Evolution of a Gardener

I was completely brainwashed about pesticides back in the seventies, bought the whole post-war chemical boom as great stuff. Yet, here I was, leading walks and giving talks about the wonders of nature in the woodlands, wetlands and seashores of Long Island. Would I have used pesticides in the woods? Of course not.

Flame azaleas native to eastern woodlands do not need an arsenal of chemicals to keep them happy

Flame azaleas native to eastern woodlands do not need an arsenal of chemicals to keep them happy

But gardening was different, distinct from natural areas where a certain tolerance for casual diversity (weeds) and healthy invaders (bugs) is taken for granted. Not so in gardens. Gardening was about control, tidiness, improving the landscape. (Such hubris!) Back then, if you followed the rules, and we who were brought up in the forties excelled at following rules, you would find perfection.

It would take a praying mantis to teach me otherwise.

Praying mantis egg case (Wikipedia photo)

Praying mantis egg case (Wikipedia photo)

Years ago most gardening books promoted liberal use of deadly, all-purpose stews of chemicals that one could use to combat armies of insects and diseases. One book I read actually gave do-it-yourself instructions for mixing up a stew from, for instance, DDT, malathion, zineb, nicotine and/or sulfur, with a soupcon of fungicide added for good measure. Yummy.

If I’m going to garden, I’d better follow the rules, I thought, so I bought a bag of some pre-mixed poison. The thing is, the stuff smelled awful to me, and when I thought about it, I really didn’t want to be bothered mixing and hauling and spraying. I left the chemicals on the shelf. Lazy. Lazy. Lazy. I chided myself. What kind of gardener was I? Teams of bugs were winning while I sat on the sidelines. I finally broke down and got the sprayer out.

Female praying mantis (Wikipedia photo)

Female praying mantis (Wikipedia photo)

Doggone if I wasn’t five minutes into spraying when a weak and wobbly praying mantis struggled out of his camouflaged seat on a branch. Horrified, I watched him stagger onto my hand. This stuff is supposed to kill chewing and sucking insects, not praying mantis, I silently sputtered. Even though they eat their sisters and brothers, I have a fondness for praying mantis. I like to sit and watch one watching the world before it takes that quick bite. Those moments are a grand way to recover from a gardener’s perennial complaint, Sorbackus chronicus.

I watched as he crumpled. In an ill-thought gesture of remediation I sprinkled water on him, hoping to dilute the poison. (You may remember the accepted panacea of those heady, chemicals-are-great days: “Dilution is the solution to pollution.”) It was too late. Now, instead of watching my friend, I had just killed him. What kind of gardener was I?

EVGskullwikiAbout the same time, a scientist who worked for Fish and Wildlife told me that fungicides were some of the most deadly chemicals on the market, and a plant propagator who was a dedicated poison-sprayer learned that her child had developed leukemia. Coincidence? She didn’t think so. She put away her sprayer and I put away mine. Enough. I brought the leftover chemicals to a hazardous waste collection site. I washed my hands.

I was back to being a lazy gardener, but at least I had a clear conscience.

Contentment at the edge of our little pond

Contentment at the edge of our little pond

In my lazy-gardening mode I began to think about what our little space on earth stood for. My ponderings were not as profound as those of Walt Whitman, but they suggested new directions. Mostly I thought about the animals that rented our land for, what? Loafing. . . Refueling. . . Meeting. . . Mating. . . Birthing. . . Hiding. . . Curling up at night. . . Sunning. . . Escaping a north wind. . . Having fun. . .

Those were only the animals that I could watch easily. Under the ground, life was even busier. Each of our tenants above and below ground knew their spheres. They lined out their territories. They mapped out favorite routes. They established routines. They trusted that the land would take care of them.

Sometimes they got dealt a dirty hand (I’m thinking hurricane, tornado), and they’d have to swallow their losses without sympathy and get on with their lives without help from FEMA.

New chemicals on the shelves, neonicotinoids, easy-to-use, long-lived, beckon gardeners who want to maintain "decorum"

New chemicals on the shelves, neonicotinoids, easy-to-use, long-lived, beckon gardeners who want to maintain “decorum”

They could get a dirty deal from us, too. We are lords of the manor — and of the tractor, the bull dozer, and the sprayer, too. We could raze woods, plant grass, and scatter chemicals as we pleased. There might be a certain shared tenancy between us and them, but we held final control. We could carve up the land any way we wanted. We could bend wild nature to our will and establish decorum and order. Hear! Hear! 

Masterful artistry and control at the entrance to Goodnestone Park, but few percs for wildlife

Masterful artistry and control at the entrance to Goodnestone Park, but few percs for wildlife

There’s a hitch. Too much decorum and our tenants would leave. We’d lose all that income we took for granted: the chatter, the songs, the daily visits, the antics of new arrivals, the surprise visitors, and a hundred other mini-payments that make up their shares of the rent. And we would become slaves to the order we had so designed.

So we walk a middle line. In a sense, we backed into our casual, mostly organic, loose approach. It comes down to managing a triumvirate of soil, plants, and chemicals. Seasons and climate we can’t do anything about. Drainage and exposure we can modify, but that can take time and dollars, so we don’t waste much energy trying to rearrange the land.

Late afternoon in spring, the gate is open, we can move forward one step at a time

Late afternoon in spring, the gate is open, we can move forward one step at a time

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Improving soil, choosing proper plants, and controlling weeds and bugs in our large garden are not exactly cataclysmic goals. But doggone it, juggling them all so the garden maintains some sort of order and still plays host to wildlife is tricky. How we try to make it work is a whole other story, which we’ll tell in future posts.

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