Wildlife, nature and the environment have always occupied a special place in Marlene’s heart. This passion has led her to volunteer at a rare animal breeds conservation farm in Bulgaria and an organic and permaculture farm in the South of France to learn more about working with nature. In this special mini-series edition, she discusses a piece of nature closer to home: the garden. In 2019, Marlene’s garden was certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
It’s Spring and to continue celebrating Mother Earth, I’m taking a little break from Cooking and Kitchen stuff to talk about gardening.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been starting seeds, preparing garden beds, planting bare roots and am in the process of reconditioning my backyard soil. That’s a whole lot of information if you’re new to gardening, and later on, I promise to explain that in more detail. So except for one surprising snow day a little over a week ago and a few blessed rainy days, I’ve been getting my hands dirty and soaking up a lot of sun.
Instead of talking about how I got into gardening, or that until we bought our house eight years ago I had no interest whatsoever in plants outside of their utility as food or decor, I want to jump start and talk about a new kind of garden.
A New Kind of Garden
We all have ideas of what gardening is, and most of them revolve around growing plants for either food or aesthetics: vegetables, flowers and landscape planting come to mind. Some grow plants for medicine—in a recent post, I mentioned some plants I keep that are useful as first aid for cuts and burns. Others grow plants to serve particular functions: to prevent erosion, mitigate flooding, remove soil contaminants. And then there are those who grow plants to help the environment—planting trees to reduce harmful gases like carbon dioxide, native species as food for pollinators, bushes as shelter for wildlife.
Building a garden that does all of the above is not only possible, but is part of the solution to some of our biggest environmental problems: global warming and declining pollinators, particularly bees. You might ask yourself, how does a little garden become part of the solution to such an overwhelmingly large problem such as global warming? To answer that, we’ll need to understand the problems first, then get better acquainted with what makes up a garden.
Two Big Problems
Global Warming. The last decade was the hottest ever in recorded history. 2020 tied with 2016 to be the hottest years ever, according to an analysis by NASA. Global warming is caused when certain gases like carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide block heat radiating from the earth, trapping it in the atmosphere and causing a greenhouse effect. We know disasters like hurricanes, forest fires, and droughts are attributed to global warming. It’s overwhelming to comprehend problems of this magnitude, and when problems are too big or we’re not directly impacted, there’s a tendency to become paralyzed with inaction. So I’ll scale it down to something simpler and immediate, at least to those of us who live in New England.
Global warming causes erratic weather patterns and disrupts life cycles as we know it. For example, gardeners are guided by what’s known as the Plant Hardiness Zone map, so they know which plants are likely to thrive in their area. The map is based on average minimum temperature and divided into 10 –degree Fahrenheit zones, from 1-13, with 1 being the coldest. Eight years ago, I was on zone 5, now we’re at 6. And the zone 7 anemones planted last Fall have blossomed. On the up side, the warmer climate for my area has expanded the variety of plants I can grow; but it’s also caused a surge in ticks which prefer warm and moist conditions, and increased the risk for Lyme’s disease. And it’s contributed to the next problem.
Bees and other pollinators are declining. Pesticides, habitat loss, nutrition deficit are some of the culprits killing pollinators. Heat spikes caused by climate change have also been linked to the reduction of the bee population. Saving bees and other pollinators isn’t just some warm and fuzzy ideal. According to Greenpeace:
“Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops — which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition — are pollinated by bees.”1
Honeybees in particular are responsible for 80% of all pollination worldwide. And we’ve lost nearly 30% of our bees yearly the last few years. In 2019, it was 40%. Simply said: no bees, no food.
Garden Elements and their Superpowers
Nature is amazing, and not only for obvious ecological reasons. It provides food and medicine. It inspires beauty and awe. It heals us, physically and spiritually. Even if we don’t have access to forests and natural spaces, we can still recreate that piece of nature with all her gifts, in our homes. And that is a garden.
Now a beautiful garden is a wonderful thing. Who isn’t cheered by a kaleidoscope of pansies, soothed by the green of pine canopy or awed by the splendor of rhododendrons? And a garden that feeds a family, even partially, is inspiring: living off the land builds pride and independence. And survival skills always get extra points.
But confining the garden’s role to merely that of providing beauty and sustenance, while remarkable, is not recognizing the many gifts it can offer. It’s like being a speedster (think Flash) and using your superpower only to run fast, because you didn’t know you could also pass through walls or travel through time.
We have underutilized the magnificent and magical powers of a garden simply by refusing to understand its nature. To re-imagine a garden that is not only aesthetically pleasing, but functional to both humans, wildlife and the environment, we need to get to know some of its superpowers. Only then can we design gardens that are part of the solution to the big problems of global warming and declining pollinators. So let’s get to know the elements of a garden a bit better so we can learn how to harness her superpowers. To clarify some ideas, I borrow many concepts from permaculture, a way of thinking and designing our natural space to work in harmony with nature.
The Good Earth: Soil
A few years ago, I volunteered as a farm hand in the south of France to learn more about organic and permaculture farming. One day, after many hours weeding a garden bed, I was proud to show my farm host the large heap of dandelions, fennel and other weeds I had painstakingly pulled out. He picked one up, turned it over and with a gardening claw, gently knocked off the soil that still clung to the roots. He looked me in the eye and with a solemn tone, instructed me to get as much of the dirt back into the bed, adding, “try your best not to disturb the soil.”
In that instant, I understood the meaning of the word terroir. In France, especially in the world of wines and vineyards, you hear that word a lot, but its literal translation of land never seemed to quite capture the reverence it seemed to invoke. But I understood that day that terroir wasn’t just dirt. Besides its particular geology it was also the accumulation past to present of the effects of the environment, climate conditions, farming practices, —in essence, everything that had defined this bit of earth and made it unique. It was a living thing. In my zeal, I rampaged through the garden bed with little thought to the soil structures that had taken years to build. Embarrassed, I returned to my pile of weeds and went through each one again, this time gently returning the soil I had almost extravagantly wasted.
In the US, we’re accustomed to purchasing compost from nurseries to amend soil. I had never thought twice about that until my French internship, where buying compost was expensive and a luxury to many rural farmers. In the US, we get used to idea of replacing, rather than repairing. We don’t repair, because oftentimes we don’t know how things work. Dirt is dirt, I had thought. It’s all the same. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Many of us in urban areas have little experience of what good earth is. That’s because when houses are constructed, natural topsoil, the top layer of virgin earth (different from commercial topsoil) and also the most nutrient-dense, is excavated and often replaced with sand, stone and poorer versions of soil. In addition, the new soil is often compacted by heavy machinery during the construction process. Compacted soil makes it difficult for water and oxygen to pass through and sustain life. And so we pump it with chemicals to try to coax life into it; we buy new soil or we give up and learn to live with barren land. That doesn’t have to be the case.
Good soil, earth, is an ecosystem all by itself. It is a living tapestry of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, and arthropods. It is teeming with so much life that a teaspoon contains more microbes than there are people on earth.
I can’t remember where I first read it, but I thought the metaphor was apt: tending soil is really more like tending livestock. Because when all is well, my livestock of microbes and organisms, through physical, biological and biochemical processes, make healthy soil. For one thing, like all living organisms, they eat and poop. But what they eat, which is pretty much everything organic, means they are nature’s true disposal machines. Decomposition, a complex process which breaks down matter, including us humans, is vital to recycling energy and nutrients back into earth, making room for new life. If nature didn’t provide us a way to dispose matter, the earth would be filled with the accumulation of everything that’s ever existed. (It must be noted that some things, like plastic, may never decompose.). But more importantly,
“Without the cycling of elements, the continuation of life on Earth would be impossible, since essential nutrients would rapidly be taken up by organisms and locked in a form that cannot be used by others.”2
What my little livestock poops out is another thing. For instance, excretions from earthworms, or worm castings, contain essential plant nutrients like iron and organic matter that feed other organisms. They help aerate soils, which improves water retention. Excretion aside, the burrowing worms and bugs provide similar aeration services, and when they perish, become food for the rest. It’s an efficient and elegant cycle, when you come to think of it. And then there’s fungi.
Fungi, in addition to helping decompose matter, also function as a communications and distribution network for other vegetation. Mycelia, the fine white filaments of fungi, create an underground network that connects trees and plants, allowing them to communicate and send water, nutrients and sometimes toxins to each other. The mycelia network can be very large, which is why the largest organism on earth is the 2,384-acre Armillaria ostoyae, a variety of honey mushroom in Oregon, discovered in 2003.
It’s hard to think of soil as an inert matter once you get to know some of the amazing attributes of its inhabitants. Once we understand some of the symbiotic relationships in a soil ecosystem (and there is a lot still unknown), it’s easier to see how valuable healthy soil is. Healthy soil not only provides nutrients for plants which sustain both human and wildlife; it absorbs and holds rainwater for use during dry spells, filters and detoxifies pollutants, converts and recycles organic matter. For decades, because of poor information and corporate greed, we have killed our soil with chemicals and practices like tilling which disrupt soil structures and over-farming which deplete lands. The good news is, we can learn to restore soil and make our lands healthy again. When we discuss the superpowers of other garden elements, we’ll also learn how they help each other out and how their superpowers can be harnessed.