Can’t wait to dive into your flowerbeds or vegetable garden now that spring has finally arrived? Wait a second! Life is much easier when you work with nature rather than against it. As in gardening without a shovel.
After nearly 30 years of gardening, including at leading institutions such as the Royal Horticultural Society and Kew Gardens, Alys Fowler realized that much of what she learned there could be done differently, more easily and, above all, more naturally. She reports extensively on this in The Guardian and we summarize it for you here.
All those efforts — weeding, fertilizing, digging, tending and pruning, selecting and adjusting — aren’t working, she says. Not for the plants, not for the soil and not for the community around it, of which we ourselves are part. Indigenous cultures everywhere have based their practices on observing and honoring the ecology, while we in the “developed world” made our own rules. Our attempt to control nature has perpetuated the bad relationship with all the creatures in the garden, making everything a kind of battle, be it mowing, hoeing, watering or attacking some critter.
Now that the new growing season is finally starting, instead of working the garden right away, maybe we can relax a bit, spend more time watching and listening, waiting instead of reacting, being quietly present in the garden just as often as active gardening . That’s how it should be.
Throw out the shovel
If you’re even remotely interested in gardening, you’ve probably heard of “no dig,” where you drop the spade and grab a hoe instead. Instead of turning the soil over, a structure that has been hundreds of millions of years in the making and has therefore thought long and hard about which way to go, you lightly hoe or “tickle” the soil to remove unwanted weeds and the leaving many microbes, fungi and insects intact, exactly where they want to be. Happy microbes make for happy plant roots, which are better able to absorb nutrients, fight pests and diseases, and withstand drought. With less weeds as a result.
Every soil has its weed seed bank. Seeds are not there to tease you, but serve as a life jacket for the soil. Exposed, weed-free soil is very easily damaged or eroded by the weather and then washed away. Most weed seeds need light to germinate. The more you disturb, turn, dig up the ground, the more light you let in, the more the ground has to rush to protect itself. Resulting in more weeds. It opens up its weed seed bank as a protective layer to hold the system together.
Speaking of weeds, it’s time we do away with the word altogether. Even the Chelsea flower show now calls weeds “hero plants.” Every weed in your yard is trying to tell you something very important.
The more one species dominates, the louder the message. Dandelions say your soil is a bit compacted and deficient in surface nutrients, especially calcium and potassium; nettles tell you that there is too much surface nitrogen (not as good as it sounds). A wave of annual weeds – cress, chickweed and mouse’s ear – say the soil is dominated by bacteria, while thistles, sorrel, ox tongue and comfrey are another sign that the surface is a little nutrient deficient and that only species with long taproots that can exploit the subsoil, can thrive. Blackberries tend to proliferate if there is too much nitrogen.
Once you delve into the ecology of everything we call weeds, you’ll discover that it plays a key role in nutrient recycling, providing food in the form of nectar and pollen for insects of all kinds, whatever the weather.
Many of these common species come to help the ground. If you cut back on weeding (which you should occasionally anyway), and pay attention to the soil instead, they’ll become good acquaintances pretty quickly. Annuals are a sign that the soil is dominated by bacteria. They do not thrive in the fungi-dominated soil of forests. Fungi thrive in carbon-rich soils because they eat it.
If you have too many annual weeds, add more carbon to your soil in the form of coarse homemade compost, cardboard, or brown leaves. You don’t have to dig it in – the worms absorb it all into the soil.
Embrace rot and death
So, we have thrown away the spade and let the weeding go; now it’s time to clean up. While snails love a pile of damp, slightly rotting leaves, so do the beetles that prey on them. A garden that is in balance does not suffer from pests or diseases and has creatures that live and die, sometimes thriving, but rarely at the expense of the entire system. This equilibrium takes time, several years or more, but eventually even the snails settle down. Rot, disease, pests are simply the earth’s recycling system.
Stop chasing rapid growth
Good soil does not need any kind of chemicals, such as extra nitrogen and phosphorus. These synthetic fertilizers do not stay where you use them and leach out. Over time, they deplete the stored carbon in the soil, reducing fertility even as organic matter is added. In short, who buys fertilizers pays for short-term profit. Homemade compost is free and builds up the soil, helps store carbon and nourishes the plants. Even if you make really bad compost.
Let plants do their thing
Finally, let’s embrace variety in our flowers and crops. For thousands of years, we have been selecting and cultivating plants so that they benefit us. But for a long time, this was a relaxed process of letting the pollinators do their thing, saving seed, breeding it, and noticing what worked best for the environment you were in. Technically, this is known as creating a landrace, an ancient cultivar that is variable and often contains many alleles (forms of genes) not found in modern, highly bred cultivars. Landrace gardening is the opposite: you cross-pollinate all of your rootstocks, or whatever it is you’re growing, to create a diverse breeding population. It’s a survival strategy that makes the gene pool more diverse, making it more future-proof than something highly bred.
I’m not arguing here for giving up gardening, but for a different view of how you do it. If the dandelion, sorrel, or blackberry won’t get in the way, leave it. If the plant goes down in an orgy of aphids, leave it to another gardener to clean them up. Let plants die in place, learn to watch and observe before intervening. Then you will see that nature is more willing to help than to cause trouble.
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