Some of my friends tell me they have “black thumbs,” and that each ill-fated horticultural effort results in the botanical equivalent of assisted suicide (“Away with plants!”). But let these black thumbs experience one proud success — a philodendron that vines up the office wall, or a Type A tomato plant that yields half a bushel of juicy beefsteaks — and they’ll start to notice slight changes in the appearance of their thumbs. At the bank or grocery store, clerks will begin to ask what happened. “Oh, nothing,” the born-agains will reply, modestly. “I guess I just have a way with plants.”
And the more transformations they witness, for example, of barren soil to organic black humus, the greener those modest thumbs will become. The more bright little seedlings they transfer meticulously from rickety wooden flat to rich earth, and the more abundant their humus-rich potato patches become, the more hopelessly lost they’ll be. They’ll begin waking up at five in the morning to chase deer out of the melons, and start turning down free trips to Costa Rica because they need to be home with their germinating seeds.
Ah, my friends, such a fate befell me. From one skimpy row of peas planted next to our foothills garage, I descended into an obsession with plants. I read everything I could get my hands on, from Farmers of Forty Centuries and The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening to Biodynamic Gardening and How to Grow More Vegetables. From Rudolph Steiner to Sir Albert Howard to Michael Pollan and back again. It paid off, because after ten years of hands-on education in a high altitude garden, I became a complete addict, going into withdrawal in winter months when the garden was sleeping.
Health, Wholeness, a Source of Delight
I’d become hooked on being the broker between a plant’s genetic potential and a garden’s assets – one of which was a growing bank of knowledge in my head. Since I worked swing shift during those early gardening years, I’d spend hours each morning making compost and transplanting seedlings. I began to be a nut about what I ate, feeling the cycle of energy that flowed through the garden. Reading a pivotal book by Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, I knew exactly what Berry meant when he wrote, “In gardening one works with the body to feed the body. The work, if it is knowledgeable, makes for excellent food. And it makes one hungry. The work thus makes eating nourishing and joyful, not consumptive, and keeps the eater from getting fat and weak. This is health, wholeness, a source of delight.”
I must have loved the work, or else the slugs would have beaten me back. In the early years, I’d watch for the emergence of the peas or carrots, and assume I’d screwed something up, because seedlings would only come up here and there, if at all. Then I visited the garden after hours one evening to close a cold frame, and guess who I discovered, happy as clams without shells, feasting on tender, delectable pea sprouts?
You could drive by that garden on a damp evening in late May and make out my dim outline, with a miner’s helmet flashlight strapped on my head, illuminating the battlefield. I don’t know how many thousand slimy slugs I sent to mollusk heaven, but I do know that if slugs had been nickels rather than chicken feed, my coffee cans full of them would have been a down payment for a small farm in Tuscany.
In the throes of a passion teetering on fanaticism, I began to experiment with esoteric practices like those found in biodynamic literature. Among other things, I was instructed to place deer guts in the compost pile. When you think about it, it does make intuitive sense that there would be microbes in deer innards that specialize in decomposing cellulose and other organic leftovers, but where do you get a good, fresh deer bladder these days? Instead of having to explain my need to deer hunters (which I may do, ultimately) I incorporated a list of basic ingredients reputed to stimulate a compost pile – I think it was dandelion, chamomile, yarrow, stinging nettles, valerian, and oak bark – and I have to admit, my compost pile was legendary that year. (But was it because I fanatically turned the pile about every 15 minutes, or was it the herbs?)
Every spring, as snow melted enthusiastically off the roof of our log cabin, my life would begin again as the sap rose back into my limbs and brain cells. I’d offer (no, insist on) interminable tours to family members, pointing out the miraculous resurgence of perennials, the newly planted rows of peas and radishes. I wrote garden columns for the local paper, and became a Master Gardener by taking the required intensive course and serving as a volunteer at the extension office. When people would bring in dead plants and ask what had killed them, or call and ask what flowers would thrive in their shady backyards, I tried to access the crammed information like a college student in a final.
What I’m saying, reader, is that somewhere around 1980, I applied for and was accepted into the society of plant nuts. I began to be an agricultural activist, passionately researching not only what happened in my own garden, but also in the collective, planetary garden. I discovered that pesticide use had increased at least thirteen fold since mid-century, yet pest damage remained about the same. That American society was spending $4 billion for those pesticides, but twice that in hidden costs like fishery losses, groundwater contamination, bird losses, and pesticide resistance. That bees, called “flying $50 bills” by grateful farmers, were routinely being poisoned by farm chemicals.
And that the average age of the American farmer is 60-something. Who’s learning the trade well enough to feed the rest of us?
According to industrial ecologist Robert Ayres, humans now annually produce more fertilizer synthetically than nature herself. But the truth is that the father of synthetic fertilizer, German Justis von Liebig, died feeling very queasy about his historic “discovery” that plants needed three basic nutrients – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. He realized too late that plants need dozens of micronutrients, just like people do. The soil had been supplying these trace elements naturally, but was being mined out, eroded, and left as spoil. In 1843, in his twilight years, the father of modern agriculture wrote, “I had sinned against the wisdom of our creator. I wanted to improve his handiwork, and in my blindness, I believed that in this wonderful chain of laws, which ties life to the surface of the earth and always keeps it rejuvenated, there might be a link missing that had to be replaced by me – this weak powerless nothing.” Oops.
But the wheels were already in motion. Most farmers were already addicted.
from The Zen of Gardening