“A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure. But he is doing something else that is more important: He is making a vital contact with the soil and the weather on which his life depends. He will no longer look upon rain as a traffic impediment, or upon the sun as a holiday decoration. And his sense of humanity’s dependence on the world will have grown precise enough, one would hope, to be politically clarifying and useful.” Wallace Berry, essay “Think Little” from collection “A Continuous Harmony”
One of Berry’s biggest complaints is how Americans expect “abundance without thrift”. One of his gardening commandments is to put back more than you take. Gardeners eventually learn that secret ecological rule. If you just put more ammonium sulfate on the flowers each Spring, your yard eventually may take on the Disneyland appearance of fakeness with swaths of colors God never intended, banks of bright disposable flowers. And they’ll last long enough for you to take a picture to post on your blog, demonstrating your gardening expertise. Good on you.
But this isn’t seasonal gardening so much as it’s what I call Shopping Mall Gardening: replacing hundreds of 4” plants at least four times a year on those tiny patches between the parking lot and the stores. Amid post-Xmas white sales last month, the mall gardeners were tossing out the bloomed-out poinsettias for begonias who always look embarrassed to be following the bright red pointsettias with their meager faded reddish and white flowers. Soon, when the begonias have done their gelatinous best, they’ll be rewarded by being tossed into a dumpster, and replaced with geraniums in shades of Pepto-pink, just in time for the Spring Sales.
The hundreds of 4” plastic pots the geraniums came in will be tossed on top of the corpses of the begonias, as will, presumably, the empty plastic bags of ammonium nitrate fertilizers. Instead of being returned to replenish the soil, I imagine that the begonia garbage will be barged to Indonesia along with mountains plastic drink containers and dead computers and cell phones with their poison and radioactive parts.
I am far from a careful expert farmer, nurturing the soil generation after generation. But I am a novice composter – putting kitchen waste and shredded junk mail in a small tumbler, and forking it into bottomless plastic garbage cans when it’s halfway ripe. A Master Composter would point out that my compost often smells like rotting garbage, and we all know that’s not right. But compost forgives all sins, eventually turning into my homemade version of “black gold” shot through with shiney short ribbons of non-degradable plastic windows that are all that’s left of the junk mail envelopes.
My garden doesn’t care about that, or about the frequent volunteer tomato and pepper seeds that I sow along with lovely wormy compost. I don’t waste, and I don’t consume mass-produced “color-packs” of short-lived flowers, or potted mums that have been forced within an inch of their life to bloom profusely and to collapse and die in exhaustion. A professional horticulturist I know once told me that Miracle Grow stuff, apart from poisoning the soil with salt, acts like, and I quote, crack for plants. That’s a temptation I – and my garden – can resist.