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The Ungifted Gardener - Organic Gardening and all that Jazz

Motherhood Alert Warning: Proceed at your own risk.

If we garden and we think about what we are doing, then sooner or later the terms sustainability, organic gardening, bio-diversity and, on the further out fringes, permaculture will cross our paths. In my modest little vegetable plot, whatever I do will not save the planet or feed the starving millions, or poison thousands. Does it really matter what I do?

I'm not a slavish organic gardener. Sure I could pass a certification or accreditation test if I put my mind to it, but does that make me an organic gardener? I think not. However, mostly, I don't know enough to be a real organic gardener. And that's the real problem. I suspect it's also true for most of us. That's the problem we have to fix. To make the necessary information easily, quickly and digestibly available so we can make the best decisions.

My thoughts have moved considerably since I started to get reasonably serious about this gardening caper. There are many people that have significantly affected the way I look at vegetable production (even in my modest little plot) among them names like Eliot Coleman from Maine (season extension), Jean-Martin Fortier from Quebec (yield intensity from micro plots) loom large. However, I have been profoundly influenced by four things in my reading, research, site visits and talking to other gardeners above all others. Let me share them briefly with you:

  1. Gabe Brown is a conventional farmer from North Dakota. But he believes intensely in natural generation of soil health. He started on his journey by accident through a series of catastrophic crop failures in the early 90's that almost put him out of business. If you have 60 minutes of your life to spare then this youtube video lecture from Gabe may change the way you look at agriculture.

  2. There are few true revolutionaries. People who are prepared to think through a problem to, perhaps what they consider to be its ultimate conclusion, then commit the resources necessary to achieve the result. Most of us can handle incremental risk. On a site visit to a 60 acre organic farm in August 2014 I took this photograph:

    6 foot crop rotation

    This is a classic corn, soya and wheat rotation (with some leguminous cover crops interplanted) done on a 6 foot wide bed, side by side. Every year the rotation is 6 feet to the left. All the farm tools had be custom engineered to fit the regime. Every year the yields are increasing and the farmer had, that year, for the first time, increased revenue to the point where no off-farm job was necessary. This man was committed. His background reading and inspiration? The Inca approach to intensive farming. Such people take your breath away.

  3. In August 2015 I visited an organic farm (potatoes and melon rotation) in southern Quebec that was suffering its third year of a pest infestation. These folks had exhausted every tool and technique in the book. However, the innovation was staggering. Try this, try that - all organic methods (many mechanical method were involved), not a chemical in sight - the permitted organic chemicals had long been exhausted in effectiveness. At the same time it was profoundly depressing. Why had it happened? Why here? Why then? - no one knew the answer. How would it finally be conquered? - no one knew the answer. This was a real-world problem to be solved. In spite of our vast knowledge, there are times we know so very, very little.

  4. I love a good "greening the desert" story. This one is about Geoff Lawton and his approach to permaculture. The 40 minute youtube video tells the story about the initial 'green the desert' in Jordan and how it fell apart though lack of political will. The story continues with a second attempt some years later. Social organisation and attitudes can be a major stumbling block to innovation - and perhaps even to our very survival as a species.

Here, for what they are worth, are my current thoughts on the subjects of sustainability, organic horticulture and agriculture and permaculture, in no particular order of importance either for me, or the planet:

  1. I hate using chemicals in the garden. Frankly, they creep me out. Never mind eating the produce, that's the last part of the process and a long way off in time. It's using the stuff that creeps me out. That goes for organic, inorganic or any other 'ganic labelled brew. Call them pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers or any other potion. That's my default position.

  2. I had, what I consider to be, a bad case of cucumber beetles in early 2015. I watched the creatures munching away and tried to pick them off manually (vaguely possible in a small plot environment) but the damned things were back a couple of days later. So I went to the store and bought the most organic certified pesticide I could find and used it with extreme caution. Nominally, that makes me an organic gardener. I played to the rules. But I couldn't help thinking that this was a failure. Why did I have the beetles in the first place? What creatures eat cucumber beetles? and how do I attract them? Are there better ways to deal with cucumber beetles? What constitutes a cucumber beetle problem, one bug per plant, 20 per plant? These are the more interesting questions, not was the brand of pesticide organic or not. The problem is that the answer to all those questions that I just posed require very serious knowledge. Going to the store to buy an organic pesticide needs the ability to read a label. It seems to me that the real objective is not to use anything unless you really, really have to, but rather to put in place the conditions to prevent (or minimise) problems. Let's call it Preventative Organic Gardening (POG) for want of any better term.

  3. Like most gardeners I use fertilizers. Mostly organic. But sometimes I cheat when it comes to soluble fertilizers. Most of the store bought organic fertilizers are seaweed based. Apart from the energy used in the seaweed fertilizer industry most of this stuff is shipped at least 3,000 kilometers just to get to my local store - and it's 99% water. We just shipped water 3,000 kilometers and they call it organic. It's certainly not sustainable. I read an article early in 2015 which described making a fertilizer tea from grass clippings. Reasonble Nitrogen and great Potassium levels showed up in the tests. Just the thing for intensive feeding of tomatoes and many other vegetables. The idea of regular, essentially free fertilizer, obtained as by-product of something that was already happening and with a transport distance of about 100 feet looked attractive. I tried it. Once. The process is trivial, if somwhat messy. But practise would eventually result in a simpler production technique. However, I stopped using it. Why? Because I had no idea what it was doing (though it did not appear to kill anything). If I buy a container of store bought fertilizer then it has a label which tells me what it contains. I know the risk I am taking. The lawn I have access to is a grass (multiple varieties)/clover mix (about 50:50). Did my grass tea have the same composition as that obtained by the article? Without a full chemical analysis (an expensive proposition) I have no idea. Was I prepared to risk my summer crop. Not on your life. Even running a test bed and using this grass tea throughout the season would do very little. The point is that success is actually pretty useless unless we can explain it. Because if we cannot explain it we are unlikely to be able to reproduce the success. An that's what counts. I'm too old to indulge in serendipitous trials. But here's what really hurts, especially in this case. If it did work.....

  4. Plants are attractive. I like the look of them. Flowering plants, vegetables, trees, shrubs. Gorgeous. Bugs, on the other hand, are almost universally unattractive if not downright disgusting (perhaps not to an entomologist). I find myself in the ridiculous position of trying to learn about what constitutes a good bug and what constitutes a bad bug. And how to encourage the former and how to discourage the latter. When inside I'm screaming "There're all bad, repulsive and ugly". Two quick stories about changing attitudes. First, in 2014 I found a Preying Mantis on one of my zucchini plants. They are big and truly replusive. I killed it on the spot, mostly as a traumatic reaction to just seeing it. The whole incident is still impressed on my brain. In 2015 I realised it was one on the dumbest things I did that year. Can you believe it? A Preying Mantis is a beneficial bug. Second, we had a very wet summer in 2015 and consequently we had more than the usual number of slugs (most definitely not beneficial). In early August I found what looked like empty slug cases in a densely planted raised-bed when clearing it after a bean crop. And then I found the toad. Apparently they have a truly voracious appetite for slugs. I immediately stopped clearing the bed to give my new friend, the ex-repulsive toad, time to do its work and feel at home. I finally resumed the bed-clearing a couple of days later. All a question of balance. But they are still horrible looking things. Good or Bad.

  5. To be continued.

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Page modified: January 20 2022

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