Gardens on the Go - Organic Horticulture


Lawns and Good Citizenship


When I picked up the local paper a few weeks ago I was greeted by an editorial about lawns. The writer was in conflict about how lawn care fit in with the “green” movement. One particular idea presented in this piece of writing really caught my attention. Taking “care” of the lawn (seemingly by frequent use of polluting lawnmowers and weed-eaters, as well as the use of the chemical fertilizers and poisonous pesticides he mentioned) was referred to as “good citizenship”. I could not believe what I was reading!  Although that might have been considered true a couple of decades ago because of the clever marketing that had impressed itself on social consciousness, we have since learned how much damage these beliefs can perpetuate. I am constantly amazed how poisoned things can be considered “clean” “proper” and “cared for” and how using excess water and dangerous chemicals as well as burning fossil fuels strictly for the “pleasure” of a properly cut green lawn can be looked at as good citizenship. This way of thinking has creating numerous problems for us and our planet. It boggles the mind why, in this age of information that this sort of belief system can continue.  We somehow are perpetuating some truly ludicrous ideas.

In our current society food seems to be considered “clean” when it has been so completely poisoned so that there is not the tiniest remnant of any insect or disease. Lawns are considered “cared for” and “cleaned up” when poisonous substances are spread and weeds are killed.  The theory seems to be that poisons must be used to kill the evil invaders, whether weeds, bacteria, or viruses. It seems that only when it things have been poisoned are they good, clean, and safe!  I acknowledge the life saving importance of things like antibiotics, which in effect, poison dangerous bacteria when our systems have gotten out of balance.  Even there, however, I can’t help thinking there must be a better way. It appears that our whole mentality is based on warfare rather than welfare. We must kill, or so it seems, in order to live.

 I am aware that the construction of anything indicates, by its very natural the destruction of something else. I am also aware of how we kill to eat, whether it is an animal, vegetable, or seed.   I am sure, however, that we can all agree that there are instances where killing can and should be avoided. The perpetuation of murder and genocide immediately comes to mind, but as a horticulturalist the next thing that comes to my mind is the killing of the soil and the soil food web that we all depend on, whether we are humans, wild or domestic animals, plants, or microbes. It is actually a slow and deadly form of genocide that we are perpetuating daily by ignoring the real truths of soil science and its importance to life on earth. 

Thanks to the work of soil scientists like Dr Elaine Ingham and her theory of the Soil Food Web we have become aware of the incredible diversity of the soil and its micro organisms, and the important roles that they play in the ecosystem. Healthy soil has billions of creatures present that can be seen only through powerful microscopes. These organisms explain why ancient forests did not need 20-20-20, herbicides and pesticides to survive. These organisms are capable of capturing nitrogen from the air.  They also provide nutrients from decaying organic matter as well as rocks and soil components in the ecosystem. They transfer nutrients and water from organism to organism.  They maintain the balance of water, air, ph, and nutrients in soils. They keep pest and disease organisms in balance and they perform all of these functions without any input from Dow, Monsanto, or even “miracle” fertilizers. The tragedy is that whenever we use chemical fertilizers and pesticides we are destroying the very organisms that can provide an ecological and economical way for us to rejuvenate our soils, and to grow our plants, whether  vegetables, ornamentals, or lawns. 

It is hard for us to realize and understand this because most of us have initially come upon soils that have already been severely depleted by various means. We have brutally cleared soils for construction without a thought to how to protect them or rebuild them. We have allowed the erosion of nutrients to happen on our bare ground. We have purchased and applied products that will make things grow, but not reestablish or rejuvenate the life of the soil. To grow anything at all, we have needed to add “something” and it is too bad that the “something” that we most frequently add, if we are not progressive organic gardeners, will further destroy the chances of the soil ever becoming self sustaining.  In fact many of the fertilizer products we use on our soil continue to deplete it even further by smothering, poisoning, and destroying the natural life of the soil, and the only reason we do not notice that fact is that we continually add more product.  This brand of economics works very well in a social system that requires continuous consumerism to function.  It may not, however, work well in the long run for us, our planet, and our children. Unfortunately we are using up our natural resources at an alarming rate and will have to face one of the most dreaded of all human conditions, the condition of change. 

Although change is continually happening around us, and affects everything that we do, we mostly dislike change, or like to ignore it. The exception seems to be if that change provides us with more convenience, comfort, or money. This is especially true of corporations who are making tremendous amounts of money by perpetuating the status quo. They definitely do not want change. Change might mean temporarily losing market share, or having to invest in new technology. To the heads of corporations who are making obscenely huge salaries this indicates huge risks. If their shareholders are unhappy, their jobs may be in jeopardy. To have profit margins drop is not acceptable to share holders.  They mostly demand a constant upward reward for their dollar investment.  Most investors know very little about the day to day decisions of the corporate entities that they invest in, and many couldn’t  care less. They move their money away from companies who are not making as much short term profit, and towards companies who are, despite those companies’ long term goals or ethics. It is a simple system, but it is a system that could be destroying our planet. 

I am not a doomsday type of person. I do believe in human’s ability to solve problems and find solutions. I believe in some sort of evolution of thought toward good, and I believe that most people are inherently good by nature. For example, I believe that it is probably true that we will find solutions to figure out replacements for fossil fuels even though oiil is a major component in nearly everything we do on this planet. We use it for the growing of most of our foods, gardens and lawns.  Chemical fertilizers are petroleum based, and tractors and farm equipment is a major use of oil.  We also use oil to transport ourselves and our food and goods. Oil is used in the manufacturing and transportation of plastics, and mostly all of our everyday household items but still, it is not peak oil that I am worried about.  What I am concerned about is our seeming determination to destroy as much as we can until we do run out of oil. We seem unwilling to change to stop that destruction, even though we are well aware of it. I am puzzled why we are still moving full speed ahead until all the fossil fuels are gone. Our planet, our economies, and even our soils will all be a lot easier to rebuild if we do not run them to the ground first.  What is our resistance to this fact?

A great example in Current Issues is the auto industry bailout fiasco. We could have changed directions years ago with the information that was available but instead we kept producing cars that were irrelevant to the reality of our situation and now we are all paying the price, as will our children, in many different ways.  Similarly, there have been voices that have appealed to our common sense, and have presented scientifically sound arguments against pesticide use for years. One example is found in Rachel Carson, who was considered a bit of a crackpot by many when she first published “Silent Spring” in the early 60’s pointing out the dangers of pesticide use. When further studies finally enlightened us to the fact that DDT was causing reproductive disorders in birds and animals we finally dropped that weapon from our arsenal, yet the war rages on against the living creatures of the soil.   

We have truly been sold a bill of goods. We do not need the constant input of chemical fertilizers and pesticides in our yards, gardens, and farms. We are wasting our monies on products based on ideas that are severely outdated in the light of current soil science and customs and norms that were born before that enlightenment. We must change our ideas around what it is to be a good citizen. Being a good citizen should, in my mind be about preserving the ecosystem, not destroying it. We have yet to educate ourselves on how we can be happy and thrive without unnecessary killing of soil organisms and weeds.  

We can choose change. We can strive to restore the balance of our ecosystem by refusing to kill the soil with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. We can choose to rebuild our soils by adding compost and organic matter to our soils. We can choose to compost all our kitchen scraps and yard waste right in our own yards to avoid it being hauled around unnecessarily. We can let areas of our yards go “wild” to help feed the native birds and animals. We can grow food instead of lawns to alleviate the huge eco-footprint of factory farms producing and transporting our food.  We can choose to redefine being a good citizen and help heal the planet and ourselves.  Why wait?