experimental gardening

My garden is once again in that precarious position between abundance and disintegration. Texas weather shifts so fast and dramatically from spring to summer that the lettuce turns bitter overnight. Very few things can survive the summer sun here, so it feels as if most of my plants are preparing for their last rites. This is a difficult time for me; I can only look at my garden in early morning when the plants have had the night to recover from the previous day’s battle.

I am watering a neighbor’s plants while my neighbors are away, which is always an uncomfortable proposition. My way of gardening is more experimental, or, depending upon your perspective, neglectful. So, it should come as no surprise that her chard is the worse for my care after a week. My chard, on the other hand, is obnoxiously abundant.

But how can this be so? They are the same plant, are they not? They are exposed to the same climactic conditions, similar soil, precisely the same amount of rainfall. So then why does my chard bolster while her chard balks when the sun reaches its zenith?

The secret lies in growing from seed, and starting as you mean to continue. That is to say, all of my mature plants have already made it through a sort of climactic selection process: those who could’t survive my adoring though neglectful manner either never germinated or never made it to so far as to produce their first true leaves.

This is a bit how I parent too. I don’t mean to, I just care very much when I’m thinking about it, and at times get so absorbed in something else that it appears that I do not care about anything else. Knowing myself and that I have the best of intentions, I will defend myself with the fact that I appreciate the essence of a thing (or person) and believe fully in the individual’s ability to overcome adversity–the triumph of the spirit, and all that. I believe that a thing (or person) needs respect to reveal its own individuating rhythm, which also means that applying some formulaic system of care based on an understanding of parts (how much nitrogen, potassium, or phosphorous a plant needs, for example) reveals a deeply flawed understanding of a life and my role as facilitator or steward.

So, with plants as well as children, there is no right way to encourage growth and development. They all adapt to their environment and, if given enough space to become themselves (with occasional frantic fertilizing), will flourish and become strong individuals, capable of managing and overcoming their own suffering.

Everything is an experiment: gardening, parenting, living. It is all a matter of being and doing the best we can with what we have available to us.

An afterthought…

My chard is now entering its second summer and is bright and strong as only a world-wizened being could be. My garden is in the front yard, so I have had many conversations with passersby about gardening, and in the process I have discovered that most chard does not do particularly well here. I had assumed that mine was like all the others and that chard was simply one of the three vegetables that can survive a Texas summer. But it seems that it is only “neglected” chard that has such survival instincts. Which of course leads me to question whether it isn’t precisely my faith in my chard’s ability to survive (and my minimal input to ensure its survival) that has resulted in its resilience. Indeed, I feel as if I should question whether it is MY chard at all, or simply another glorious individual in this crazy karmic enterprise.

Snail meditation

I am a gardener—an amateur horticulturist and botanist, if you will. I grow fruits and vegetables and, apparently, snails. This is the first year that I have gardened without a nemesis. Aphids, squash bugs, cabbage moths, ants have all been the target of my wrath at one point or another. This year, I have been preoccupied with snails, treating them with a fury I didn’t particularly feel, and which always made me wonder how one could simultaneously grow food and be a Buddhist.

This morning was one of those magical spring mornings after a night’s rain. My youngest and I were up before the sun, letting the chickens out in the blue light. The air was paradoxically heavy and fresh, as if an accumulation of the sighs of all plantlife. The sense of connection to all things was so great, I was subtly aware that I was swimming in a womb of the universe.

When I made my usual rounds of the gardens, I found an incredible number of snails devouring my succulents, peas, garlic, asparagus, and even relaxing in my garden furniture and sliding up the walls of my house. I got my snail jar to collect them all, something I’d started using since holding them in my hand forced me to feel their life energy and made sending them to their deaths that much harder.

In the process of gathering up a pint-sized salsa jar full of snails, I came face to face with a particularly tenacious one, which had oozed up the side of the jar and peeked out to explore its path to freedom. I held it close to my face and seemed to recognize something in it. I can’t quite describe what exactly that was, only that, at that moment, I was aware that I was no more or less than it was. That we were both essential to the universe. I felt something shift deep inside me, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to feel something so obvious.

The thing is, this is central to everything. To letting go of ego. To understanding the connectedness of all things. To walking the right path. That such a lesson should come from a snail rather than from the words of the many sages and scholars I’ve read somehow seems fitting.

After all that, the chickens enjoyed their morning snail snack and I got no closer to reconciling gardening with Buddhism.

diversity

My albino pea plant has been devoured. It was only a third of the size of my genetically “normal” pea plants, so I had already been reconsidering my plan to let it grow to seed and start an albino pea revolution. Now, I have no doubt that albino peas would have been better than green peas: insects generally have good taste.

            I grow plants from open-pollenated seed, for the most part. This means I can collect the seeds from mature plants and plant them again the following growing season. I like my independence from F1 hybrid developers that require new seed to be bought each new season. They claim to develop “improved” varieties. Well, that’s true and it’s not.

A lot can be learned about life from gardening. What I mean is, aside from combatting the vast monoculture farms that constitute the bulk of our agricultural production, I am also witnessing the fact that evolution operates on the principle of diversity. Think about it: diversity increases the potential for the development and distribution of adaptive traits throughout a population. For obvious reasons, I suppose, I have always been a champion of diversity and difference. And to see the benefits of it in action throughout the short life-cycle of a garden plant is very exciting. I am always looking for the odd one out—the one with the curly leaves instead of flat, narrow instead of wide, because certain types of leaves seem to do better than others in our intensely hot summers. And they will only get hotter, you see.

The cost of those massive farms that produce only one or two crops, one sterile F1 variety for each crop, is the loss of diversity. The loss of diversity in agriculture leaves us vulnerable to food shortages—plague of locusts-style—as well as slowing the evolution of more adaptive plants. And with climate change, we will need to grow different plants from the ones that are currently in existence if we expect to eat anything.

So, it seems albino peas will not be the great white hope of the post-climate change era. But I will still seek out difference among the plants in my garden for new adaptations to this crazy world.

For further reading on the importance of biodiversity, see Fowler and Mooney’s Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity. A life-changing read on the agrarian lifestyle can be found in Wendell Berry’s The Art of the Commonplace.