A bumper sticker from the 60’s or 70’s that has always stayed with me reads “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature”. I think it could be paraphrased to read “it’s not nice to fool a 900 pound gorilla”, the implication being that the retaliation would be much more severe than the foolery. Our modern society has, for too long a time, set the stage for the fooling of Mother Nature; witness the vast tonnage of excess fertilizers and pesticides, over and above traditional human wastes, that, daily, pour from the Mississippi river into the Gulf of Mexico, rendering vast areas of the Gulf dead zones and changing the ph of the ocean to a more acidic state that may well dissolve the shells of marine creatures. As gardeners, we know that one doesn’t fool around with the ph of our environment without a good understanding of what we are doing and why. Yet, as a society we are blindly doing just that, seemingly without a care for our environment – the planet that we live on.
Environmental degradation comes from myriad sources and requires solutions from a complex mix of origins, and we gardeners can play a part in that. One of the largest ‘crops’ in North America is lawn grass and the chemical herbicides and pesticides applied to this, typically poorly drained, crop soon enter our water systems and inevitably end up in the oceans of the world contributing to the death of a watery environment that is poorly understood and usually ignored. We ignore it at our peril and should feel a responsibility to mitigate the damage, in our own small ways, as best we can. Lawns can be improved in terms of drainage by top dressing with gritty materials (better by preparing the planting site properly beforehand) and be converted to organic treatments, not using these to excess to avoid runoff, or you can reduce or eliminate the lawn (as I have done) to hard surfaces which are more practical anyway in our rainy climate. If you like, keep a small patch of lawn for children, impromptu picnics and sun worshipers. Clover used to be a standard component to many grass seed mixes as the clover would fix nitrogen from the atmosphere lowering (or eliminating) the need to fertilize lawns and lucky sots of old would boast that they are “in the clover now”. We have forsaken fields of clover for a putting green and, I fear, there will be a price to pay.
Since I began gardening in earnest, circa 1980, I have come to terms with Mother Nature – her terms. In the beginning, I was uninformed about cultural practices, but over time I have learned, from experience and reading, that a garden that is maintained, as closely as possible, in a natural state causes the least problems and is healthier. Such a complex machine as an environment, whether in the wild or in your own garden, is almost impossible for even professionals to fully comprehend, but nature will, on her own and after a few short years, find a natural balance between harmful and helpful natural influences. The organic patina of my garden attracts birds in search of a tasty meal and their favourite fare, (weed)seeds, larvae and bugs, are the very creatures that bedevil us as gardeners. I feel that there is no point in killing harmful elements in my garden if it involves killing the beneficial elements as well; the old story of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Part of the solution involves simple logic in the choice of plants. For instance, I have a few dozen roses in my garden but they are mostly trouble free antique and shrub roses, and none require spraying or coddling from one year to the next (keeping in mind that all my irrigation is overhead watering – talk about tempting the gods). This requires placing the importance of the rose’s bloom near the bottom of the list of requirements when you are searching for a rose of a certain size and colour. For me, this is not a problem as I like this style of shrub and have never seen an ugly rose bloom, even in the roses of the field. To my mind, the habit of the shrub and its foliage, are more important considerations than the flower anyway. But if gardeners insist on planting Hybrid Teas, and many of the Floribundas, then trouble will often be their lot from the start. I can see no joy in fretting over a beautiful flower on a plant that is plagued with disease and pests and affronted by the other natural elements that gardens are presented with. The same is true of all plants in our gardens; a plant in its appropriate cultural position, in a healthy soil full of life, will thrive under an organic, or nearly organic, regime.
Of course, the soil is of utmost importance and as much organic material should be added at the outset as possible (appropriate to original soil conditions with perhaps materials to correct drainage issues if necessary) before planting, or when dividing, and additional manures or composts should be added annually, in the fall, to maintain the soil at a constant level by replacing that which was cleared away by our maintenance efforts. We remove herbaceous and woody cuttings from our gardens at cleanup time where in nature these materials are returned to the soil to rejoin the cycles of growth year after year. In nature, left to her own devices, this returned organic material will even increase over time although it is a very slow process. Mother Nature is in no hurry to add to her bounty, all the more reason for us to slow our headlong rush towards a pig-in-a-poke ecological future that may hurt us a lot more than the proverbial 900 pound gorilla.