Saturday, January 28, 2012

Putting nature back in gardening

In keeping with one of my ecofrugal New Year's resolutions, I've been spending a good part of this week planning next year's garden: choosing crops, ordering seeds, and trying to get together the supplies needed to start my first seedlings. I started flipping through our various gardening books (Square Foot Gardening, Jeff Ball's 60-Minute Vegetable Garden) for advice, and I found myself getting really annoyed with their suggestions. Mel Bartholomew, for instance, says you should first run your seeding containers through the dishwasher to sterilize them, and then plant your seeds in vermiculite—not soil, not potting mix, but pure vermiculite, a mica-based mineral that's an entirely nonrenewable resource. Then, he wants you to put them in a "thermostatically controlled seed starter" and check them every day, and the minute they sprout, move the container into strong light—a greenhouse or a "heated sun box" or, at minimum, a table kept under fluorescent light for 12 to 16 hours each day. Jeff Ball agrees that artificial light is essential and recommends building a special seedling bench, setting it in an area where the temperature stays between 60 and 70 degrees year-round, and rigging up an adjustable light fixture that you can move up or down to keep it at the optimum distance from the tops of the seedlings.

At first, I thought this was annoying me because it all seems like so much work, or because it's so expensive. But I finally figured out that my real problem was the insistence on doing everything scientifically—in other words, not naturally. And the problem isn't limited to seed starting; gardening "systems" like these seem built around the idea that if you want to grow your own vegetables, then the first thing you have to do is stop relying on the inadequate resources provided by nature. Don't try to till your own garden soil to turn it into a decent growing medium; instead, build raised boxes and fill them with a mixture of vermiculite, peat moss (another nonrenewable resource), and compost (which you can make yourself, but you have to sift and sterilize it before use). Don't let the rain water your plants; instead, install a drip irrigation system that you can run underneath a layer of black plastic mulch. Don't rely on what nature provides; instead, invest time and money in a system that you can control absolutely. Whatever happened to "all it takes is a rake and a hoe and a piece of fertile ground"?

At its most basic level, gardening is an almost magical process. You take seeds (which you can often harvest from last year's plants), put them in the dirt (which is all around), expose them to the sun and rain (which come down from the sky with no effort on your part), and eventually, you end up with edible plants. You get something for nothing—proof that there actually is such a thing as a free lunch. And now these "experts" come along and say that the right way to garden is to replace these free, abundant natural resources with heat-controlled boxes and fluorescent lights and a drip irrigation system that also dispenses liquid fertilizer. Yes, I understand that they're just trying to take some of the uncertainty out of the process—to produce more reliable, consistent results and better yields. And when you balance the long-term cost of all the equipment they want you to buy against the value of all the fresh vegetables you could grow using their methods, it probably is cost-effective to do it this way. But it still seems wasteful to me to let the sun and rain and soil that I can get for nothing go unused so that I can substitute something that's easier to control. Spending money and time on something that I could get for free, with no effort at all, seems to me the exact opposite of ecofrugality.

So I've decided I'm going to seek a middle ground. Since we haven't had much luck with our seedlings in the past, and since starting seeds is still more ecofrugal than buying plants, I'm planning to go ahead and invest some time and money in a proper seed-starting mix and some artificial light to supplement the sunlight. But aside from that, I'm going to stick to sustainable growing practices, such as
  • choosing crops that are well-adapted to our climate
  • using homemade compost, supplementing with bagged compost only as needed
  • letting Mother Nature do the watering, and watering by hand during dry spells
  • growing plants close together to keep the weeds down, and pulling those that do come through by hand
  • saving seeds for future use (storing them in the basement to keep them nice and cool)
And for future years, I'm going to look into more sustainable ways of starting my seeds, such as using renewable coir, or coconut fiber, instead of a peat-based mix. I'm also planning to try winter sowing techniques to avoid the hardening-off process, reduce water use, make better use of natural light, and possibly eliminate the need for a seed-starting mix altogether. I tried this method on a limited basis last year, and I got mixed results, but it seems like such a perfect example of ecofrugality (saving time, money, and natural resources all at once) that I think it's definitely worth exploring further.
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