe. She is a constant pursuer of natural medicine and whole-healing solutions. She believes in the power of choice, simplicity and plants as preventative medicine. She is committed to inspiring this change in self and in system. Gwinn welcomes reader feedback at

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comments (1)

  • Well, I’m humbled. Did you know what a tiffin or a tubtrug was? I didn’t. But the Ecology Center has them. In fact, at the cost of nine bucks a pop you could have a tubtrug party for the neighborhood tots ( and you can have your own duck haven. Sprouted jar lids (yes, I’ve sprouted my own garbanzos), an urban homesteading manual, a Local Only T shirt, Organic Body Recipes (hey, a previous Gwinn topic!), and even Eco Center glass pints are available at a very reasonable cost.

    I shop at South Coast Farms all the time but have never followed through on my curiousity of the neighboring house. As I live nearby I will soon correct this. Besides Timmy the cat who sleeps at SCF register there is a three legged dog who patrols the grounds taking names (in his mind at least- he bothers no one.)

    IF the DP Times sponsors a Conscious Living organic feast at the Eco Center, I’ll be there. Oh yeah. With my newly acquired reusable bamboo utensil set.

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