In a previous post, I made the outrageous claim that only two tools are essential to organic gardening, a few soaker hoses and a diverse, functioning backyard ecosystem. The soaker hose quip was a joke, of course, although they are high on my list of excellent garden tools. I was serious as a train wreck about successful organic gardening being rooted in a diverse, functioning ecosystem.
I must be sho’ nuff knotty-headed to claim that I know something about organic gardening that hasn’t already been said in one of the ten thousand books published on the subject. I don’t. But I am a professional academic. I am trained to read and digest books by the truckload and to think about them comparatively, to think about what themes unify them or differentiate them, to identify the ideological webs in which prosaic technical matters (for example how to compost) are couched. I have read or collected hundreds of books on various aspects of organic gardening, orchards, animal husbandry, xeriscaping, composting, bee-keeping and land management. I have attended lectures, conferences, and technical demonstrations. I’ve attended workshops and taken Master Gardening courses.
Most all of the materials I’ve examined thus far have a unifying theme: the power of nature to feed, clothe, and house human beings sustainably. However, with one or two notable exceptions, organic gardening books and manuals fail to discuss in explicit terms the seamless connection between gardens and the ecosystems that support them.
It is my opinion that organic gardening would better be taught as a sub-field of applied ecology rather than as a range of particular agricultural or farming techniques, products, or practices. In my opinion, conventional gardening and even commercial agriculture should be taught in a like manner. Harrumph. Fat chance.
From an environmental ecology point of view, there is no such space as “garden.” There is no such space as “backyard.” The linkage between “private” and “property” is entirely irrational from an ecological point of view. From the perspective of ecology, there are only continuous, contiguous, porous ecosystems (ultimately The Ecosystem, a unified planetary system) parts of which are robust, parts of which are in crisis, all of which seek optimal equilibrium.
I wish I could make up words. Instead of “gardener” I would like to call myself an “ecosystem-er” because my experience of organic gardening has been one of ecosystem management rather than gardening technique. To grow food organically, I had to learn to spend less time thinking about my beautiful kale and cauliflower and more time enabling the ecosystem to tolerate the strain of growing it. To organically garden sustainably, we may have to spend more time remediating the negative impact that growing kale and cauliflower has on the ecosystem in which we grow it. Because growing and harvesting food in a sub/urban backyard (or on a farm, for that matter) just isn’t “natural.”
Uh oh. Now I’ve put my foot in it.
Brace yourselves: here it comes, straight from the hip. I am calling organic gardeners, gurus, and retailers out (especially retailers!) on the erroneous, romanticized belief that gardening is “natural,” that gardens are “natural” spaces, that gardening done “naturally” does no harm, or even improves the environment.
Guess what? Human beings evolved as mobile, foraging, opportunistic scavengers. If the idea of “evolution” makes your hair stand on end, never fear. I can make my point by taking the conversation to Genesis: farming was a divine punishment. The Garden of Eden involved a tiny number of people wandering about nekkid as jaybirds, feasting on nuts and berries.
Human beings evolved (or were created) to forage and to be mobile. That is our ecological niche. Wherever and whenever human beings have settled to live in one place for generations without relocating, wherever and whenever human beings have sunk spades or plows into the earth to open it for seed, wherever and whenever human beings have sown and irrigated a limited number of crops year after year in order to sustain themselves in sedentary splendor, Mother Nature has had a single resounding reply, “NO.”
And honey, as a historian I will tell you straight up and with great confidence: Nature. Always. Eventually. Wins.
Stay tuned for more on organic gardening as ecological restoration and remediation. We will look at:
- What constitutes a robust ecosystem? The predator/prey dynamic;
- What can I do to remediate my sub/urban backyard ecosystem? Building food and shelter;
- Whaddya mean, kill my lawn?! Down with monoculture!!
- How can you argue that gardening stresses an ecosystem? All about eating dirt;
- For real you don’t have bird feeders? Incompetent birds unwelcome here;
- You mean I don’t have to keep a compost pile? Whatever did Mother Nature do before humans began leaving piles of crap around?