Carol A. Hand
Be moderate in all things:
Watch, listen, and consider:
Your deeds will be prudent.
(Midewiwin Code)(Source: Johnston, 1976, p. 93)
When it comes to gardening, I do read and listen to what the experts have to say. And then I study my environment. I watch how the light changes during the day, notice the various types of soil and plants that grow in different spaces, and observe how the land changes with the seasons. And then I contrast what I observe with “expert wisdom” – the newest fads and what the experts say is really true now.
“Other experts got it wrong in the past. But now we know the truth. Don’t dig in the soil. Weeds are beneficial.”
All of them? Even if they’re deliberately-planted species from other parts of the world that have no natural controls in this environment and quickly smother indigenous life? From my perspective, that sounds too much like the colonial and capitalistic hegemony imposed on Ojibwe people for centuries. “Don’t think for yourself. We know best!” It’s taught me to question those who believe their way is the only right way – those who are too certain of their infallibility.
Photo: Crabapple Blossoms – June 2015
What happened to the spirit of inquisitive inquiry? Will I really harm the earth if I remove the nails, metal fragments, glass, plastic, concrete slabs and building debris that has been scattered for an untold number of years throughout my yard? Should I simply leave the land banked and contoured so all of the run off from the rain flows into my basement, or into my front yard from the neighbors’ artificially raised yards on two sides? I do know that I have no way of knowing what’s in the new dirt I’ve trucked in to address these issues, fill the newly-built raised beds, and improve the hard-packed nutrient-deficient soil.
I don’t have the answers, but I’m willing to undertake labor-intensive experiments. Of all the various home remedies I’ve used to deal with deer, only a high fence worked. Using the sod I dug up when I created gardens to contour the slope of the land away from the house worked, even in the flood of 2012. Removing concrete slabs and gently contouring the land on both sides of the front yard seems to be working as well – not just in terms of preventing the formation of mini-ponds after heavy rains, but also with improving neighbor-relations.
Photo: Gardens – June 2015
Some things don’t work as well. Straw mulch does control weed growth and minimize the need to water during long dry spells, but there’s a downside. It provides slugs with an ideal breeding ground in a long, cool rainy spring. Once firmly entrenched, they’re truly destructive. And while high fences keep deer out, they don’t deter hungry squirrels who have discovered their appetite for small green tomatoes and baby squash.
I have also learned that maintenance is crucial, but there are always competing priorities in a fixer-upper yard and house. Still, it’s a great learning lab for creative problem-solving. Many innovations come from economic necessity and repurposing resources, like the sod I dig up or the boards I salvaged from the old fence. They’ve become part of the system to address higher land on either side or my yard.
Photo: My Granddaughter by Her Garden – July 2015
The other lesson I keep learning? It’s the process that matters. I can’t help trying to breathe health and beauty into the places I live and work, even though I know nothing is permanent. Everything could change tomorrow. What isn’t as likely to disappear are the memories my granddaughter has of watching the seeds she planted grow into flowers. Or the memories of my grandson who learned that it’s wisest to approach challenging jobs by selecting the least destructive alternatives even if you’re strong. In the long run, it often takes less time. Or the memories of my neighbors who say their lives are enriched and inspired by the gardens and flowers they can see from their windows or as they walk by.
Photo: My Grandson Holding His Team’s Rugby Trophy – 2015
Deciding whether to dig and weed is really a multidimensional conundrum nested within a specific geographic and human context. I don’t know what long range outcomes will follow from the decisions I make today even though I do my best to watch, listen and consider. I’ll be long gone, and perhaps my house and yard will be gone as well. It could be part of an extended parking lot for the church and apartment building across the street. It could disappear in a storm like the one that broke a huge branch from my beloved willow tree this year. Regardless, I do believe that the love we put into the things we do and the places we live survives as an essence in the places and people we touch long after we pass on.
Basil Johnston (1976). Ojibway heritage. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
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