It is a bright blue February morning. The air is crisp as I trudge through the snow to check on my greenhouse and the ten varieties of greens growing snug beneath row covers. I lift the covers — and they are gone! I see a winding depression in the soil created by some small gnawing animal and a few stumps of the sweet and tender greens. It takes a few minutes of ranting and swearing before I get a grip and calm myself.
To recover, I set up my seed starting equipment indoors and sow multiple trays of salads, greens, leeks, and onions. I even get out the old model AeroGrow and fill the Seed Pods full of lettuce. Within a week, sprouts are starting to show. I gather the family around to look at this little miracle. In another week, 60% of the AeroGrow lettuce has expired; did I add the right nutrients? Later that week, I neglect to water the chard and it flops over in disgust.
Gardening is not for the faint hearted. A small mistake, a bout of procrastination and forget those fresh spring peas this year. Wait long enough and the flowerbed is a jungle of weeds. Ignore the downy grey film on your tomato plants and you might as well never have planted. Even with great care, it seldom turns out as we planned. Nature is never completely predictable or controllable; it always inserts a little chaos into the mix.
Chaos Theory in the Garden
Chaos Theory tells us that the universe is not what we think. The living world is so complex, has so many parts all responding and relating to each other it is impossible to exactly pin it down. A tiny difference in one part may give rise to a major disaster (or success) later down the line. That miniscule mold spore drifting haphazardly on the breeze, can wipe out your whole crop. A change in the microbial life of your soil and those locked up trace elements become available. Your plants flourish but you do not exactly know how or why.
Microbes are a case in point. Bacteria can double in population every 20 minutes. Considering that there are billions in every handful of soil, given the right conditions your soil life can change in a matter of weeks. Soil scientists have not even named, let alone studied the thousands of species of soil bacteria. Think about all the possible relationships between those bacteria and all the other various organisms in the soil food web, including plant roots. The complexity is staggering and far beyond anything our minds can imagine.
This inherent complexity and unpredictability is a threat to our gardening goals. There is a fundamental tension in cultivation: How do I grow what I want to grow when I want to grow it? Will nature allow it or block me? Can I persuade, cajole, force nature to do what I am planning? Maybe not.
I would love to have lush apples trees on my property, but at 7400 feet, terrible soil, little water, and hungry bears, the chances are slim. The struggle against the environmental forces is just not worth it. On the other hand, with a little support and ingenuity, nature allows me to grow almost all of the vegetables and many of the perennials I love. The trick is knowing how to balance what I want, with what nature will agree to. It is all a matter of negotiation and cooperation — what you might call an ecological approach to gardening.
The Ecological Approach – Finding the Point of Balance
The ecological approach works with nature not against it. It accepts uncertainty and values questions more than answers: How do my actions impact the web of life? Am I forcing the environment to do what I will? How can I respect this ecology and help it create something of benefit to life and me? Am I giving back as much as I take? These are difficult questions without simple solutions.
There is no avoiding the reality: gardeners constantly mess with the ‘natural’ environment. It is not ‘natural’ for me to have a garden in a mountain forest. My greenhouses, mostly made of non-renewable resources, allow me to recreate an ecosystem that is more like zone 6 than zone 3.5. In return, to balance the debt, I now help build fertile, microbial soil that would take thousands of years to create ‘naturally’.
I did not always think this way. For many years, I tried to garden more or less conventionally – and failed. My vegetables were mediocre; 50% of my plants and trees died within two years. Only when I got turned on to compost tea and began to understand the importance of building a firm foundation of living soil, did my garden begin to thrive. Now the garden ecology is full and rich. Birds flock to eat the abundant insects and seeds. Bull snakes hunt the chipmunks. The compost pile writhes with immigrant red worms. There is more of everything: bigger healthier cabbages and bigger healthier cabbageworms. That is the downside of the ecological approach. As I said earlier, nature is never completely predictable or controllable. We have to get used to that.
It is an illusion that we can stay aloof from the natural world, be a puppeteer pulling the strings. A garden is not a garden without a gardener; there is no cultivation without a cultivator. We are inevitably part of the gardening web of life. Our job is to keep the whole in harmony and comparative equilibrium. If we push too hard, the scales tip to one side; if we don’t push enough, they tip to the other. It is a balancing act between making it happen and allowing it to be. My garden, like me, is always somewhat on track and somewhat beyond my control.
Steps to an Ecology of Gardening
To be an ecological gardener is more an attitude than a program. I try to look and listen to how nature does things and take that as my cue. Here are a few suggestions:
- Waste nothing. Everything in nature is recycled and transformed into something useful. I put all organic material (and I mean all) through my shredder to make compost.
- Work with the sun. All energy comes from the sun – and it keeps coming. Use natural light whenever possible. Get out in the sunlight. Trap it in a greenhouse and feed it to your plants.
- Be generous. Nature is never stingy. It always creates more than it needs – more seeds, more weeds, more insects. I always plant too much. Then I have enough when chaos strikes, and plenty of gifts for friends.
- Support diversity. Just look at the natural world — it is rampant with diverse living organisms. I plant over thirty varieties of vegetables because I love the differences in taste and texture. Even my indoor plants have colonists and companions to keep them company.
- Give more than you take. Life is a gift that can never be fully repaid. Add more life to your soil than you take from it. Nurture your plants with love, care, and natural foods.
- Accept change. Change is the one inarguable and unavoidable fact of existence. Birth and growth lead to loss and death. Watch your plants grow and accept they will also die, often when you least want or expect them to.
- Include yourself. Nature does not exclude you. You are a living organism and have similar needs for nurturing as your plants. Be your garden – grow yourself.
David Peat and John Briggs: Seven Life Lesson of Chaos.
David Wann: The Zen of Gardening.