Sunday, August 4, 2013

Garden Musings

     We no longer have vegetable gardens, or flower gardens, or herb gardens.  That, I think, is an outdated way of looking at things; rooted in the arrogance of the concept that we are in control.  More and more these days I think of the entire property as one big garden.  Intrinsically connected to all the other gardens out there to form the environment that we must live in and are an important part of.  I am an essential element of this garden but, without the efforts of the birds and the bees, the bacteria, the fungi, the plants and the actinomycetes along with countless other actors, my part wouldn't mean squat.  Our involvement in this scheme is mostly limited to moving genetic material around.  It is a simple service which we are supremely well adapted to, and for which we are rewarded with abundant food and pleasure.

Our Amish paste tomatoes are just beginning to ripen

     We do get to make a lot of choices, which is really cool.  The difficult part there is understanding the choices we make.  There have been numerous times in just the last three years of gardening here that new information has lead me to regret my choices.  Usually this involves an attempt to eradicate a "weed" that I later learn is edible, useful, or supporting the useful plants nearby.  More and more I am starting to feel like a clumsy fool.  A backyard mechanic "improving" the design of the Ferrari that I was lucky enough to work on.  Nature is perfect.  She always cleans up her messes and produces wonders of beauty and abundance.  This does not mean that she is always kind, but with a little humility and effort we can receive her gifts, which can be truly amazing.

Our front hugel beet is doing quite well

     Neat, orderly gardens full of weak plants that depend on regular care no longer hold any appeal for me.  The sight of exposed soil is an ugly wound on the landscape, lacking the skin of humus and mulch that protects and keeps it from drying out.  The insects and birds buzzing around this time of year that used to seem like a threat, now bring a smile to my face.  Why should I care if they eat some?  There will still be food that goes into the compost simply because we didn't find time to prepare it.  It is well worth the slight losses we experience considering all the benefits they bring.  They fertilize, till and manage pests and disease for me, so that I can relax and simply enjoy the abundance.

These guys make me think of the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland

     The tomato horn worm (above) happily munches on our Gardener's Delight cherry Tomatoes.  Not that long ago such a sight would have sent me into a panic, searching for a "solution" to this "problem".  Now I have faith that the problem will solve it self.  Ironically, we used to get excited when we would see hummingbird moths in our garden pollinating the flowers.  Now we know that they are the same animal, the horn worm is the larvae of the hummingbird moth.  The leaves and stems that the caterpillars eat don't seem to slow our indeterminate tomatoes down at all.  On the contrary, I suspect that the damage actually triggers more fruit production.  Many of the abundant birds in our yard will make a meal out of this guy, and leave phosphorus rich droppings behind as payment.  Pesticides are clearly the wrong answer.  They cause way more problems than they solve.  I don't believe that I would get any more tomatoes, quite the opposite.  I would damage the soil ecology, leading to less abundant growth.  The birds would shun our land and let the pests multiply out of control.  The mantises, spiders, and other predatory insects would be killed and, as in all predator prey relationships, the predators would take much longer to recover than the prey.  The beneficial bacteria and other soil life would be damaged, meaning that the bird droppings and other detritus hitting the ground would be much more likely to turn toxic or diseased instead of becoming healthy, wonderful smelling humus.  This is just one small example of how the attitude of control causes more problems than it solves.

Our first zucchini after two years of failed crops.

     Sometimes this approach takes patience and persistence.  For the past two years all of our squash plants have been decimated by squash bugs and squash vine borers  The only fruit we have gotten was a handful of delicata squash, which seem to be naturally resistant.  This year we tried just a few plants in straw bales with some mushroom compost on top.  It was a shot in the dark experiment.  I wouldn't go so far as to call it the straw bale method, since we really haven't looked after it like you're supposed to.  We haven't added any fertilizers, and have only watered it a half a dozen times, when the weather was hot and dry, but it is working wonderfully.  For the first time in three years of trying we are eating our own homegrown zucchini!  Is it the new location?  Is it the method?  Or has our diverse ecosystem  recently achieved a balance that keeps the pests in check?  I don't know the answer to why this is working, perhaps it is a combination of factors.  What I do know it that the zucchini I steamed for dinner last night with some garden fresh garlic and basil in the water for flavor was absolutely delicious and probably the healthiest thing I have consumed all week.

         Our gardens are not tidy.  They are all mixed plantings also known as polycultures.  Vegetables, herbs, flowers, and herbs along with various support species.  Even some shrubs and trees in the mix.  Diversity is critical for stability.  Diversity is what attracts and houses the predators that we count on to keep pests in check.  Diversity prevents diseases from spreading easily.  Having a variety of plants is also the way to build healthy soil.  The trade off here is that having an orderly garden makes it easier to harvest and implement what management is necessary.  Our management mostly consists of pulling out or chopping down some plants to make room for their less aggressive neighbors, along with planting, the occasional watering, and harvesting.

      The traditional gardening methods I grew up with, I think, have an understandable history.  When the second world war was raging, people in this country were urged to grow food in whatever yard they had.  Naturally they sought to mimic the way farmers grew and ended up with rectangles of tilled land and orderly rows of spaced out crops.  The thing is, this arrangement is not what is best for the plants.  It makes a lot of sense if you are producing on a large scale and plan to harvest using tractors and other fossil fuel driven equipment, but it also causes a lot of problems that then require additional effort to deal with.  For the small scale back yard grower that plans to harvest by hand anyway, it really is a misguided setup.  Here, in the information age, we can do so much better.  The tricky part is finding that balance, allowing the plants to have as much of the jungle mess that they love as possible, while still being able to comfortably access them.