My vegetable garden, 2007
By the time I moved eight years ago, I'd made a really nice vegetable garden at my first house, backed by a lovely bed of roses and foxgloves. A few people said to me, "Aren't you sorry to leave your garden behind?"
And my feeling was, naaaaaa. It was exciting getting to make a new one, or, as it turned out, two, since in an insanely exuberant mood, my husband and I bought both a city and a country house.
Of course, I'm most interested in my vegetable garden, and vegetables are mostly annual crops that go from nothing to spectacular over the course of a few months. So I may have less anxiety about the process of maturation than someone obsessed with boxwood hedges would, or God forbid, trees.
Still, I have left fruit trees behind, and that upsets me–planting apples and pears and never getting to taste a single one. I want to put down roots. But hey, life happens. Things don't work as planned. New gardens just get made. And I'm up for it, for as long as my energy holds out.
And I'm not afraid of starting over, because I've seen how quickly a patch of nothing can be transformed.
My vegetable garden, 2010
I'm not just talking about the superficial stuff, like the actual crops that can be quickly scraped off a formerly barren piece of land. I'm talking about the quality of the soil. A few years of deep mulching can turn it from sodden clay that retains the shape of the shovel when you turn it over… to that fresh-smelling, easy digging, wormy loam that is the definition of fertility and possibility to any gardener.
Horticulture professor and Informed Gardener author Linda Chalker-Scott has seen this kind of transformation occur at an even faster pace, even in ground compacted into infertile near-cement by foot traffic. She writes…
My landscape restoration classes now routinely have wood chips spread on site to allow soil recovery to begin as they prepare the site and install new plants. One particular site, a small lot near a bus stop, consisted of weeds, bare soil, and a few existing trees and shrubs. When we tried to take a soil core, the corer bent! We had 8-10" of wood chips spread over the whole site as we began our work. A month later, we moved aside part of the mulch and dug out a shovelful of rich, loamy soil. Had I not seen it for myself, I'm not sure I would have believed these stunning results.
Of course, the reason soil can be transformed by mulch is that mulch feeds the unseen hoards, the mind-blowingly diverse creatures of the soil, who do their various jobs of decomposing, digging, tunnelling and shredding incredibly effectively.
In my relatively new vegetable garden, I feel that by mulching and planting a big variety of food crops, I have simply set the stage for an explosion of life. Some of the creatures drawn to my garden are a problem–groundhogs, rabbits, and cabbage moths–but many of them act like unpaid assistants, including the many birds, toads, and spiders that hunt for insects from the heights of my pole bean arches to the leafy recesses of my lettuces. There is nothing sweeter than weeding peacefully in my garden, with birds flitting and preening right overhead.
Given the slightest opportunity, nature works quickly to fill any vacuum. That's the point of everything from the "Time Passes" section of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse to the various books and articles of recent years speculating about life on earth without humans. In a few short years, most of human heavy-footedness can be undone. Wastelands can be made into gardens. Look at Detroit–just 50 years ago, it was one of America's great industrial cities. Then it became a lot of meaningless infrastructure. Well, assisted by city-funded bulldozing and a few arsonists, the meaningless infrastructure is disappearing. Today, you can startle pheasants in a community garden within eyeshot of downtown.
Give the joint some mulch and life moves in FAST. Redesign, redo, reap the rewards, and flash your bleached teeth in an ecstatic smile, just like on one of those ridiculous HGTV garden makeover shows.
Or so I've always thought, until this week when I've been reading biologist Edward O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life. He discusses the mechanisms by which nature is constantly creating new species, but also points out that these new experiments are untested and not always successes. They don't always even add to the diversity of an ecosystem, because new species with a common ancestor may be so similar that they compete and push each other out.
Here is what Wilson says about time:
The richest ecosystems build slowly, over millions of years….By chance alone only a few new species are poised to move into novel adaptive zones, to create something spectacular and stretch the limits of diversity. A panda or a sequoia represents a magnitude of evolution that comes along only rarely. It takes a stroke of luck and a long period of probing, experimentation, and failure. Such a creation is part of deep history, and the planet does not have the means nor we the time to see it repeated.
I somehow feel completely chastened.
I am clearly a flim-flam artist of a gardener who experiments with knobby blue Italian pumpkins just like nature experiments with the beak shapes of island birds, whose extreme specialization can make their species vulnerable to the slightest change in their environment. I am not somebody who is doing something lasting, like engineering a sequoia.
Maybe I ought to start planting boxwoods?
Photo credit, second photo: Eric Etheridge.