The Unrealized Radicalness of a Home Garden

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Tompkins Weekly      12-14-22

By Elizabeth Keokosky

Many of us who have gardens— and many who don’t — take gardens for granted. The common reasons are clear enough: fresh vegetables, saving money and being outdoors. Making a political statement is not particularly one of them, but now, I am beginning to realize more and more the radicalness of a home garden. It finds expression in multiple ways.

One way is a result of the new biology of genomics. My garden has become a portal to a whole, recently illuminated ecosystem — the microbiome of the soil, a community of microorganisms that provide such services as nutrient recycling and carbon retention.

I used to feed my plants; now I feed the millions — no, trillions — of microbes who live in the soil layer underlying them, the whole mycorrhizal network with its fungi and helper bacteria.

Elizabeth Keokosky. Photo provided.

Members of this network — in the miracle of chemical intra-species communication — trade nutrient needs and secret dialogs with plant roots, which, among other things, transmit pathogen defense warnings to other plants. The process is remarkably similar to our own human gut and immune system talking.

Instead of fertilizers and herbicides, I now lug back whatever biomass waste I can lay my hands on: food scraps, wood chips, chicken litter, straw and seed cover crops bought by the pound to keep bare ground active after harvesting. A compost pile is a way to propagate more of these microbes, and compost tea makes a fermented addition, both useful in the same way that yogurt and probiotics are to the human gut.

This concept of giving back more then you take out has a name. It is called “regeneration,” and it is a fantastically optimistic concept to rebuild the health of soil, humans, community and the planet.

The symbiotic, cooperative ecosystem known as a microbiome is reshaping what we once perceived as evolutionary truth. Ever since Darwin sailed on the HMS Beagle and wrote “On the Origin of the Species” explaining natural selection, his concepts have been appropriated by the term “survival of the fittest.”

New biology reveals that evolution is not only the “survival of the fittest” on the individual level but also survival at the community level. In fact, the microbiome has changed what we consider to be an individual.

Communities can be communities of cells and bacteria in our own bodies or soil microbial communities, as well as the better-known, more-visible colonies of ants or bees — or even human cities.

It portrays a more radical, many-layered understanding of the complex challenges and solutions worked out in nature. And it resonates on a societal level for cooperation in our time, just as social Darwinism did for competition in the late 1800s. Then, it justified the intense competiveness of the industrial revolution; today, it amplifies the need for partnerships in a complicated global world.

The radicalness of a small home garden also addresses this industrial culture and unintentionally turns capitalism on its head. Home gardeners are no longer consumers; they are producers.

We home gardeners are not market driven. Our labor is neither particularly efficient nor specialized. Some might even think home garden benefits are similar to heating with wood, where the saying goes you get warmed twice: once cutting the cordwood and once heating with it.

With gardens, both the exercise and the results make a gardener (and their families) warmer — and healthier. The effort and the rewards are in the realization of the true deliciousness of food grown yourself. Home gardeners don’t have to make a monetary profit, although I strongly advocate for it since many things we buy for gardens are unnecessary and frugality drives inventiveness.

For instance, use home-harvested limbs and vines for support and garden structures, make your own potting soil and apply amendments at the right time. The longer you garden, the more you find you can make do with what is around you. It’s hardly a capitalist mantra.

All of this can give a noticeable boost to your budget, particularly if you grow organically and add up the cost of what comparable purchases would be. As E.F. Schumacher said, “Small is beautiful,” and this applies to the sustainability and lovely coherence of a home garden.

A home garden is a pantry where food is always fresh, transportation costs are negligible and there are no plastic wrappers. Add chickens, and you have an amazing symmetry between egg production, chicken litter, compost and food scraps. Put up some birdhouses and a wide potting tray of water, and your garden also becomes a sanctuary for birds, amphibians and reptiles.

Abundance happens in a garden. Encourage plants like dill, coriander and parsley, which readily go to seed and come up the following year. Reap the benefits of thyme, sage, mint, chives and many other herbs, which are perennial (also asparagus and rhubarb). Add fruit trees and berries, and take the garden beyond vegetables. Include easy hoops and plastic for low grow tunnels and extend the season before and after winter. A gardener is always learning and is always experimenting.

The last — but not least — radical aspect of gardening included in this essay is one I am just beginning to comprehend myself. It is about relationships in the Indigenous sense (particularly as practiced by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of our lovely area of the Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes) based on the reciprocity between plants and people.

This is no surprise; after all, in the scientific narrative, mammals and angiosperms (flowering plants) co-evolved in geological time together. But in the Indigenous narrative, the relationship is even more pronounced. Humans are younger siblings to the plants and animals around them. Humans listen to them and are taught by them.

Among the many things they learn is the wisdom of strength, endurance and healing. Western innovators are taking cues from this, and one is using biomimicry to come up with better and more sustainable solutions, such as turbines, Velcro and medicines.

For Indigenous peoples, learning from plants and animals seems to develop into an ethical and community glue that holds together their way of living. In harvesting, for instance, they learn to leave the best and never take more than the Earth can continue to provide, implicitly acknowledging the needs of future generations of all species.

But, of particular importance to the radicalness of gardens, Indigenous peoples — as I understand it — are taught to express gratitude for the gifts nature has provided them and to always give back. It is the application of this radically loving, reciprocal relationship that seems to me the essential piece needed to reverse a self-destructive, Western worldview.

It is a view perhaps best captured in the ’60s movie, “Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance.” It is a view that takes and takes until the abundance and beauty of the Earth is used up, until there is nothing left to give, and, then, only then, when it is too late, does the truth of our dependency become real. If the methods of regeneration practice the concept of putting back more than you take, then gratitude for Earth’s gifts, and understanding our responsibility to return them, is its spirit.

Elizabeth Keokosky is a long-time gardener who lives in Danby in a stone house built by her husband. She worked in computing at Cornell University and started a nonprofit cooperative utilizing biomass for energy after a late-in-life degree in Regional Economics at Cornell’s City and Regional Planning. She is now secretary to the Conservation Advisory Council in Danby, has two grown-up children, attends Quaker meetings and tries to make her way through the various contradictory perspectives of modern life.

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