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!


  1. beautiful jodi, what a wonderful post and contribution you give to us all....

  2. Dear Jodi, I read, and reread this posting with a great deal of interest for you raise here what I do believe to be one of the major concerns of our times. That is our need to concern ourselves with the environment and to work alongside Nature rather than believing that we can, some how or other, do better and achieve more in less time. This I firmly believe not to be the case.

    I really do feel that we have to start to take responsibility for the way in which we live and that that responsibility is not simply to ourselves and immediate neighbours but must take account not only of the wider community but also the wider world beyond. And if this means doing or going without, tolerating slug damage to our hostas, living with aphids on the roses, using the motor car rather less, not jetting around the world, etc. etc., then so be it. I also do take on board your point that neither should we become 'enviro-nazis'.

    To end on a hopeful note, as indeed you do in your posting, I really believe that there is a growing awareness of the serious problems which are facing our planet. Let us hope that it is not too late to redress the balance.

  3. I'm with you Jodi when it comes to pesticides and insecticides. I've never used them. Our garden is full of hummingbirds, dragonflies, all the garden wildlife. I don't worry about slugs and holes in leaves or aphids much. It all seems to balance out by itself. Plus aside from the garden we are heavy into recycling and buying used for almost everything. I will head over and check on the Earth Day Celebration post. Thanks for the info.

  4. What a great post! Very inspirational. I garden without any chemicals and think it makes for a better garden. I think a garden is a great place to start making a small difference, lots of little contributions count if lots of people are all doing the same thing.

  5. I agree; it's a question of balance. I TRY to be green, but am often pushed the other way the hypocrisy!

    I understand that supermarkets want us to stop using plastic bags, but I'll only take their efforts seriously when they reduce their own packaging. Until then, just give me the free bag!

    I do try to shun peat products, but when the alternative is flying Coir halfway around the globe, I question what the best approach is.

    I try to avoid chemicals, but when I see slugs closing in on my beans, I'd use napalm if I had it hand.

    That said, I no longer force feed orphans with my old batteries, so I am taking steps in the right direction!

  6. Wonderful post and so well written. I did not know of Rachel Carson's book until I began school for horticulture a few years ago. It has since made quite an impression on me, though I am like you; only resorting to glycophosphate in dire consequences. No insecticides. I let the bugs fight it out. The vision of frogs in your pond is a very nice vision.

  7. Hi Jodi - Your piece is worthy of appearing in any magazine - so well written and poignant. Thank you for sharing your story. It makes one think about how important our world is and how we can impact it. Here in our hometown, we cannot use any pesticides on our lawn. Yes, there are weeds, but it's good to know that the water going into our sewer systems is just a bit healthier. It's pouring rain right now and I feel good to know that the runoff is going through a healthy lawn.

  8. I am not a purist but I sure try to live and let live in my garden. You have written a good article here Jodi.

  9. Jodi - how wonderful to hear about your history - and your principles. And for telling me about GBSLEDCelebration! I'll get right to work. We live on 60 Massachusetts acres, more than we were looking for! - and are too busy to do more than care for the acre or so around the house which means Nature has her way with the woods, the pond and most of the fields. Talk about diversity!

  10. Great post Jodi! I'm the same way - I do everything I can with as low impact as possible - within reason. I think it's important to keep in mind that not everyone can do everything they tell us to do.

  11. Beautifully penned, as always, jodi -- a wonderful contribution to Jan's Earth Day project.

  12. You've inspired me! Thank you. I have had the "blogging blahs" for a while now. Uncertain what to say, and if anyone would even be interested.
    The funny thing is, the entire planet used to farm organically.
    I will have to do some research, but if I am correct things began to change around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Combine that with greed and lust for power, and you get a nasty cocktail of destruction.
    But as the song says, "the times, they are a changin'."

  13. Canada may be well ahead of the US in environmentally friendly practices. I would estimate that far fewer than 10% of our population is willing to go out of their way or give up their bad habits to live a more responsible life. In spite of all the talk, nobody is practicing what they preach.

  14. Having been , in my small way, protecting the little corner of NS soil that is mine, for many years, I'm always eager to learn new methods. On the weekend, I initiated a new approach. I hired a bright 11 yr old to help me shovel compost. He was a great help, & full of questions. When I likened compost to a vitamin pill for plants, he indeed grasped the whole concept of nature nourishing nature, absence of chemicals, & the fact it was free. What better way to protect our environment than to pass on the philosophy to a younger generation!

  15. A wonderful post Jodi, and so eloquently put. The world doesn't need sustainable gardening saints, it just needs all of us to make the best efforts we can to preserve what nature has blessed us with. Perhaps that means changing our ideas of what a beautiful garden is. For me that has been true. It's not manicured pesticide-ridden lawns. For me there is nothing more beautiful than a garden in balance.

  16. A very well-written post, Jodi. I like how your mind works, always questioning the "status quo." I think you were ahead of your time and Ms. Carson definitely planted a seed in your bonnet. And that seed has sprouted into a delightful, non-judgmental enthusiasm for the world around you. Kudos to you.

  17. Hello Jodi,

    I enjoyed this post very much! Like you, glycophosphate is used from time to time in my garden, but that is the only chemical. I think you are right that we keep in mind what effect we have on the environment and then do what we can, within reason, to limit our impact. For example, years ago, I used to spray my roses with the pesticide, Orthene. Now, I just use my fingers to take off the aphids :-)

  18. Hi Jodi-
    VERY well written article. It really should be in a magazine - and posted in the chemical section of every nursery and home building center.
    My New Year's Resolution was to really pay attention to the amount of plastic that comes into my house and to do everything I can to reduce it and recycle what does make it in.
    If we all were as good a stewards as you are, this earth would be a better place.
    PS Did you get your brooch? I'm a little worried about it.

  19. Hi, Jodi! Lovely history of your sustainable days. Amazing how things change, isn't it? I also agree that balance is the key, and we must all do our best, wherever we are in life. Great thought-provoking post to reflect on ourselves, our own habits, and impact on our friends, neighbors and environment.

  20. Jodi, This is outstanding! I will definitely star it in my Google Reader so that I can come back to it easily; I think it is deserving of several re-readings.

    While you were raising uncomfortable questions in ag school, I can remember going to a little evening seminar sponsored by the Scott's fertilizer company at my local Agway store. When I got in the first question of the Q&A and asked about the appropriateness of slathering our soils with petroleum-based products, the question was considered rude (my husband was mortified).

    Thanks for reminding us that, while we still have a long way to go in learning how to live and garden sustainably, some things have improved. The soil test kits for my local county extension ask whether you garden organically or use chemical fertilizers, so that they can target their soil amendment recommendations to the gardener/farmer's practices. And the state university programs have gone from pushing petro-chemicals to emphasizing organic soil amendment and pest control strategies as the first choice. -Jean

  21. Hi, Jodi;
    I abandoned all use of chemical fertilizers ages ago. But, that's mostly because I've worked in the food industry all of my life. Seeing the dead soil of commercial farm operations is enough to change anyone's mind about the damage caused by a cheaper route to harvest. Good luck with your submission. Very well said! :))

  22. Beautifully written post, Jodi. Awareness is most important ... I am a 'daughter of the earth' and have recycled and gardened organically for years, knowing what kills the bad also kills the good (plus, I'm an edible herb/flower gardener). Caring for our public gardens is a task that I often, state my case, but overruled must succumb to the alternative methods. I hand dig weeds, my earthy hands proof that I practice what I preach.

  23. Your words serve as a beacon, a reminder, and an inspiration.
    My balance in the garden is to encourage the birds into the garden to feast on seedheads of native flowers....and they enjoy a side dish of each and every insect. If only I could get the birds to leave the catepillars on the parsley alone. :-)

  24. Wonderful, well written and enlightening, Jodi. I loved reading about your 'gardening beginnings' and what you learned over the years, and how you've arrived at where you are today. I read this earlier today and left you a message on Blotanical. I am so happy that you have contributed! Thank you for your terrific contribution and good luck;-) I hope you are enjoying the spring weather...it's such a mood enhancer! Take care;-) Jan

  25. Hello Jodi, just the thought of being in that greenhouse you worked in was enough to make me feel like my breathing was restricted!

    I'm working on becoming a little bit more sustainable in my garden habits day by day and very much like the 'gently does it approach' to the issue that you describe. The extremist approach would just make me feel inadequate and defensive and that is so counterproductive.

    I take great joy from reading so many blogs that talk about the little things they do to bring balance back into the garden!

  26. The argument for using chemicals stems mostly from the belief that we need them to feed all the people in the world, wether we are talking huge acreages of roundup resistant alfalfa to feed the cows or massive fields of soybeans to support the processed food companies. My garden is chemical free. when I go to the grocery store I have to decide wether to buy organic fruit and vegetables from california or fruit and veg that may or may not be organic, produced in southern BC or from the local farmers market.

  27. What a beautiful post Jodi! Happy Earth Day to you!

  28. Beautifully written post Jodi.

    We're chemical-free here. I grew up with a huge vegetable garden, and parents who lived by Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening.

    It was interesting, to say the least, marrying a man who loves his lawn and used every chemical in the book to keep it lush and weed free. I knew preaching wouldn't work, and am thrilled that over the years he has turned to non-chemical management of his beloved lawn.

    I think he's surprised that the lawn is healthier and more beautiful without the chemicals. Now he gets out there with his 'dandelion popper,' and digs the weeds one by one, uses only organic fertilizer, and isn't afraid to let it go dormant in the heat of summer instead of running the sprinkler every other day. There are still old, unused bags and bottles of every chemical imaginable on shelves and stacked on the floor of the garage. Hopefully they'll never again see the light of day!

  29. Amen to all that, Jodi. Well said.

    It is good to look back sometimes, if only to see how far we've come. Occasionally, we get despondent when we consider how high the hill is and how far away the top, but by looking back, we see that we've already climbed halfway up...

  30. Bravo, Jodi! You are an inspiration. I'm one of the newcomers, myself, having only picked up Rachel Carson's book about five years ago now. (I can say, without exaggeration, that it changed my life.)

    My grandfather, who farmed for over 50 years, most of them spent using the chemical methods popularized just after WWII, suffers from Parkinson's disease today due to pesticide exposure... so I applaud you in recognizing early on that you needed to get out of such toxic conditions, and for spreading the word to others so eloquently.


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