When last we spoke on this topic, I tried to make up my own word to capture what being an organic gardener feels like to me: “ecosystem-er.” Awkward, yes. Pompous, for certain. But also… well… It’s also sort of accurate. Because I am more interested in the robustness of my backyard ecosystem than I am in the health of the cukes and artichokes I grow. After all, the cukes and ‘chokes are only two out of (tens of?) thousands of plant, animal, insect, fungi, and microbial species living on my property. All of them have a role to play in making the organic garden actually work.
Farmers usually focus on the health and well-being of the specific crop they’re working with. Usually, they are only interested in the other organisms in the ecosystem to the extent that those organisms are harmful or beneficial to the crop. This stands to reason since maximizing crop yield is the bread, butter and jam of all commercial farming, whether conventional or organic.
Gardeners aren’t really farmers, so we don’t have to take ourselves so seriously, thank goodness. Those of us who garden do so not because of bread, butter, and jam, but because we love flowers, fresh veggies, and we love mucking about in the soil with our bare hands. We tend to be focused on the health and well-being of individual specimens and on the food plants we are growing. This is no surprise either: where we put our passion we invest energy and resources. Where we invest our energy and resources, we become intensely passionate.
But see here… as an organic ecosystem-er, I’m not really that invested in the health and well being of the individual plants and food crops growing in my back yard. I don’t actually care that much when individual plants get sick and/or die. Why? Because… well, because plants are mortal. Surely that’s not such a very big cat to let out of the bag? I mean, not as big a cat as the Santa-isn’t-Real cat?
And another thing… plants catch colds the way my kids catch cold; and like my kids, they have immune systems to help them resist illnesses, and also to get better. They do the business of life or death brilliantly on their own, thank you very much.
Try this out: the next time you look at a plant and see that it’s ailing, Step One: scratch your head until you figure out what the Devil is wrong with it, but don’t rush for the nearest spray bottle. Step Two: channel my Grandma Juanita: suck your teeth, tsk tsk twice, then say, “Well come on over here Jesus, will you take a look at that!” Step Three: channel me: “I do believe that hosta is about to be Called Home to Glory.”
And leave it at that.
It is incredibly difficult to let nature take its course. But with a very few exceptions, a hosta’s death is better for my ecosystem than the botanical intervention I might have used to stop its demise. Why? Because by dying, it fed something else. By dying it made room for a healthier something else.
I chose the trees, shrubs, perennials and ephemerals in my yard not for my own enjoyment (though I do enjoy them) but for their role in building overall biodiversity in the space. Biodiversity is like baseball stadiums: if you build it, they will come. Every plant is present because of its ability to provide food or shelter to other creatures that I am doing my utmost to woo.
Most folks think some of the critters I woo are pests. The first time I saw a snake in my yard I did a happy dance. When I told my neighbor, the look on her face said she thought I’d been smoking something.
Some lucky creatures receive the strange sobriquet “beneficials” to indicate their particular value to vegetable gardening. I think the real reason for the name is to fool anxious gardeners into buying more “stuff.” (Sigh. That dirty business is worth it’s own separate post).
The vast majority of critters are neither pestilential nor beneficial. They do in my yard the work that they were so beautifully built to do: they are born, they eat, reproduce, and die, they turn back into compost, the raw elements from which their beautiful little lives were made. In the meantime, every pound of poop they produce is a pound of fertilizer I don’t have to buy. Every square foot of leaf duff they drop is a square foot of mulch I don’t have to haul. Every tunnel they dig and every stick they chew is heavy soil I no longer have to “improve.”
Organic ecosystem-ing? It’s all about the economy, shnookums.
An ecological economic viewpoint changes the dynamic of the organic garden in very real ways: a robust ecosystem won’t suffer creatures that can’t pull their own weight. However, creatures that can’t pull their weight are often very clever at conning human beings into doing it for them. They are sort of like that roommate from Hell… the really gorgeous, charming one whom every body loves; but s/he eats your food, borrows your underwear, leaves crap lying around, and is mysteriously absent on the 30th when the rent comes due.
Bratty ecosystem prima donnas are legion: Consider hybrid roses: “Ewwwww!!! My shiny green leaves are getting mildooo! Somebody, spritz me!” And, “Yooo-hooooo!! Time for my mani-pedi!” Or, “Garçon! I starve! Où est my specially formulated low nitrogen rose-chow? Hisssss! I bite!”
There are animal spoiled brats too: feeder-trained birds get my goat. Believe it or not, feeding is a learned behaviour in birds. If your parents taught you to eat by opening a fast food bag beneath your nose, you wouldn’t be much use to anybody in a kitchen, would you?
If birds don’t know that fat juicy caterpillars are hanging out in my vegetable bed then they don’t know how to do the work I need them to be doing in my backyard. FYI: if you like to see birds from your house, then plant things that birds like to eat close to your house. Be sure to wake up early enough in the morning to actually see them feeding. You’ll be glad you did.
Other spoiled brats: tomatoes. Corn. Cucurbits. Oh dear.
First off, let me say that I grow tomatoes every year come hell or high water. I generally don’t grown corn because my garden is too small. I grow things in the cucurbit family (cukes, melons, squashes, pumpkins etc.) only two out of every three years or so, depending on the pest pressure I see in any given growing season.
The main reason I am willing to grow these high-maintenance death-magnet vegetables is because I want to eat them. The reason that they fit in my backyard ecosystem is because its ecological economy can afford a certain number of fussy plants. Their neediness is counterbalanced by the thrift and high functionality of plants I never have to think about unless it is to greet them with “good morning, gosh you’re looking gorgeous today.”
Low-intervention organic ecosystem-ing… It’s about the economy, shnookums.