The Call and Times, Column 11 – Garden Like Nature Does (Organically!)

12 08 2014

(August 8, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Garden Like Nature Does (Organically!)

It’s midsummer, the height of the urban farmer’s year. The days are long, the temperature is hot (at noon, anyway), and the cold, bleak winter of so few months ago is but a distant memory. You can walk outside and almost hear Nature buzzing with life, almost see the garden grow before your eyes. As every experienced gardener knows, I’m not only talking about our carrots, tomatoes, and corn – this is also the time when the weeds, pests, and plant diseases threaten to squeeze the life out of our almost defenseless gardens, and where the resilience and determination of every urban farmer is put to the test by Mother Nature herself.

It is tempting, in such trying times, to fight back with the most potent weapons in our arsenal – artificial pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers – the veritable chemical weapons in this war we call gardening. These magical elixirs brought to us by conventional industrial agriculture certainly do the trick, delivering on their promises of death, defoliation, and sterilization – necessary traits in any good weapon. Certainly an enticing promise, but if we look further than the next harvest, our very declaration of war is called into question. For this, I think it’s worth asking ourselves: why are we at war, are we sure that we really want to win, and is there any other way to get our gardens to grow? The short answers to these questions: we’re fighting the wrong entity; there are ways that everyone can win; and we have to garden like nature does.

In this column, I will go over four of the major components of garden care – pest control, weed control, soil fertility, and crop selection – and explain, for each, why the conventional approach is wrong. I will go on to discuss the systems that are “used” in most natural ecosystems on Earth, and how and why urban farmers should take advantage of these alternative methods, Nature’s valuable tools, to make our gardens grow better and stronger, and to make our urban farming more resilient and more sustainable.

The first major component of garden care is soil fertility, the most elemental requirement for the land to produce food. Industrial agricultural operations tend not to give too much value to long-term soil fertility: the soil is left bare, exposing it to the elements and causing it to erode at an astonishing rate (with maybe 60 years left of absolutely-necessary-in-order-to-grow-food topsoil, as discussed in April’s column). Erosion which, as bad luck would have it, robs the soil of not only essential nutrients, but of its very ability to naturally replace these nutrients.

To solve this problem, industrial agriculture opts for the short-term boost of artificial, chemical fertilizers, the same ones that are often used by home gardeners. These fertilizers are derived from fossil fuels, and while they may somewhat increase plant growth when they are applied, the soil is left less healthy than before (an unsustainable system if there ever was one), and they don’t help to build the organic matter content of the topsoil, which is absolutely necessary to its long-term health.

The next component is crop selection. In conventional agriculture, large swatches of land, literally thousands upon thousands of acres, are planted to the same crop. This practice is called “monocropping” or “monoculture”, with corn and soybeans at the forefront. This is done to streamline seeding, watering, and harvesting, and because the government parts with our tax dollars, as agricultural subsidies, far more readily when farms are massive fields of the same crop. This monoculture results in major problems with insect pests and diseases, in basically the same way that head lice and the Flu spread through a crowded elementary school. While not nearly as big an issue in home gardens, pests and disease can become a problem even on that scale when areas are planted to monoculture.

That leads to the third component, pest control. On industrial farms and many backyard gardens alike, artificial, toxic pesticides are the tools-of-choice when it comes to dealing with insects that threaten destroy the crop. At its very base, the use of these chemicals amounts to spraying poisons – neurotoxins, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors – on things that we intend to eat. That fact alone should give anyone pause, because, as the old adage goes, “the dose makes the poison” – if it kills insects, what’s to say it’s safe for us, after a lifetime of exposure?

Furthermore, agricultural pesticide use is responsible for the decline in pollinator populations – most notably the threats to the bee, on whose pollination services one-third of our food depends. And finally, as if to nod at the absurdity of spraying toxins on plants destined for human consumption, insect pests have a history of adapting a tolerance to pesticides, rendering them useless – at least, that is, until something more deadly is discovered.

The final major component is weed control, the bane of the farmer’s existence, urban and rural alike. Because modern agriculture keeps the soil bare, it is especially prone to weed growth. To this, industrial agriculture has responded with two main practices – tilling the soil to uproot the weeds, and spraying the soil with toxic chemical herbicides, both practices often used in home gardens. Tillage is a complex subject, but at the basis, it’s proving damaging to the environment to rip up the soil and expose the subsoil to air. This causes it to release a lot of climate-change-accelerating carbon dioxide, and has a harmful effect on soil fertility.

On the other hand, chemical herbicides come with their own set of problems. It has been shown that, despite the constant denial by the companies that produce these chemicals, they remain in the soil much longer after spraying that intended, causing a slow sterilization of the soil’s fertility that doesn’t really make sense if you actually want to grow food there. These chemicals, like pesticides, are carcinogenic and generally toxic to human health, and produce “super weeds” – invasive plants that develop a resistance to the defoliating effects of herbicides, which brings me to my final point. The use of these chemicals effectively makes farmers dependent on the companies that produce them – that would be Monsanto, to name the most prominent.

In general, conventional agriculture’s so-called solutions ultimately result in problems of a greater or more long-term nature. These approaches are expensive, yield dependency on someone or something (always fossil fuels) and generally death in the ecosystem, and result in dangerous food; by gardening like Nature does, our solutions would actually fix the problems at hand, would yield safe food and self-sufficiency, and are essentially free. So now, let’s figure out what Nature does better, and how we can do the same.

The first nearly universal technique used by Nature to make things grow is to cycle nutrients between plants, animals, and microorganisms. In basically every ecosystem on Earth, leaves or needles fall, grass dies, and animals eat and…defecate. The wastes of this year’s growth are broken down, to become next year’s soil, in a sustainable process that actually results in more topsoil – more carbon captured in the soil, more soil fertility, and a healthier ecosystem. This is easy to mimic in our own gardens – by keeping a compost pile as the destination for all garden and yard waste, and by keeping a couple of chickens to eat food scraps and contribute to the compost, we can supply all of the soil fertility we need, without resorting to artificial fertilizers.

For her next trick, Nature uses a very simple tool – mulch! If you take note, next time you’re wandering in any undeveloped or wild-kept area, the topsoil is almost never visible. This is the result of millions of years of a symbiosis of sorts, between the Plant Kingdom and the great living organism that is the topsoil. Because open soil space is valuable, both because of the rich soil nutrients and exposure to sunlight, plants of all sorts find their niches to make complete, highly-productive ecosystems. This is more or less the reason that weeds are so invasive (they evolved that way), but if we keep this system in mind, we can prevent them as well.

By ensuring that the soil is well-stocked with plants, and that it is kept mulched with dried grass, hay, chopped leaves, or any material like these, gardeners can do even better than nipping the problem in the bud – by preventing it in the first place. Mulching has the added benefits of helping to conserve soil moisture (less watering, anyone?), boosting soil fertility by composting back into the soil and preventing erosion, and preventing the water from splashing on the soil and back up onto the leaves of plants – a cause of many of the common plant diseases. Also, to put it into perspective, most weeds – dandelions, plantain, lamb’s quarters, nettle – are perfectly edible and often have medicinal qualities. So maybe, just maybe, that odd weed or two that make it through the mulch…are just another valuable crop.

Finally, there’s biodiversity, probably one of the most astounding tools that Nature uses to make life happen. To quote my first column, “there is no forest of just spruce trees, no sea of just cod, and no lawn of just Kentucky Bluegrass”. Nature’s fields are diverse, a mixture of many different plants and animals, with vastly different purposes. By doing this, and ensuring that ecosystems evolve year-after-year, Nature has this magical way of preventing a significant outbreak of disease or infestation of pests, and manages to build the fertility of the soil. With so many different plants in an area, pests and diseases can’t get a serious foothold in natural environments; and the low-level exposure to these things makes plants stronger, and, in the case of crop plants, more nutritious.

By practicing polyculture – planting a variety of different plants in the same area, selecting our crops with companion planting methods in mind, and “rotating” crops each year (that is, change where a specific vegetable or fruit is grown), we can take advantage of one of the best parts of Nature’s gardening method. Pests and diseases are unable to build up to significant amounts in the soil, nutrients are given time to replenish between plantings of the same crop, and the quality and nutrition of the things we grow is improved.

In our gardens, what we’ve essentially done is cut a chunk out of an already well-established ecosystem, a “piece of Nature”, and attempted to completely control it, to use it to our advantage. This mirrors what we do as a society, as a species – and this has led to an extractive economy, one that grows on the back of the decimation of the Natural World.

But when we look really hard, both at our economy and at our gardens, we see Nature not as our opponent in this frankly unwinnable war, but instead, as our benefactor. She provides the land, the water, the atmosphere, the beneficial microbes, the sunlight (depending on how far-reaching your definition is), and all sorts of cleaning, filtering, energy-capture, and decomposition services. Nature is well-equipped with all of the tools necessary to produce food for the rest of life, and she doesn’t use toxic chemicals, monocultures, or artificial fertilizers. If we take a page, or more like ten million, out of her book, and take advantage of these tools, we can break free of the crippling hold of industrial agriculture, and just maybe produce better, safer, more sustainable food. If our society did this, if our farmers did this, if urban gardeners did this, we’d be in better as a nation and a species – so let’s try something new, and garden like Nature does.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.