THE 'DO NOTHING' GARDEN
Our current way of thinking about gardening requires painstaking effort.
We have to plan the lot, till the soil, plant and protect the seeds, gate off from animals, weed out unwanted plants, water, shade, the sun, etc. There is a great deal of work in this and can be very taxing on the new gardener. It is little wonder why so many people in our neighborhoods avoid too much gardening, opting rather for the low-cut mono-grassing that is so prevalent in our culture.
Even this approach is more annoying than pleasurable. It’s a rare person that actually loves to go out and drag the lawn mower around to cut the grass, then weed the lawn, then water the lawn, the clean everything up, only to do it all over again in a week or two. It’s quite fascinating to see how we are so easily corrupting our understanding of what our ecosystems are and what they require to thrive. It's remarkable that we can even be tricked out of our natural birthright.
Unfortunately, without a thriving ecosystem, human thriving is out of the picture altogether. What, then, do we do? How do we encourage people to engage with the natural world - this includes the front yard - in such a way as to honor the ‘house rules’ we’ve all but forgotten? That’s right; there are rules to the conduct we engage in when it comes to interacting with the living things of the world.
The grass is a living thing that requires a certain level of care and attention, not mowing and weeding if it is going to perform its duty as a part of the greater system. The plants we consider weeds are actually often acting as a band-aid to the scathing wounds we create, like mowing and tilling, when we don't apply the house rules. Before we get into the house rules, however, let's just take a look at what is going on in our soils...
...The place where everything is really happening.
THE FABRIC OF LIFE: SOIL
The most important element behind everything we know to be a great garden is the quality of the soil. The soil is not just ‘dirt.' It’s not just ‘the ground.' And it's certainly not inert. 'Soil' is the collective term used to describe the multifaceted network of countless forms of life and myriad processes going on at the base of our natural world. Soil needs to be teeming with life in order to be of any value to the bacteria, fungus, virus, worms, insects, plants and animals that rely on it for sustenance on every level.
In today's culture, even among serious gardeners, there is often little regard invested into understanding the nuances of a truly living soil. So many people have been conditioned to believe in the various practices that are at the root of soil degeneration. Even just a brief discussion with many renowned gardeners on the topic is enough to spark contentious debate. After all, why would people change the way they approach soil as simply a growing medium and begin looking at it with the same reverence as you would your most cherished friend?
Why would changing years of habits - habits that have often produced wondrous gardens to the eye - be something even worth considering? The answer is simple: systemic health. Yours and the worlds'...
WITHOUT HEALTHY SOIL, YOU CAN FORGET ABOUT YOUR PERSONAL HEALTH
The subtle nuances of the soil are manifold and only become known to those who become obsessed with its care. It is through, and from, this mysterious medium that everything we know and love comes to be. With the proper care and attention, we can create a veritable ‘heaven’ for the life that relies on the health of the soil.
An untouched soil connects to the entire garden.
There is a fungal layer that connects the whole garden together in an intimate communication grid that carries the utmost importance to ensure the inclusion of nutrient density, immune functions, and diversity of life in the backyard. This fungal layer, known as the mycorrhizal network, is responsible for so many duties and processes that to ignore it, and worse, destroy it, is akin to pretending we don't have a neurological system and thus lobotomizing people at birth to create quiet babies - of course, an ultimately insane practice. The reason so many diseases can get to crops is that this layer has been cut off.
Many of the insect infestations we now see regularly are directly related to this layer being disturbed or destroyed. The nutrient density of the plants is directly linked to this layer functioning well. Therefore without this layer, even the people who eat from these gardens, or consume the animals that feed there, are going to be left short of vital nutrients that would otherwise be abundant with this layer intact. The challenge we face today is that everyone often opts into tilling and turning the soil.
This is a practice that cannot be further from what is needed. There is absolutely no requirement to till the soil once we begin to understand the nuances of healthy soils and the way they operate within the larger whole of a yard, a garden, a forest, or an entire continent. Tilling and turning happens naturally with the roots of plants channeling through soils and with animals that scrape at the surface like birds and grazing animals, So many people have become fixated on the idea of mono-cropping, weeding, tilling, and fertilizing that it's hard to break out of that mold.
The problem is, all of these processes destroy the mycorrhizal network and cut off the garden from the rest of the world. This layer takes years to grow back and with the constant tilling its likely to be left out of the garden for good leaving plants permanently disabled and disconnected from their world.
'HUMUS' BE KIDDING ME…
For the uninitiated, it is very strange to think of a garden this way.
For many people, gardens are just a pleasant looking afterthought, a chore even, so the neighbors think your yard looks beautiful. For others, it's a place to relax and appreciate the beauty of nature and everything it has to provide. In any situation we come across the principles are the same. Regardless of whether you are a casual flower gardener or a forest conservationist, observing and applying these core principles is a must for a healthy and functioning ecosystem. Above it was suggested that soil is a collective.
Around the year 1800, science gave this soil a name - humus. The single most biodiverse substance known to science is humus because it’s the collective biomass of the many mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria, microbes, protozoa, minerals, insects and animals as well as the even vaster array of intimate processes happening among them. If it’s looked at objectively, the humus layer of the earth is very much like an organ.
Our skin, when allowed to be naturalized, is very similar to this kind of layering. It’s so close to what humus looks like that it can be easy to take the leap and suggest that humus is the skin of the planet – skin that has feeling and responsiveness and a purpose beyond any single isolated substance or event.
THE LONG-TERM GARDEN
Here's where we get into one of the house rules, 'do nothing.' It is a bit of a paradox of course because you are still going to collect seeds, create seed balls, harvest when ready, and have a hand in design to a degree. Do nothing is referencing a way of life that lets nature have more of a hand in how things go in the garden space. You are allowing life to use the already natural processes and procedures inherent in Earth's operating system, so to speak.
Do nothing is referring to giving the soil the opportunity to be unscathed by tilling, turning, chemicals, fertilizers, and transplants by adopting the many methods learned when observing how nature gardens without human intervention. So how do we garden with a philosophy that is so far from what we conditioned to using?
It's all about the long game.
The first few years can be simple flower beds seeded with native grasses and wildflowers. At the end of each season, collect the seed and then just cut the plant and lay it on the ground where it falls. Flower beds like this allow for a great base of nitrogen-fixing green manure to build up a layer of protection for the soil itself and create a source of nutrition for the plants subsequently growing there. After this stage, lasting 2-3 seasons, a more selective arrangement can begin.
If you love a particular plant, create a bunch of clay seed balls packed with your payload and spread them around the area of choice throughout the year. They will begin to sprout season to season at perfect intervals balanced to what the soil can handle with full health. After a few years, you will have an area that is well suited for that particular plant group. This approach works even better when introducing companion planting. Consider using various plant heights, maturity, colors, species and bloom cycles when creating seed balls. Done this way, a veritable heavenly oasis that all of the life in the garden can appreciate and inhabit will be the result.
FINALLY FEELING HEALTHY AGAIN
Again, another cool result of applying this philosophy of gardening is the optimized personal health and wellness that arises. It’s surprising just how quickly the body reacts positively to being in a naturalized ecosystem. When we are no longer the hyper-sanitized, mono-cropped, ‘weed’-free, insectophobes that most urban cultures promote we become naturalized and full of life. We become a connected human again.
Welcome to your birthright.
Try it for yourself for a few years. You’ll be very pleased with the resulting diversity and overall yield - yields of animals, seeds, fruits, vegetables, grains, wood, etc. (consumable crop as well as areas allotted to nature) - of your naturalized garden space.
Here's to your highest health and your best self.