When I went poking about The Weather Channel for links on the warm winter, I was reminded how very much I dislike that site: There’s always a threat or a disaster or a catastrophe of some kind. (My mother would say, of the weathermen when a blizzard threatened, “They get so excited and put on their sweaters.” And then, more often than not, the blizzard would blunder off into the Gulf of Maine.) Climate’s a concern; weather isn’t, unless putting people in fear gets them to buy tickets to DisneyWorld, or buy whatever heap of crud, crap, and corruption the marketers have dreamed up for them depending on whether it’s sunny or snowy or raining. So I went on over to the sane, sober, and fact-filled Weather Underground — no, no, Stasi algorithms and apparatchiks, not that Weather Underground — and found this terrific post from The Garden Coach: “What One Gardener Can Do.”
It’s easy to become discouraged these days as we’re bombarded with disheartening news about our natural world. Climate change, polluted water, depleted water supplies, loss of habitat and the creatures that depend on it – the list of parts of the web of life under serious threat is depressingly long.
It makes one wonder if there’s anything to be done, if there’s anything a single person can do.
But gardeners can make a significant difference in restoring the health of the planet by adopting practices that protect habitat and encourage natural vigor and resiliency.
It’s the healthy practices of millions who share this view, taken together, that can have a significant impact. And there are growing numbers of people all over the world who want to help make a difference.
This, to me, is an important and correct observation; we might think of “Move Your Money” as a successful implementation of this concept; not so much a mass movement, but a movement of a very large number of people coming to similar decisions in parallel.
I should start by saying that while I derive great pleasure from having a garden, I derive much less pleasure from working in my garden; in fact, I try to avoid work whenever I can. Further, thank The God(ess)(e)(s) Of Your Choice, If Any, I’m not a peasant: If the crops fail, I’m not going to starve. That said, I do see growing food as a valuable skill to learn, a hedging strategy (as it were) against the day when The Trucks Stop, which up here at the margins in Maine really is a concern, though a background one at present. Anyhow, read the whole thing; but I’m going to take the Garden Coach’s do-list (items bolded) and comment on it from my own growing practice on my own small patch of land.
My basic perspective is that you should trust the garden centers in the big box stores about as much as you should trust a bankster trying to upsell your their latest and greatest innovation; not at all. Don’t go near them, and don’t give them your money. Like the Weather Channel, garden centers market by putting you in fear — basically, of looking bad to the neighbors or, heaven forfend, losing “curb appeal” — and then getting you to process your garden with oil (pesticides, fertilizers) or other proprietary compounds (“organic” pesticides). There’s no concept of a garden as a seasonal, cyclical, deeply intertwingled and above all uniquely situated system where life proceeds from and returns to the soil, moved by the sun, the air, and water, and moved, too, by our own senses of beauty and taste. Nor could there be, since every patch of ground is different and takes ten years to learn, and there’s no rent to be had from that. The very term, “Garden Center,” is a misnomer: Every garden is its own center. So, things to do:
1. Stop using pesticides. Besides polluting the water and evolving resistance, pesticides kill the “beneficial” insects you want, even if they do kill the insects you don’t want. Think in systems: Use plants to repel insects with their odor, or confuse them with their colors. Encourage birds, who are higher in the food chain than insects, with water and the nectar of flowers that they enjoy. Strengthen plants against insects with soil amendments; often the attacks of insects are the sign of unhealthy plants. And use plants appropriate to your patch of ground; maybe the Japanese beetles are a sign that variety of rose just wasn’t meant to be!
2. Use fertilizers sparingly. I’d say not at all. Think in systems and apply the principle: Let no organic matter leave the property! Compost your kitchen scraps; compost your grass clippings, if any; compost your weeds; recycle any leaves into mulch. Cycle the compost back into your soil. And if you must bring in something from outside, bring in soil or manure or more compost (and not compost from municipal solid waste, either; you can’t really know what’s in it).
3. Rethink your lawn. I’d say abolish your lawn. It’s a feudal remnant. It’s a lot of work for something nobody can eat. And if you start to see beauty in a balanced, humming, blooming, thriving complex system, it’s harder to see beauty in a mono-colored, monocultural closely shaven mat of invasive grasses. Then there’s all the water the lawn sucks up. And the mower, which if it isn’t gas, is coal (from the electric power plant). Abolish your lawn and do something useful and beautiful with the space!
4. Attract beneficial insects and birds by planting natives. Here my own practice is not what it could be. Although Maine has many seed companies, and I do buy “cold hardy” seeds from them, I can’t say my garden is native in the sense that all my seeds are saved from my patch of land. However, ever since the honeybees began to disappear, I’ve been careful to attract new pollinators into their niche with masses of flowers: Some of these flowers also repel insects (marigolds); others improve the soil (clover); still others attract birds (bee balm, hummingbirds). Here and as usual, note the multiple roles played in the system by each single component.
5. Plant a tree – or several trees. We all make the same error: We put a few tomatoes in the ground, and then, five years later, we discover we are becoming real gardeners, and want trees. Well, if we’d put the saplings in the ground five years ago, we’d have trees today! But I didn’t do that. Anyhow, I’m not sure about trees. Trees, although they do sequester carbon and provide a home for birds, are the enemies of roofs, and in the wrong place, they take light from the vegetables. I’d cut down most of the trees I do have, and get a season’s wood into the bargain. Although perhaps some espaliated nut trees might be nice. Edible!
6. Use water wisely. Watering is work, so I want to avoid it. Water is also a resource (for which I pay a water bill) so I don’t want to waste it. So I use sheet mulch! My system is to cover all the beds with (from the bottom up) compost, newspaper sheets, and straw, and then punch holes in the sheet mulch for the seedlings. The effects of sheet mulching are deeply, deeply intertwingling. At the least: The straw soaks up rain (and mist and dew). I didn’t have to water my garden once last summer; no dragging of the hose, no burying of the soakers. Natural rainfall took care of it all. Further: The newspaper is a light barrier, and so there are no weeds. Weeding is work, so I like avoiding it. Further: As the compost rots, an air gap opens up between it and the newspaper, which retains heat. Earthworms like that. And finally the whole system rots and is replaced year after year, enriching the soil. I’m totally high on sheet mulch and recommend to anyone. In fact, sheet mulch is how I save the time from watering and weeding to invest in items one through five above.
This year I’m also going to connect my garden to civil society, I hope in two ways. First, I’m going to solve my distribution and storage problems by giving vegetables away. There are people who need food, so why not do that? Second, I’m going to see about setting up a little library. I’ve got a ton of books, so why not put them into circulation?
Now — giving away food and setting up a library aside — what does all this gardening geekery have to do with Occupy?
First, and most obviously, it really is about holding space. The garden centers see our gardens as profit centers — as black boxes into which products — “Miracle Gro!” — go and out of which money comes. In their simple-minded vision, one black box is just like another. They do not see gardens — our space — as alive or unique. That vision needs to be cut off at the roots and left to wither where encountered; local food people know all about this; single payer advocates do; people fighting extractive projects do; Occupiers do. It’s all about finding the highest and best use for the space that we hold: “The augmentation of the complexity and intensity of the field of intelligent life,” as LeGuin puts it. Compare the complexity and intensity of a lawn with a garden.
Less obviously, as I’ve tried to show, it’s all about thinking in systems. So many of us don’t get the chance to think in systems at all, because the cube or the warehouse or the register or the office or the aisle doesn’t encourage such a thing. But there are a lot of systems to be thought about right now, and so anything that encourages large numbers of people to use their space to think in systems is good. (I’d also note that many on the right are genuinely passionate about gardening and food, and so there is at least one way toward a sort of common ground.)
Even less obviously, it’s all about beauty and happiness. Even if the slugs get everything! I remember coming back into the country from overseas, and seeing, as if for the first time, that the airport had bad signage, was poorly lit, not very clean, and had the oppressive feel of the second-rate national security state that indeed it represented. The only people who looked calm, confident, and well-clad were the guards; the crowds inside the barriers looked stressed, dumpy, unhappy, and shoddily clothed. This was the public face of my country. This is what the 1% has brought us too. I think people crave beauty and happiness, but many don’t know where it is to be found, and are actively deceived and deked about where to find it; not in a gardening center, that’s for sure! So anything that encourages large numbers of people to hold and use their space to create happiness and beauty — and vegetables! — is also good.
Oh, and no petroleum, no toxic chemicals, a lot less water, carbon sequestration, healthy food.
NOTE To me, almost by definition, a garden is a vegetable garden. I suppose most of the above would also apply to a flower garden.