I'm in an awkward position. Having scratched out a living as a professional organic gardener for some 30 years, the place where I now live is tended, at the insistence of the property manager, by a mow, blow and go crew. Once a week I arrive home to assess what damage has been done and to pull out what little hair I have left. The first month we lived here, I watched from my window in shock as one of the crew pulled all my arugula that had just emerged from the soil. Since then I've managed to persuade the property manager to keep the crew away from the parts of the landscape where we garden. But the green can is a testament to their ability to find things on which they can use their power tools.
A few weeks ago my wife had a conversation with the owner of the landscape company (they call themselves a “gardening” company). He was here to look over a mulched area where the landlords are considering having some manzanita planted. She suggested that the adobe-hard soil might not be the best setting for native plants that grow on slopes and in rocky, well-drained soil. The owner replied, “Who cares? It's just gardening.”
Was he right? Is it just gardening? Have I fooled myself into thinking it was something more?
Of course, having watched his and countless other mow-and-blow crews at work, I think I know what he means. “Gardening” is a way to get quick and easy cash by giving customers a neatly trimmed yard for $40 a week. And who cares if a plant in the wrong place dies in a few years? That only means more billable hours for the landscape company to remove and replace. Who cares if the neighbors are terrorized by leaf blowers? Who cares if herbicides, pesticides and hydrocarbons flow into the storm drains and out into the estuaries? I guess what he really meant was, “Who cares? It's just the gardening business."
In the early '80's I came to believe that organic gardening could help change the world for the better. In horticulture classes I learned the proper way to plant, prune and nourish the plants that populate the green world. And yet today I rarely, if ever, see a tree cared for properly. I see plants stuck here and there in unpromising spots with a handful of chemical fertilizer tossed at them to keep them alive just long enough for the landscaper to get paid. I see so many plants on life support, so many stressed and medicated, so many struggling for light, water, nutrients. Too many yards have become like zoos for captive plants with the care and feeding handed over to strangers. The short-term thinking that's dominated so much of our national life for the last 30 or 40 years sadly has taken root in one of the world's oldest professions. What schools and universities have been teaching about horticulture for decades doesn't appear to have had much impact on the real world.
A gardener who really cares about plants can't help but care about the soil, the air, the water, all the living and non-living members of the community in which plants exist. A caring gardener looks closely at the soil and sees the past — the way the soil has been treated or mistreated — and considers the future, weighing the impact of each possible action on the soil's long-term health. The gardener who takes seriously Candide's advice that we must cultivate our garden understands that the real garden extends well beyond the artificial confines of a given parcel of land or period of time and that all will not be for the best in an uncultivated garden. The root of the word "cultivate" means not just to till but also to honor, to revere, to care for.
In practical terms this means gardening as if the lives of others depend on it. This means getting to know your soil's strengths and weaknesses by doing a soil analysis ($45 through Peaceful Valley Farm Supply www.groworganic.com/ds-complete-soil-analysis-wfree-booklet.html ) and by studying a soil survey (http://websoilsurvey.nrcs.usda.gov/app/HomePage.htm). When planting annuals, it means laying out permanent beds that are never stepped on, preparing the soil properly by adding organic matter to hold nutrients and water, using natural fertilizers that won't leach into groundwater or storm drains and choosing the right locally-grown plant for the right place. For perennials, it means planting in unamended soil and putting organic mulch on the surface, staking trees so they can sway in the breeze and develop strong trunks and branches, selecting plants that can grow in their natural form to their natural height so someone won't have to regularly shear and prune and send barrels of green waste to the landfill.
It means allowing neighbors of all sorts into your garden. Letting some wood decay to provide habitat for other species. Letting some plants flower and go to seed to provide nourishment for birds and beneficial insects. Letting your space reflect the way the natural world works. After all, humankind has been cultivating plants for just a few thousand years. Nature's been at it for millions of years.
It's only gardening, indeed. But unless the human race decides to go back to hunting and gathering, or learns to photosynthesize, we're stuck with it. We'd better learn to do it with care.