Thursday, April 26, 2007

Organic Lessons

Many years into organic gardening, I find myself reflecting on how a seemingly small decision not to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides has ended up changing how I live my life. When I began my first small flower graden, I was an enthusiastic novice. I could name only the most obvious annuals, the ones my parents had planted year after year—marigolds, petunias, impatiens. I thought weather reports were boring. I referred constantly to Taylor’s Encyclopedia of Gardening for even the most basic tasks, such as how to take a plant out of a plastic pot and get it settled in the ground. I didn’t know anything about soil, water, or temperature and how they interact to determine which plants will do well in a particular place. I didn’t yet view lawns as pointless green chemical sponges, symbols of a misplaced American urge for control of nature. I just wanted pretty flowering plants growing in my yard.

Eight years later, I feel connected to the earth and am more passionate about life. Trying to garden organically forced me to learn about connections between living systems and think deeply about my impact on the earth. Aside from global warming, most environmental damage tends to be fairly local in origin and scope. The fertilizer that my neighbor puts on the lawn prior to a heavy rain tends to run off into local creeks and streams that empty into the reservoir from which we get our drinking water. This seems obvious to me now, after years of reading about environmental processes. But I think most of us avoid making such connections. We’re too busy working so we have money to buy the products--mysteriously manufactured elsewhere from unknown raw materials, using production processes with who-knows-what consequences--that our culture tells us we need to live the good life.

As I have learned more, my approach to gardening has broadened from an anti-chemical impulse to a philosophy of sustainability. I now try to conserve water by planting mostly native plants adapted to Carolina Piedmont patterns of rainfall and summer heat. I have a compost pile. (After one year, it has yet to produce usable compost, but it keeps shrinking, so I am optimistic.)

Nature, in the form of deer and raccoons, voles and squirrels, ants and caterpillars, is teaching me (slowly!) to be tolerant of the needs of animals, even when that comes in the form of munched or dug-up plants. And mostly I feel lucky to live in a heavily wooded neighborhood with an entertaining variety of animal life keeping nature in balance. I can count on owls and snakes to control voles, and raccoons to dig up grubs, and birds to eat countless caterpillars and insects, and bats to eat some (though not nearly enough!) mosquitoes.

I am learning to delay gratification. A new planting bed of perennials, no matter how well-thought out, just doesn’t look that good the first year. Young trees and shrubs take years to mature. Gardening is as much a process of learning about and from the earth as it is about aesthetic results. I am no longer just an environmentalist by intellectual inclination but a person committed to the practice of respecting the earth.

Probably most importantly, through the garden, I have learned to feel deeply attached to place and community, despite being a relative newcomer to Chapel Hill. I no longer think that what is most interesting or important happens elsewhere. I have a deep appreciation for what is happening in my own backyard.