Thursday, October 7, 2010

Imitating Nature

The most productive parts of my garden are not planted in neat little rows, or even beds.  The most productive parts of my garden most resemble a jungle.  Tomatoes growing on top of chard mixed in with lettuce and fruit trees towering over the top of it all.  Or squash trailing all over the lower reaches of the garden and blanketing out the light, preventing any weeds from taking hold.  The most productive parts of my garden most resemble nature's wild meadows or the fringes of the forest.  Everything grows best when it grows altogether in a more natural setting.

Monocrop agriculture is an invitation to disaster.  By completely clearing the ground and then determining to plant a single crop across a whole garden plot, let alone acres and acres of farmland, we invite defeat at the hands of the sworn enemies of our mono-cropped plots.  When plants grow together in a diverse community, they are less susceptible to insect infestations.  And if we select the plant to grow together properly and plan our planting we can eliminate weed problems by keeping every square inch of the ground covered.

Neat and orderly is not the way to go in an edibles garden.  Mix it all up.  Let your hair down.  Let it all hang out.  But think about it a little bit.  Native Americans had a style of planting known as the "Three Sisters" method.  They planted corn, with a tall, sturdy stalk along with vining beans that would climb the stalk and squash which would spread out along the ground and provide proliferate shade, blocking out sunshine that weeds need to gain a foothold.  The beans also fix nitrogen in the soil and make it fertile for the next year's corn crop.  Keep in mind rule number one in the garden:  Try it and see if it works.  But don't neglect to survey and build on the experiences of others.  Just be willing at some point to take a risk and dive right in.  Plants were around on the planet for millions of years before humans showed up.

And also, draw your inspiration from the natural ground cover in your local environment.  Here in Santa Monica we will always want to enhance the natural desert landscapes with liberal irrigation programs, using less water, however, than we would for comparable amounts of pure grass lawn.  Nevertheless, we can adopt those parts of the natural program of growth that involve mixing various plants together in ways that allow each variety to provide support to the others.  At the end of the day we have a mix of fresh and healthy vegetables that come straight from our yards.

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