Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

The reality is that fossil fuels will no longer be available to power our civilization.We will have to go back to relying on the sun for energy. We can’t be sure exactly when or how this inflection point will take place, but it will take place.

Energy becomes more expensive; conflicts over energy become the norm.

It’s wishful thinking to imagine that photo-voltaic cells, hydrogen or any other technology can take the place of petroleum. Natural gas, coal, and uranium will make a dent in the downward curve, but but they are limited and there will be no going back to cheap energy.

(Nothing original here. The foregoing is the position of Richard Heinberg and his school of Peak Oil thinkers. The same ideas were circulating in the 70s. See Peak Oil Links for details on this argument. See especially the Die-Off site.)

If we are going back to solar energy, how do we do it? For the most part, through gardening. Gardening means harvesting the sun’s power through vegetation to produce food, drink, medicines, fabrics, dyes, fuel (biomass), and building material. Gardening is intensive and intelligent, de-centralized and local.

But Gardening Needs a Culture

Eventually (after centuries), we will recover the knowledge and attitudes necessary for good gardening.

What a waste though. The technical knowledge is available now. Now, it would be easy to develop techniques and infrastructure to get us through the hard times to come.

What to do?

Here, now. Struggle to earn a living, meet family and other obligations. How to start the new culture? Well, be patient. // I want to get gardening away from the specialists. They keep the information alive, but as a special group, they have habits that make it difficult for everybody to join. And it’s critical that it be open to everyone.

Trying to read 200 pages of dense text on fruit growing. (Calif MG Handbook). It’s a good reference, but it is irrelevant to the job of creating a new culture. For that, need stories, meaning. How frivolous and superficial seem our gardening texts, compared to the central role gardening and farming had in previous centuries. Here we talk about the colors and textures of landscape plants. The Bible uses gardening imagery for the most profound of ideas.


I had a strange feeling reading about trees, fruit trees, and pruning. Trees are more imposing presences than herbs and vegetables. More of a personality. An imposing presence. A greater emotional relationship to them. Fig tree in our back yard. The cherry trees. Redwoods, eucalyptus. Tape on plant amnesty, crusading against bad pruning. // Trees are there… but do we write about them? Do we think about them? There are bureaucratic, technical, and legal approaches, but these aren’t satisfying. They are just the silly response of an overly developed culture. // Walk among them. They are beings. Long-lived. // a sick, guilty, feeling… of my own superficiality and inconsequentiality. // remember trees wrapped up in my memories, relationships. took place. Quote from Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy. Beginning of first chapter:

To dwellers in a wood almost every species of tree has its voice as well as its feature. At the passing of the breeze the fir-trees sob and moan no less distinctly than they rock; the holly whistles as it battles with itself; the ash hisses amid its quiverings; the beech rustles while its flat boughs rise and fall. And winter, which modifies the note of such trees as shed their leaves, does not destroy its individuality.

Beginning of last chapter:

The point in Yalbury Wood which abutted on the end of Geoffrey Day’s premises was closed with an ancient tree, horizontally of enormous extent, though having no great pretensions to height. Many hundreds of birds had been born amidst the boughs of this single tree; tribes of rabbits and hares had nibbled at its bark from year to year; quaint tufts of fungi had sprung from the cavities of its forks; and countless families of moles and earthworms had crept about its roots. Beneath and beyond its shade spread a carefully-tended grass-plot, its purpose being to supply a healthy exercise-ground for young chickens and pheasants; the hens, their mothers, being enclosed in coops placed upon the same green flooring.

All these encumbrances were now removed, and as the afternoon advanced, the guests gathered on the spot, where music, dancing, and the singing of songs went forward with great spirit throughout the evening. [wedding takes place here]


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I’m enrolled in a Master Gardeners (MG) class, which should serve me as impetus to really learn the material. Over the years, I’ve read a lot and been exposed to gardeners and naturalists; in so doing I’ve accumulated a collection of ideas that now rattle around upstairs. But botany is a field I’ve only visited; I’ve never lived there.

I can see how my defenses go up as I read or listen to lectures. “Why didn’t I know that? It’s so basic!” I think. Or I realize past actions were futile or mistaken. One imagines the laughter or criticism of others, the stomach tightens, and one begins to spin a rigid web of excuses and rationalizations. Wasted effort. Better just to accept one’s imperfections.

It helps to stay away from people who are competitive or fault-finding when you are learning. That’s why classes and schools can be so destructive. A good teacher is a precious. Bad situations — let them go, don’t fight them, go elsewhere.

I appreciate the knowledge in the Master Gardener courses, but I inwardly bridle at the instrumentalist worldview: “Plants exist purely for our use and we are entitled to do anything we like to them. The purpose of gardening techniques is to maximize our pleasure/calories/profits from plants and minimize our work and trouble.”

Fortunately, most plant people seem to have an innate sympathy for plants, a Deep Green consciousness.

A second criticism I have is that the horticulture field seems to be dominated by the engineering/business mindset: “Real gardening is done to maximize yield, in a scientific, methodical way.” This model is totally inappropriate for home gardeners who garden to supply their families with food and for their own pleasure. Permaculturalist David Holmgren said something similar in his new book… I’d like to find the citation. Rather than proceeding from an engineering model, home horticulture should look to history and traditions for inspiration.

A third criticism is that the Master Gardeners material deals only minimally with the ecological or environmental aspects of gardening. OTOH, they apparently promote organic methods much more than in the past. I foresee that permaculture will come to be part of the Master Gardener curriculum just as organic gardening has.

As with the teaching of any craft, MG can degenerate into the memorization of procedures. The best teachers go beyond the basics, help you see the reasons for things, make you see connections you hadn’t seen before.

Still and all, MG is a great experience, a wonderful program. I wish more things in life were organized the way MG is.

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Slowly I seem to be recovering my enthusiasm for gardening and other projects.
I’m not sure why I got burned out. Maybe because I always tackle too much at once. In any case, I’ve been reading about traditional gardening and Gertrude Jekyll.

Gertrude Jekyll, aka “Bump”

One problem with Gertrude Jekyll and the English landscape designers — at least for me — is that their history is intertwined with the rich and privileged. Even that would be okay, except for the tremendous snobbery and condescension. The lack of any awareness that there is a problem with living off a peasantry. As her biography admits, she was a great snob.

On the other hand, one cannot avoid admiring Gertrude’s productivity and what she accomplished. Her taste is impeccable. Many of the values she held are good values (tradition, nature, etc.). Is this the Tory view of the countryside? I don’t know English history and culture well enough — thank God! My ignorance enables me to appreciate the good about Gertrude Jekyll without having the emotional reactions a native would.

Sometime I’d like to write about the way that Gertrude taught herself one craft after another. Amazing discipline and talent.

Apparently, she was quite a formidable figure. What humanized her for me was her long relationship with the much younger Edwin Lutyens, the famous country architect. With Lutyens, she was able to unbend; he called her “Bump” and teased her playfully. At the same time, they collaborated on many projects and influenced each other’s craft. It’s the sort of relationship that is unfamiliar to us in our cynical, overt times.

Some interesting facts about Gertrude’s family. Her brother Walter was a Church of England cleric who was unfrocked because of his radical views (I wonder what they were?). He moved to Jamaica, became a Buddhist, collected folklore, and served as mentor to Jamaican/American writer Claude McKay (“Jamica’s poet laureate”).

In England, he had been a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, and there is speculation that he lent the Jekyll name for Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Also, there was a nephew, Francis Jekyll (nickname Timmy), who was a figure in the first English folk music revival and wrote a biography of his famous aunt. His personal life, however, sounds sad — dominated by severe depression.

Reculer pour mieux salter

Reading about Gertrude Jekyll makes me think about my direction. There’s something in her life that is a bracing tonic for us moderns. Her “environmentalism,” expressed as a love of traditional crafts and the countryside, came from within, from deep personal needs. It pushed her to productivity and creation. In contrast, the modern impulse might be to join a group, take a class, become an activist.

Is there anything wrong with the modern approaches? No, not in themselves. What’s wrong is what is missing — the personal, the family-ar, the unique point of view. One can’t imagine Gertrude Jekyll taking her opinions from the Web, from environmental magazines, or from anywhere in the media. There is a strength that comes from standing on the earth, from being in touch with something deep.

How does this look in practice? Staying in one place. Attachment to people, places, and customs, especially to the homely and non-commercial. Attachment to land. Gardens. Landscapes. One’s personal history.

Not being so quick to jump into group activities. Instead, commiting to a few connections of high quality.Not letting one’s life fill up with trivia and detritus.

The distinction I’m making here does not correspond to the environmentalist/mainstream, left/right or urban/rural dichotomies.

It’s an awareness of who one is, where one came from, what one’s place on earth is. It’s neither brash nor apologetic. As one begins to value tradition and nature, one becomes vulnerable, as so much in the modern world seeks to destroy or exploit these values.

Certain things kill these values: TV, modern movies, modern magazines,

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This Saturday, I went to hear a talk in Berkeley on “Liquid Gold” by Carol Steinfeld. She’s written a book on the subject ( Liquid Gold),

“Liquid Gold: How to Use Urine to Grow Plants (Safely!)”

…Every day, we urinate nutrients that can fertilize plants that could be used for beautiful landscapes, food, fuel, and fiber. Instead, these nutrients are flushed away, either to be treated at high cost or discharged to waters where they overfertilize and choke off aquatic life. Join us for a lighthearted but practical talk about how urine – which contains most of the nutrients in domestic wastewater and usually carries no disease risk – can be utilized as a resource. We’ll discuss three ways to grow away urine – composting, urine-graywater system, and urine fertilizing – safely and without odors. We’ll make a small urine-graywater planter and look at ways to make easy, inexpensive urine-diverting composting toilets.

I did more research and found some good resources on web. The idea of re-using urine and feces is compelling. See eco-san.

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Still wondering, what to do about gardening? The present approach is not right. Let me back off from studying gardening. It has been good and I will continue, but not at the same degree of intensity. The gardening world is not the world for me, not entirely. Besides I want to relax from my “mission,” enjoy life, clean things up.

I actually don’t want to change my life that much. I just want to slow down, make sure that I get things done. Take it easy. Establish routines and work at things regularly. As opposed to the intense efforts I have been making to establish a new direction.

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I’m feeling down about gardening. I wonder why? For one thing, there is the frustration of having a large garden, falling behind in the work. The yield from the garden is large and continuous, and that is a strain on Ms P and me. P is overwhelmed by the cycle of produce (lots all at once), plus the challenge of learning how to make use of new vegetables.

In addition, it is hard swimming against the cultural current. Gardening with nature is definitely a minority viewpoint. Why not buy your food at the supermarket? Why not spray? Why not use chemical/organic fertilizers? Why not plant in rows?

For that reason, it is wonderful to find other people who share my values about this. At least we can talk.

But as I get further into this field, I see all the characteristics of a field which is not valued or rewarded by society. Systems and beliefs spring up which are superficial and opinionated. There is a lack of solid and continuous effort, e.g. scientific or professional. There is a split between jaded professionals and enthusiastic and idealistic amateurs.

And I am frustrated by my own lack of knowledge, lack of ability.

More Mel Bartholomew

Another system! People love it, I love it. Its limitation is that it only addresses the problem of Middle Americans who want simple reliable answers “Simple, easy, can’t fail” (like Your Money or Your Life, 12-Step programs, etc.).

To my eye, the square foot grids are as inspiring as a parking lot, as cubicles in a corporation, as prison cells. Uniform, efficient and sterile, though the plants — like children — can’t be totally stopped from their tendency to anarchy and freedom. The plan allows no surprises. Nothing unusual or unpredictable.

The downside is lack of curiosity, of deep knowledge. Complete control over nature.

Similar uniform systems are chemical row gardening, raised beds and corporate monoculture. In contrast, there are the organic forms of cottage gardening and forest gardens, and Fukuoka and Emilia Hazelip. The contrast is between the engineering mindset and nature/history.

The pluses of Mel Bartholomew’s system:

  • Mel B is inviting, open and generous.
  • His enthusiasm is contagious, and his confident evangelistic style inspires others.
  • The method itself is simple, effective, productive. It optimizes the production of vegetables for people who aren’t that interested in gardening and nature, who are pressed for time.

I think gardening lends itself to these Systems. Nature is very forgiving and will produce yields even with mistakes and strange inputs. On the other hand, it is complex and unpredictable.

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