Thursday, May 28, 2009

Farmer Talitha has some opinions

What I know about agriculture can probably be retold in about ten minutes, total.
I know I hate thistles, and that they (and most other weeds) must be pulled out by the roots or they come right back.
I know how to tell if something like kale or rhubarb is about to go to seed, because they shoot up these long tall central stalks and you have to cut the stalks off if you want the leaves to continue growing.
I know tomatoes die if they freeze, but certain other plants can make it through a frosty night or two. I know you have to read seed packets to find out whether the seeds in question are frost-friendly or not.
Et Cetera. Simple stuff. To tell you the truth I'm not sure if the yellow leaves on my potted indigo plants mean they're thirsty or drowning. I did not grow up on a farm, so let's leave it at that.

But once upon a time on a cheap bus from Boston to NYC I met a permaculturist, he was very cute, with a beard and a shaved head, he looked semi-monkish and was very friendly. We were seatmates for the ride and we talked about permaculture because I knew what the word meant (and you can too! it means permanent agriculture - it's an all-encompassing philosophy of methods of mimicking nature in order to create a zero-waste system and utilize every available resource). My Ugandan kids had just started a project thanks to Permaculture Across Borders and I thought (still do think) it was about the best thing since gluten-free bread (j/k).
Anyway, this cute guy taught me one principle that has bugged me to this day. The principle is: if you leave soil open to the sun, it will lose water and nutrients. It will be sterilized by its exposure. Thus, permaculturers spare no effort in mulching their soil. No manicured gardens for them, they heap the mulch on.

At JuneBug's little backyard farm this morning, she and I hoed, planted, mulched. She'd tilled a whole row by machine ahead of time (no I don't know the correct term for the machine, it's in the tractor family) so we had beautiful black dirt facing the sun. As the sun rose and scorched ME, I certainly gave some thought to the scorching of the topsoil. We wondered aloud about the whole process together. Why do we till the earth up? To aerate it, yes, but also to get rid of the weeds. Why are there weeds in the ground? Because we've left this beautiful uncovered OPPORTUNITY and the seeds in the air just can't help but seize it. Because there are more dandelion seeds around than there are squash seeds (where are the squash seeds? the kitchen garbage, are they not?).
In my little mind, happily uncluttered by previous agricultural wisdom, I looked at this process I was involved in, and it looked like surgery. We're slicing open the ground, sterilizing parts of it as it gets sun-exposure, turning it around and around, breaking it up, removing the cancers, putting tubes and screws in place, re-seeding with the things WE want, and sewing it back up again with a nice top layer of mulch.
I don't think surgery is good health care. It's a useful resource and backup plan - yes. But I think ultimately good health care is about the everyday behaviors that create or destroy a body's health.
We're trying our darndest to give Mother Nature's earthy body the loving care it deserves -- so how about some preventative care instead of regularly scheduled surgery?

THIS IS MY VISION and I really think my naivete is fun here -- I just don't know all the "why you can't do it that way" things and so I'm free to imagine --
my vision is that if we understood what plants want and need, what makes them thrive, and even more importantly what makes the SOIL healthy underneath, we wouldn't need to slice it all open, scratch all around, poke at things, and overwork our aching backs in the process. A really good surgery might be needed to set things at the desired equilibrium -- but then stop. Hands off. Let Momma Nature do her thing. Take the seeds out of the kitchen garbage and throw them LIBERALLY - all over the place. Some will get eaten by birds, but they'll scratch up and fertilize the ground in the process.
Restoring Eden that is what I want to do. Reverse the curse.
...You can call me Johnny Squashseed...

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