06 April 2010
Sustainability and a bloomingwriter's garden
The weather decided to cooperate somewhat this weekend so I got to spend a good deal of time out in the gardens, puttering and thinking. I spent some of my time thinking about what it means to live sustainably. The words have changed somewhat over the years, but the sentiments remain the same. We talk a great deal about sustainable living today, and many of us practice such a lifestyle in as many ways as we possibly can. Mine begins, not surprisingly, with the garden.
In order to best understand my own philosophy about gardening, come along with me on a time trip. It’s the late 1970s at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College where I am a student, one of the first big wave of female students with an interest in that discipline. That was no problem. What WAS a problem, at least to a few of us, was the spectre of Agribusiness and Big Chemical that was being touted as the cure for all of agriculture’s woes. Get bigger! Specialize in one or two crops or livestock types! Put the chemicals to your soil: chemical fertilizers, chemical herbicides, growth regulators, pesticides, fumigants…they’d all make you better, more productive farmers! Never mind what they might do to the environment, and to beneficial creatures like frogs and bees...
Now…for those of you who are young’uns in the sustainable movement, bear in mind we’re visiting a time about 15 years after Silent Spring had been published. I read Rachel Carson’s plea for our environment in my mid-teens, not terribly long before heading off to college. Some of what Carson wrote stuck in my head, and I worried about what pesticides were doing—to plants, to animals, to insects, to the environment…to us.
So being a curious student, I questioned. I also wondered about lots of other things, mostly to do with plants—especially after calculus prevented me from going further with my dreams of becoming a vet, and I switched to plant science. I wrote papers for various courses on subjects that weren’t exactly conventional. Herbs. Edible wild plants. Biological control of plant pathogens. Organic gardening.
Remember, this is the late seventies—Organic Gardening magazine had been around for several decades, but many people thought that ‘going organic’ was something done only by the long-haired hippy set, the draft dodgers who came up to Canada, the college dropouts, the granola set fleeing urban sprawl…all those scary things that didn’t conform to the American—or the Canadian—dream.
So you can well imagine, when I stuck my hand up in plant pathology class and asked the provincial weed inspector (who was guest lecturing and going on about spraying weeds with 2, 4D) why we don’t try alternative, organic means of weed control…I was looked at like some sort of traitor. Anaethema! Why do all that hard work when a simple spray would take care of all those nasty weeds for us? He expounded and postulated, ranted and raved while also chainsmoking his way through the lecture…
I noticed his obituary in the newspaper, about a decade later if memory serves right. Cancer. So it goes.
Being stubborn as well as curious, I stuck to my organic guns, and fortunately I had intelligent professors who, although they might teach a lot of chemical solutions, also acknowledged that there were other ways. I graduated with honours, and sallied forth to the Annapolis Valley, prepared to go work in a greenhouse…
…where we fumigated the ground before planting, fed everything hydroponically with a grand concoction of fertilizers and fungicides, sprayed hideous insecticides that made me sick to my stomach…and I lasted there four months before quitting. I worked on several farms before leaving agriculture behind as a career—but always gardened whenever I had a place with even a postage-stamp yard. If no yard, the gardening was of the indoor variety.
Flash forward to today, thirty years later. I write about gardening, sometimes about agricultural issues, and still live in the Annapolis Valley, or rather on the North Mountain that bounds the Valley. We have seven acres here, pasture, trees, pond, wildflowers, native shrubs and trees, plus assorted gardens. I garden mostly organically—I HAVE resorted to glyphosate on occasion while battling the bane of my gardening existence, the evil bad goutweed (Aegopodium podegraria), but the rest of my repertoire for dealing with garden pests is organic: water for aphids, laissez-faire for just about everything else. Nature brings most things into balance, and if my hostas get slug holes or my phlox some powdery mildew, tough. The hummingbirds and bees are much more important to me than a photo-shoot-ready landscape.
However, I am not a horto-saint: I don’t buy only organic soil, or plants only from organic nurseries, or eat only organic, free-range, vegan food. As much as I disliked the hard-line chemicals-will-save-us approach of the 70s (and later), I also dislike the enviro-nazis who are strident and morally superior to us mere mortals. That might be fine if you are either living on the street, or off your daddy’s trust account, but most of us are trying to make a living and be as good people as we possibly can.
I do think most people want to be good stewards and live sustainable lives. Maybe that means recycling plastic bags and pots, not completely eliminating their use; eating local food, even conventionally grown, because we know the producers and how they produce their food. Maybe we haven’t all abandoned growing lawns yet; but lots of us are developing more wild spaces that can be habitats for other creatures.
Our property is rich in plant and animal diversity—plenty of birds, reptiles and amphibians, insects (primarily beneficial, in my worldview) and all kinds of plants: natives and naturalized, heirlooms and hybrids. It’s not a Martha-Stewart-perfect yard or property: some of the hoity horts might think it ugly at times, and the really snooty designer types would likely look down their noses because it WASN’T planned by one of them. But it is a living, healthy property. A sustainable one.
We have monarch butterflies hatching out every summer. Ducks and redwinged blackbirds, nest around our pond, swallows in our barn, assorted other songbirds around the property. Our wild pond wouldn’t be brimming with frogs if we used chemicals to take the ‘weeds’ out of the pasture or make the plants grow faster or kill the ‘pests’ on roses, phlox, tomatoes, hostas.
We can’t all achieve sustainable sainthood overnight. But every step we take is a help to our world. So my wish for this coming Earth Day is that each of you do what you can to help the environment, when you can. Try gardening with fewer chemicals, or no chemicals at all. Instead of thinking your lawn must be perfectly cut turfgrass in order to be right, let the clovers grow, and let it grow a little longer. Recycle your plant pots—some nurseries can take them, others can’t—and if you can’t make a compost heap, try digging little holes in the garden and dumping some of your vegetative organic matter into them as mini-compost spots. Plant a tree: if not on your property, donate one to a public park, a schoolground, some other greenspace that can be shared by all.
But most importantly? Bloom where you’re planted, and enjoy your sustainably-growing garden, be it a multi-thousand dollar landscaped job or three pots of scarlet geraniums on a windowsill.
This is my post for Jan Thanks4Today’s “Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living Earth Day Celebration.” The deadline for entries is fast approaching: you have just over a week left to get your entry in. So please check out Jan’s webpage, and write a post to celebrate the upcoming Earth Day—you could win an awesome prize, and more importantly, inspire others to try living more sustainably too!