April 04, 2007


I remember when gardening was supposed to be a form of relaxation. Experimentation. Learning. But mostly, it was supposed to be Fun.

After turning to organics nearly 15 years ago (already 10 years into gardening at that point), I figured it'd have to be even more fun now that I could work with the earth and not against it. Now my yin and the earth's yang could coincide and "grow" harmoniously in my little garden. No longer would I fight with mother nature, but learn to work with her. More importantly I would learn that although my new-found organic enlightenment wouldn't necessarily lighten the physical or time-consuming load, it would lighten my worries over lost plants, lessened harvests, smaller blooms - no blooms - alien bugs and unidentified munchers who fed on my plants under cover of darkness leaving them crushed, skeletonized, or slimed with a fungus.

I learned that "going organic" didn't just mean heavier on the manure, leaving those grass clippings on the lawn instead of at the curb, building a compost pile, embracing the ocean's aroma from a freshly-opened bottle of fish or seaweed emulsion, or finally understanding just why the acrid stench of chemicals made my eyes burn every time I walked past the piles of weed n'feeds in the Big Box stores. I learned that when agreeing to work in partnership with mother nature, you had to accept whatever she doled out. Good, bad or otherwise. Learning and accepting that I no longer had to strive for perfection at all costs...that I no longer had to strive for perfection at all...brought a great sense of calm, relaxation, and helped reacquaint me with why I began gardening in the first place: to have fun.

Too many people I've come across in organic gardening circles seem to have forgotten that gardening is supposed to be fun and that "perfection" is not in an organic gardener's lexicon. It isn't an engineering-degreed, complex calculation of browns and greens; exact to the week, day and minute of seeding and transplanting; to the proper proportion of worms per square foot of soil; till vs. no till; should mulch be grass clippings, wood chips, leaves or newspaper. Would heads roll if perennials were mulched before or after a freeze? Lacking any other viable alternative, would one risk organic castigation if they were to purchase a single bale of peat moss? Would an aspiring organic gardener be shunned if they strived to improve their hopelessly inadequate soil with organic amendments other than compost? And what wrath did they face if they added no compost at all initially - or even the next season - simply because there had none? After all, a gardener "going" organic doesn't necessarily make the transition with a pile of finished compost in tow.

Would a gardener risk eternal organic damnation if they succumbed to applications of pre-packed or bottled organic fertilizers? Would that blasphemous act mock those who sanctimoniously adhere to compost's irrefutable ability to cure and prevent all manner of gardening ills? And what if - armed with a wheelbarrow of neatly finished compost - it still failed to vanquish disease and pests? Would that be the compost's failure or the gardener's? In the eyes of those organic hardliners preaching from bully pulpits built on their perfect soil, the fault, dear Gardener, would lie with Thee. Yet another reason for any neophyte gardener dabbing newbie toes into organic waters to run screaming from shores of compost tea because they were brow-beaten with such daunting criteria from these self-proclaimed "experts" who consistently held the bar unattainably too high. Especially for a newcomer and even for a veteran, these organic demagogs bled all the fun out of natural gardening by mystifying it as rocket science and dehydrating it into soil biology 101.

Surely this current organic perfectionism, once the bastion of laid-back, go-with-the-flow flower children of the sixties - aligned with Rodale's teachings and Rachel 's warnings - would collectively "roll them over Beethoven" in their graves or reverberate a shake, rattle and roll of hippie walkers at the very suggestion that their "least harm" philosophy had denigrated into such organic fascism. Why, I wonder, does it seem so many organic gardeners these days appear to devote more sweat of their brow to the details than to the actual deed itself? Why does it seem so many new organic gardeners are having less fun doing something which should provide more pleasure because of so much intimidation postulated by unforgiving organic evangelicals?

Instead of promulgating the real credo of organic gardening -"Doing The Least Harm" - these alleged "experts" spend more time wagging fingers of chastisement than lending a supportive hand of understanding and helpful information. Instead of praising or commiserating with the newcomers to the organic fold (or even the veteran players) for garden missteps, they mercilessly drop kick each gardener who simply can't maintain optimum soil conditions. Reasons are unacceptable to them. Even pleas for suggestions are dismissed with responses of party line rhetoric, which - when broken down in practical, day-to-day terms - is of little or no constructive value to the poor perplexed gardener. The miserable failure (and I hardly consider the loss of a tomato plant or a begonia a "miserable failure" in the first place) are all laid at the ill-informed, ignorant and pathetically incapable Bierkenstocks of the gardener who didn't heed the Word of the Ozes of Organics. We didn't follow the "rules". We didn't get our soil tested every three weeks or watered overhead a few times because we couldn't afford to replace a soaker hose or there was no time to sprinkle during the day because our kid was sick, so we had to haul the hose out at 7:00 pm risking fungal disease on our hollyhocks. Blame is not placed on the errant whims of Mother Nature or Fate or a prolonged case of the flu or attendance to life outside the garden, but rather our trowels are raked over the coals of failure because we did not follow the path of those self-righteous preachers of garden perfection.

The real irony there is that, organic or otherwise, it is an oxymoron to combine "perfection" and "gardening" in the same sentence, paragraph or thought. Yet, we are beaten about the heads with the limp leaves of our deceased plants and mocked for our shortcomings with snide innuendoes of "I told you so". We are graded as "organically criminally negligent" and deserve what ills befall our garden as a result of our careless and casual irresponsible equation of gardening and fun.

And are those who've assumed the mantle of grading a gardener's term paper more educated, more experienced and more knowledgeable of natural gardening than the average Joe or Joan Gardener? Perhaps. But are they true Educators? Do they educate with broad parameters and allow a student to learn at their own pace? Do they judge a different approach as a mistake or assist a gardener who's taken a new road toward the same goal of doing the least harm? Most importantly, do they encourage experimentation and fun? Isn't that the description of a true Educator? If they don't fit that description, then they are merely close-minded, myopically arrogant preachers who just like to hear themselves talk.

There are many of us organic gardeners out there who still value Fun in gardening at a higher premium than any fixation on failures. There are those who look upon failures as opportunities for lessons otherwise not learned. Probably the majority of us are of that mindset. Yet as in any group or philosophical approach there exists fanatics. These are the ones who threaten to take the inherent Fun out of it for the rest of us. Perhaps most disturbing is that these are the people in positions to bring new organic converts into "the fold" - gently - educating with a soft garden glove and not the back of a steel trowel. These are the people who should know that nature will win out - sometimes...most times - no matter what you do. Gardeners, new and old, must acknowledge that acceptance of a least harmful, organic approach to gardening, also demands acceptance of a garden that may be imperfect through no fault of our own. No matter what blame any presumed learned "expert" may lay at our scruffy garden clogs.

Gardening organically means rejoicing and having fun with the garden that is half empty as well as half full. Perhaps one should perceive no difference in it at all. Half full...half empty. As long as at least one half remains Fun.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The person who runs our garden club is just like this. They sound like a recorded message every time somebody asks a question. I enjoy gardening because there's lots of gray areas but this guy sees everything in black and white. No room for error and no excuses. No one ever socializes with him outside the club because we figure he's probably not much fun with that stick up his butt all the time. Thanks for the laugh and the insight and the encouragement.