Written by: Farmer Connor Newman
Without getting too philosophical, the job description for the gardener is pretty simple – create and maintain conditions, in which, your plants can thrive. The normal tasks might include things like watering, working the soil, planting, pulling weeds, treating pests and feeding. It is also said that the job of the gardener is to act as the staff scientist – looking, listening, feeling, tasting and generally learning from time out amongst the plants. Push your fingers into the soil to feel for moisture, to check the structure of the soil and gauge its temperature. Bring a fistful of earth to your nose and smell for the, well, earthy aroma of “geosmin”, the byproduct of Actinobacteria and the tell-tale sign of a healthy subterranean ecosystem. Our brains are wired for pattern recognition and we can use that skill to look for pests and disease, as well as healthy plants and improving conditions.
However, do we always balance thoughtful observation with the tasks that we believe have to be done?
Do we always use the best tool for the job?
All too often, we succumb to availability biases that justify expensive chemical habits, intensive resource use, and tedious tasks, ad infinitum. Much like parenting, the gardener’s job is not so much to enforce rules and micromanage but to nurture and, often, to simply provide an environment conducive to growth. For instance, is watering every single day, always the best idea? Even in the heat of summer, not only is this practice wasteful, it is usually unnecessary. Most (not all by any stretch) plants suited to North Carolina’s climate enjoy about one inch of rain each week, or the equivalent thereof. Doing some admittedly disputable math, this works out to about 62 gallons per one hundred square feet and, by measuring the output of your choice watering device and crunching some basic area numbers, you can create the ideal conditions that your plant would encounter in nature. Watering deeply and infrequently encourages deep rooting, which pulls the double duty of promoting drought tolerance and having your plant’s roots gain access to leached nutrients deeper in the soil. Frequent and especially shallow watering will encourage shallow roots that succumb to drought stress, increased surface temperatures, wind, pests and other inherent risks to generally weaker plants. This may come as a relief to those who are forgetful about watering, have little free time and/or would even like to see lower utility bills. Another point worth considering would be to look into the needs of particular plants. Sage (Salvia officinalis), for instance, is a Mediterranean species and will readily drown if watered too often. So, watering less is not only easier, environmentally sound but also typically better for the plants?
Where else can we cut corners for the betterment of our gardens? Pesticides (applied broadly, for the purposes of this article to include all of the ‘cides) are another area to consider cutting back on, for the sake of your plants, the environment, as well as your own time and budget. Most “ready to use” pesticides are broad spectrum and should really be thought of as a last resort. Firstly, your garden is not as defenseless as it may appear at first glance. Most plants can actually change their chemical makeup in order to repel pests – they produce toxic “secondary compounds”, increase the woodiness of their tissues and even call in hoards of predatory insects to fight on their behalf. When attacked, or chewed on, tomatoes release a sticky substance that can repel or poison the critters feasting on it and, failing that, the plant will release “herbivore-induced volatiles”, something like a lure for predatory insects that can come even the playing field. However, as soon as pesticides are sprayed, most of these natural defenses disappear and the plant becomes dependent on your constant diligence to fend off pests. Likewise, before spraying fungicides, it is worth noting that somewhere around 95% of the world’s vascular plants form beneficial fungal associations that increase a plant’s reach for water and nutrients, as well as protect against soil-borne pests and disease. Even weeds may be worth taking a second look at. If the plants that you don’t want (literally the definition of a weed) are doing better than the plants you are trying to grow, then perhaps there is an environmental factor, like poor drainage, low nutrients or too much bare ground between plants, that you could alter first. After all, what gardeners and farmers call weeds, ecologists call “pioneer species”. These are the plants that begin the recovery process on abandoned fields, replacing nutrients, preventing soil erosion, collecting sunlight and providing the stepping stones for biodiversity – so it may pay off to think of weeds as informative “pop-ups”, letting you know what problems you may have and even how to fix them.
So what does this boil down to?
You’re always going to have to work in any garden, but by using your senses, along with some common sense and even a little R&D, you can save yourself and your gardens from the oppression doing things simply because that’s “how it’s done”. In the words of Johnny (1953’s The Wild One), when asked what he was rebelling against – the thoughtful gardener retorts, “what have you got?” While I’m not suggesting firing up your Harley, along with 50 of your rowdiest friends, to invade quiet suburbia, I do advocate questioning the status quo and going against the grain until you find answers. Rebels, scientists, and innovators alike are always asking “why” and the gardener should too. This is how the gardener performs his, or her, job well.