I was working in my garden today, thinking about what I was doing and also thinking about how most people farm today and how I would explain what I do to people that want to learn. I thought I would share as it forms the basis for how and why I do things on our land.
While I hold no religious reasons for my views, I feel very in-tune with the earth. In my youth and young-adulthood I wanted very much to be a biologist, a marine biologist to be quite specific. I learned that it was hard to make a good living in that field so I wove a different path for myself, but that love of the earth and the life that makes it special never has left me. I have always tried to teach others about her, how to take care of her and how she meets our needs. I am passionate about the earth in a quiet, farmer kind of way.
So, getting back on topic, I was unloading leaf mulch into the garden, lining paths and plant rows with it. It was really hot outside, and the humidity was causing sweat to run off of me as if I had just come out of the pool. It was a struggle to keep my glasses clean as the sweat dripped onto them every time I leaned over to dump another bucket of mulch on the ground. I stood up and looked around. I noticed the sweet potato vines were looking a little dehydrated and made a note to water them when the sun went a little lower. We haven’t had rain in over a week and the plants are looking a little stressed despite the thick mulch that was laid around them. I thought about it as I went back for another load. I thought about how the earth, to me, was like a woman that demanded to be dressed. She longs to be covered in life, either plants or creatures, and they form the folds and creases of her garment.
This of course led to explaining to my invisible audience what I meant by that. It is pretty simple really; bare soil erodes, it washes nutrients away to a place where they eventually get caught up and a fertile piece of land produces food for the creatures that live on it. The earth doesn’t like seeing any of her creatures hungry and longs to fix those patches of arid land. So she grows grasses there to catch the soil. Their roots are shallow and they need little to survive, but they spread with vigor and quickly cover the soil. Their leaves provide mulch that harbors insects and eventually becomes the soil rich enough for other plants (which we often call weeds) to grow. These plants continue the process of restoring the soil and nurturing life, and act as a shade to make the grass leave space for larger life. A tree’s seed is planted by a squirrel, and then grows. It provides more shade and more trees grow. Eventually they create a dense canopy that shields the earth below from excessive wind and rain and continues to mulch it with leaves and fallen branches. Many of the “weeds” and grasses cannot thrive in the shaded forest except in pockets where a tree has fallen and the earth becomes exposed again and they have to begin to sew their patch upon it.
Using these observations I apply them to my gardening. My garden was covered in crab grass when we moved here, and I was a bit concerned that we would not get a good harvest for battling the grasses. However, I knew that the earth needed covering. I knew the soil there was poor and sandy with very little top-soil, the soil that is where things actually grow. So, my plan was to create, essentially, the environment of a forest but without the trees, because most of our food plants for gardens come in about the size of “weeds”. I tilled and removed as much grass as I could. I planted with care not to over-tax the soil that was there, giving my crops space but also wanting to fill in and shade as much of the earth as I could. I applied a heavy layer of mulch made from leaves and wood chips to hold the soil and harbor insects and microbes that would break that mulch down into nutrients for the plants. I planted things that grew down with things that grew up. As I approach the fall season I am trying not to disturb that rich bed that I made but instead add to it and plant in it. The grass grew in places, but most of the spaces that were carefully mulched remained fairly grass-free and the plants produced an ample harvest and were healthy enough to withstand bug invaders. You see, nature is amazing and will find a way to survive if given the care it needs. When gardening we need to be mindful not to strip the earth of her covering. We need to cover bare ground with heavy mulches and plant our crops in such ways that it shades the ground fairly quickly. We need to continuously build the soil rather than applying chemical fertilizers that create imbalance. If we dress the earth with life (plants and in the mulch microbes and beneficial insects) she will yield bountifully.