by Guest Ranter Lee Reich, PhD
I wish I had a catchy name for the kind of farmdening I do. (A farmden is more than a garden, less than a farm; I used to have a garden, now I have a farmden.)
I wish I had a catchy word like, for example, “permaculture.” Everyone loves permaculture. Many budding young as well as experienced permaculturalists visit my farmden to see what I’ve been doing here for the last 25 years. Yes, I have integrated edibles right into the landscape, as do permaculturalists; and, like permaculturalists, I do try to maximize use
of the 3-dimensional space in my farmden with, for example, my shade-loving black currants growing beneath my pawpaw trees. I am also a permaculturalistic in maintaining the integrity of my soil by avoiding its disturbance and by utilizing mulches. And we all try to grow plants adapted to the setting so as to minimize pest problems. And . . . I could go on.
Despite the assertion of one young, “expert” permaculturalist, I am not a permaculturalist. (Perhaps in a futile attempt to strengthen his argument, he went on to say that all gardening/farmdening except commercial agriculture is “permaculture” and that, “as a teacher of permaculture,” he should know!)
I part ways with permaculturalists by growing my vegetables rectilinearly, in straight rows within rectangular 3-foot-wide beds. Ah yes, the idea of organically shaped beds and keyhole gardens is so appealing – on paper. As is the idea of tucking lettuce plants beneath fruiting shrubs and trees. But I eat a lot of vegetables and there’s nothing like straight rows
running down straight beds for packing a lot of vegetables into a given area, and making it quicker and easier to plant, weed, and harvest. And when I go out to pick some vegetables for a meal, I don’t want to be remembering where I tucked the lettuce and then crawling beneath some shrub to get at it.
Permaculture originated and thrives in the dry climates of Australia and our Southwest. Over much of the country, and especially here in the Northeast, rainfall coaxes very exuberant growth from crop plants and weeds alike. Too many permaculturalists are liable to spend their first few permaculture years admiring their efficient and attractive use of space and all the years hence cursing all the cutting and weeding needed to keep growth of various plants in balance. What I need are some straight lines and a little elbow room.
“Forest gardening,” growing and eating from your planted forest, is receiving growing interest within permaculture circles. As you might guess, I’m also not a forest gardener, despite the fact that I have integrated fruiting trees, which do come from forests somewhere, as well as chestnuts, English walnuts, black walnuts, buartnuts, and other nutty things into my landscape. But a forest I have not. And the ground beneath my trees is not planted with herbs and vegetables on which I can nibble. It’s mowed grass or mulch.
I’m growing my own fruits and vegetables because I want quality – quality in flavor and quality in nutrition. I’m growing my own fruits and vegetables because I think it’s not environmentally sound to grow these foods on distant farms, often in monocultures, and then ship them to stores where they sit before being purchased and eaten. I grow my own fruits and vegetables so that I can eat them fresh, very fresh. (Lettuce left over from
making dinner? Into the compost pile it goes.) I don’t even want to have to drive to a local farm for my produce. I want to grow enough to be able to heap my plate. I don’t want to grow a nibble here and there.
So what could I call my method of farmdening? “Pitchfork farmdening?” My farmdening efforts begin at soil level, and the secret to good soil is plenty of organic materials that eventually become humus. Organic materials feed soil microorganisms, hold moisture like a sponge, create good structure that helps aerate the soil, decompose to release nutrients that feed the plants, prompt the release of nutrients from native minerals that feed the plants, and have other effects known and unknown.
Forget about compost tea and various commercial products of “liquid humus.” All these benefits accrue from bulky organic materials, and the way to move these materials, on a farmden (and garden) scale, at least, is with a pitchfork. Now, if only “pitchfork farmdening” or “pitchfork gardening” was more euphonious and didn’t sound like work. Nomenclature suggestions accepted.