Organic Gardening Goal 1: To work with nature and natural systems and processes rather than seeking to dominate them.
We have a long history of maintaining our gardens to suit our aesthetic needs, as if they were a living room that needed decorating.
It does make some sense because we are trying to create a place that we can enjoy spending time, but if you step back and think about it, we would do better to help nature do what nature does best rather than creating never-ending work for ourselves. We would do better to work with nature
What are some ways we seek to dominate our gardens? Here are 5 of the most common:
- We prune plants into perfect symmetrical shapes - spheres, boxes and pyramids.
- We remove the leaves in the fall to keep things looking "tidy", much like we were vacuuming our kitchen floor.
- We plant things just because they look pretty.
- We kill weeds, insects, diseases and any other "pests" that dare try to make a living.
- We rototill and aerate the soil to try to make spaces for air and water.
How Can We Work With Nature Instead?
It's easy and it's fun!
- We need to get past the mentally that plants need to be hacked into shapes. They know very well how they ought to grow; they've been doing it for millions of years and they've figured it out pretty well by now. There is no pruning we can do that can make them better. They've evolved the way that is best for them.
Much of our pruning comes from using the wrong plant in the wrong place. If a plant "needs" pruning in order to stay small enough for the space, it's not the plant's fault - it's the garden designer's fault. Planting appropriate plants and letting them grow naturally is a great way to work with nature in your organic garden (and it's less work).
- Fallen leaves are what continue the cycle of life in the garden. They do endless duties in the garden and when we take them away, we inherit their work. Unfortunately, we can never do as good of a job. Leaves are food for plants. No amount of organic fertilizer can substitute, just like no amount of multi-vitamins take the place of us eating our vegetables. Leaves improve the soil in countless ways and they need to stay right there.
Do you think they're ugly? Do you think a forest floor ugly? Heide Hermary of Gaia College says that it will one day be a status symbol to have a thick layer of natural much in our organic gardens. And once you rake them up into the beds (or even better, design the beds to catch most of the leaves), you'll be surprised how incredible it looks (and it's less work).
- It's fun to choose pretty plants from all over the world, but we are increasingly using plants that do not belong in our garden, because of inappropriate soil conditions, sun conditions, and even climate conditions. Then we have to really pamper them to get them to grow, and they still often have pest trouble because they're not happy growing in our garden, or at least in that spot in our garden.
I feel strongly that using both foreign and native plants is desirable, but we need to use plants that belong in our garden and contribute to the health of the garden rather than just having complimentary shapes and colors like when you choose paint for your living room. When we choose the right plants for the soil, sun and climate conditions, they will thrive on their own without needing our constant care and chemicals (definitely less work - organic gardening is easy).
- Weeds, insects and diseases are not some external threat coming to destroy your garden. In fact, they are there to improve it. Weeds come to fix whatever is wrong with your soil. There is a different weed for each soil deficiency or excess. Insects and diseases come to eat plants that are sick. They will never eat a healthy plant because they literally can't digest it, or even see it for that matter (more on that another time).
When we listen to what all of these weeds, insects and diseases are telling us, we learn how to improve the conditions in our organic gardens so that our soil is fixed and our plants are healthy. The "pests" will mostly go away, but hopefully some will stay, as they have important jobs to do to keep the garden working (it's more work at first, but much less in the long run). That's how to work with nature.
- Do you happen to know how often a forest needs to be rototilled? Or a prairie needs to be aerated? Never, of course. A natural, healthy soil has the right amount of air and water spaces for the plant life there. These spaces are created by the critters and plants that live there. While mechanical rototilling and aerating may sometimes give short-term benefits, it is often at the expense of long-term soil health.
If we work with nature and let the critters have what they need - fallen leaves, rain water, appropriate plant life - they'll continually improve the soil (yep, less work).
I joked a bit here about how it is less work to work with nature, and it certainly is less work in the long run, but that's not necessarily the main benefit. In fact, some of us actually like spending time organic gardening and would feel left out if there wasn't some way we could contribute.
There is actually lots for us to do to help the process of making our gardening a healthy and abundant ecosystem, but we are just helpers, and we need to let nature do the work. We don't make good soil. We don't make plants healthy. Our job is not to kill insects.
But we can help just by occasionally tweaking the ecosystem to make sure it has what it needs and by letting nature take on the jobs that she does much better than us.