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ReWilding My Garden: Confessions of a Sodbuster
By Jenny Prince
Before I introduce you to my advice for Re-Wilding a garden, I’d like to invite you to consider a scene. Mind you, because I saw it on 1980’s television (the Lonesome Dove mini series) it’s fairly gruesome and emotionally charged, so take a deep breath:
Two fresh-faced farmers have been hung. As their bodies sway in the breeze, the outlaw cowboys responsible for their death say “Damn Sodbusters. Can’t ever be too dead to suit me”. Their crime? The desire to settle down and dominate nature. The whole concept of land ownership is in direct opposition to wildness itself and an affront to the freedom that the cowboys breathe like air.
I think about this every time I’m in my garden.
I’m a sodbuster. There’s no way around it. As soon as my shovel hit the dirt that first time, I was making a public declaration that my ideas were more important than anything nature had in mind for my yard. I installed myself as the primary (yet entirely less-informed) decision maker. If my yard were a country with a population of plants and animals, my bold actions could’ve inspired worldwide protests — the type I might even participate in with justified outrage.
And yet, everything I feel inside has me aching to reconnect with the natural rhythms of the world, a desire that only grows sharper the more time I spend with my hands in the dirt. Watching plants grow and life forms interact has changed my entire perspective as a human. In a sense, I feel more human because of my time in the garden. I experience different emotions and entertain new lines of questioning while I pick beans and listen to birds.
So, how can I have it both ways? How can I grow food, medicine and habitat without overriding Nature? How can I carefully forge myself into the role of ‘gardener’ within Her bounds?
To start, by un-learning and re-thinking everything I know about gardening.
My mental outlook on the day my shovel broke sod was likely the same as most home gardeners: I wanted to be healthy. I wanted time outdoors, a relationship with my land, and of utmost importance — control over my food.
But unlike most home gardeners, I had a different idea of what ‘wild’ meant and the role it would play in my garden. I was returning home after many years on the road, living in a van and exploring national parks and scenic wonders. (To be fair, I ate, clothed, and bathed myself at truck stops and Wal-Mart’s from coast-to-coast, which is why being healthy had shot to the top of my list.) My experiences from working street fairs each weekend had tuned me in to this one defining idea:
Other people thought that I was ‘wild’ because my life didn’t include the typical modern dose of stress. They also thought I seemed healthier (truck stop food be damned).
Could wild also mean free from stress?
Could wild and stress-free be closely related to healthy?
Little did I know that I was about to jump in and start exploring this notion, feet first.
When I returned home to start my garden, I also began working as an organic farmhand. I spent hours each day growing food within two very different contexts:
On a for-profit farm that desperately needed to maximize the length of their cash flow season
In my home garden where ‘health’ was the only god I answered to
On the farm, I began to grow deeply aware that the customer’s vision of ‘healthy food’ and the grower’s version of this same dream were light years apart. Because the details were never discussed, both assumed that they were on the same page.
The reason that most growers never seriously entertain changing their approach is a simple case of risk aversion. If paying the bank each month is your first obligation, you simply can’t take too many chances with your crops. You can’t, as the expression goes, ‘bet the farm’. The set of decisions you’re enslaved to has nothing to do with growing food for health, no matter which modifiers you bury it beneath; organic, sustainable, green, natural — none of these describe a proactive effort towards increased health.
In my garden, I’ve learned that the healthiest foods I grow are in fact harvested from plants that are free from all stress. I’ve only been able to learn this because I was able to experiment and turn my back on common practices. Most of the techniques that home growers rely on have trickled down from larger-scale agriculture and are still tainted with for-profit decision making. Often, these ideas unnecessarily introduce stress to the garden, stresses that don’t exist in a wild setting.
Removing plant stressors from your garden is your best bet for improving the overall health of your harvest. Let me give you some examples, followed by my Re-Wilding makeover for each practice:
Starting Seedlings Indoors: this is really popular where I live up in the Far North, as our season is short and we feel anxious to get the most out of every plant. But jumpstarting plants indoors is entirely unnatural.
From the temperature, to the lights, to the air quality, we’re asking so much of our plants during their transition out into the garden, and we often never recognize their resulting stress signals. Weak, stunted plants that attract pests and disease have become our norm, likely due to the assumption that our role as ‘caregiver’ is necessary.
Now, I start all of my plants out doors, even the heat lovers like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. While they may be smaller than what my neighbors set out early on, they catch up fast and grow big and strong as a result of being completely attuned to the natural rhythms, weather and temperature of their environment from the moment of conception. Think about those unexpected volunteer plants found in the compost pile — they didn’t need fluorescent lights or the heat of a wood stove to come to life. They didn’t need us, either.
Another factor that comes into play with this particular Re-Wilding makeover is that my outdoor plants never become root bound. I start them in generously sized pots (4 inches) and transplant them directly into the garden within a month or so. Because their roots are able to keep growing and reaching for nutrients without ever touching the sides of their containers, they continue to focus on growth and their inherent journey towards natural expression. Imagine who you might be if you were never told “no, you can’t’ do that”?
Pruning: I’m generally opposed to dismemberment, no matter which species is in question. I just find this to be a weird and unnecessary practice, kind of like circumcision. Here are a few popular reasons that people prune trees and plants:
Increased airflow to inhibit the spread of disease
Increased exposure to sunlight
Encouragement of new growth, specifically horizontal growth that leads to more fruiting
The argument against my cry for reason is that wind, ice and age all lead to eventual natural pruning. Nature already does this, so we can mimic these actions with confidence. I say, ‘so let Her, then.’ I don’t see anything on the list of pruning pros that I think merits cutting off limbs and exposing plant saps to the outside world. If I’m concerned about the tight shape of a tree, usually because of how it was tied up for shipment to a retail setting, I use pieces of wood to spread the branches far apart, or hang birdhouses on the limbs to weight them back down. As far as sunlight goes, in my mind, it needs to fall on leaves, not the dark interior of a tree.
Controlling Pests & Disease: I understand the need to scramble and save your garden from the onslaught of disease infestation, especially after you’ve worked so hard to grow the healthiest foods available — why would you turn back on a sick garden for anything? But there are two things I want you to consider:
First, learning about pests and disease is a hamster wheel. There’s always another popping up, sending you into a tailspin while searching for the appropriate course of action to take. What does it mean? Why is it there? And how can you fight it off? The problem with this approach is that it makes working with plants all about memorization — just like the high school tests we all suffered through. Being a walking Rolodex of pests and their counter-poisons robs you of the real work you’re meant to do out there. This was actually a tremendously difficult shift for me, because I’m someone who thrived on memorization in school. Really paying attention and grasping theory is much harder, but entirely more valuable. In a nutshell, the reason that pests and disease are visiting your garden is that your plants are sick and malnourished; learning to correct this is your ticket off the name-every-bug hamster wheel.
Secondly, fighting pests and disease usually goes hand in hand with fighting healthy cells. Every time you spray, sprinkle or dust with the intention to harm a life form (mold, blight, bug) you’re agreeing to risk unintended casualties. You’re agreeing to risk the very food that you’re growing to be healthy! This is true no matter what. Every homemade kitchen-counter spray bottle concoction that you Google up to try and save your garden ‘the good way’ or ‘naturally’ is still a powerful force against life. In my experience, fighting life in the garden is a principle to be avoided.
Today, the flat, manicured yard that once screamed “I AM Suburbia!” is now bursting with the music of life, filling my heart with pride and my table with truly healthy foods. I really feel that my journey is just beginning and that the more I stop and question my actions, the more positive results and deeply human connections I make in my home garden. Each season, I ask myself ‘how can I bring a bit more wildness in?’ knowing that focusing my efforts in that direction is the true key to improved health.
Jenny Prince is a nutrient-dense vegetable gardener and soil mineralizer, as well as the author of Eat Like a Farm Girl: 3-Ingredient Plant-Based Recipes. She shares her love for all things vegetable at jennygrows.com.