Monday, June 28, 2010

Field Studies

The garden is starting to yield. Parsley, basil, mint tops, and early lettuce have all been picked and the first lesson of gardening is in hand; you must be a brutal realist.

Pruning and Thinning. Salad greens are topped, flowers are dead headed, and herbs are pinched back every day. If you harvest early and often you increase your yield. So by eating more mint, I get more mint?! Yes. You delay bolting and the plant going to seed. It is counter-intuitive.
When sowing seeds there are two major schools: One lays out rows, drills holes for individual seeds and assumes they will all be vital. The other plants the entire seed packet, waits to see which seeds produce sprouts and then thins the row to the proper spacing. You lose half or more of your sprouts. You get more yield.
When growing fruit trees you learn to prune back, to thin, in order to increase quantity and quality of yield. You mean if I knock or pick off every other apricot on that tree I will get more apricots?! Oh yes, and fuller, more flavorful fruit and a tree that can bear the weight.
Dead heading, (removing drooping flowers and their seed stems), your petunia, pansy, geranium plants will increase their blooms and their blooming cycle.

All of the above require intense hand labor. Determine how much you want to work and plan the size of your garden accordingly. End of lesson one.

You will learn to kill. Is it killing if I don't see my prey? Carrie, a near Jainist, will turn her fingers green with the bodies of the dead aphids she strips from her roses.
Pest control often evolves in the following cycle: Squirrels are cute, they are part of the scheme of things, it's fun to have them in the garden. Lets get a HavaHart and move the critters out. Does the city allow air guns within its borders.

Gardening will turn your world view upside down. No matter the scale, be it a single pot or a plot, you will never bemoan another rain shower. You will monitor frost warnings. You will learn to be sensitive to direction of and intensity of sunshine. You will become attuned to the vagaries of nature. There are going to be far more complications to this process than you imagined. The easy acceptance of the concept "organic" is going to be challenged. You will understand failure in new and important ways. You are not in control of your environment despite your best efforts. When all else is failing you will spray with chemicals, or, you will retire from the field. You will come to understand that every crop you plant is the result of genetic modification. The horror stories and the resulting rampant fear of GMO's may or may not be warranted. The patenting of our food supply is terrifying.

A garden is never "vital" for our sustenance, that is our privilege. It can however become a classroom for understanding the larger forces at work in the world. That is the promise of school based garden curriculum elements. They stop way short of the kind of truth telling that our citizens need to learn to appreciate where their food comes from. You get no second chance in a crop field. It is not a classroom. End of lesson two.

Promises of the learning power of the garden that won't be fulfilled include your understanding of your connection to the earth. At best you have a patch, a highly controlled and defined space. It is no more a microcosm of the earth than a goldfish bowl is to the sea. Growing a successful tomato in no way informs your understand of how you are going to sustain yourself in November. Gardens are not agriculture and large scale gardens, despite our desire to believe, are not capable of feeding us. Some of us may be able to afford $40 a pound greens but in the scheme of things that is irrelevant. Thomas Jefferson had most of it right at Monticello and in his design of The University, The Academical Village. From the time of Plato's "groves of academe," gardens have been linked to the contemplative and scholarly life as well. Jefferson described the University as a set of buildings "arranged around an open square of grass and trees." The Pavilion Gardens provided both a place in which to study and a subject of study. Jefferson wrote that "such a plan would afford the quiet retirement so friendly to study." As I continue to harp on the University as the available model of how we might live in the real world visit the UVA web site and appreciate that faculty and students alike fight to stay within the Village.

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