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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Not gardening

Knot gardens were all the rage at some point in history and very knotty they were too, with their convoluted and meticulously trimmed hedges and clipped lines of sight and symmetry, but it's not that sort of not I'm wanting to explore in this article. 
Not at all. 
I'm thinking about not gardening, that is, doing the opposite of what gardeners ordinarily do when they garden. We dig and delve, hew and carry, but not doing those things is what I'm exploring here and have been trialing for some time now, in my own garden. 
Or should I call it my 'not' garden? 
Perhaps the term 'un-garden' would be easier to understand. I've had to invent the phrase to describe what I'm not doing here in Riverton, in the heaving green mass that fills my view when I look through the windows from inside of my house. 
All around me I see the results of what I haven't done; brown and crinkled seed heads on perennials I haven't dead-headed, luxuriant dock and plantain that I haven't dug out of the ground, the hint of a path that I haven't cleared and grass that hasn't for a moment feared the mover that I don't use, haven't in fact got. 
Readers who maintain a neat and tidy garden will have turned the page by now, so I guess it's safe for me to plough on with my sacriligeous talk of neglect and in-action, hoping all the while that there are some of you who have at least an inkling of where I'm headed (to hell in a hand-basket, some of my friends probably think. 
The contrast between their groomed sections and my free-for-all is quite marked by not commented on – I guess that's what friends are for. 
Perhaps they know that my decent into naturalness is not a thoughtless one, but planned and consciously implemented and done for a number of valid reasons). 
The fact is, I've been moving, step by step toward a management system that was conceived, trialled and written about by one of horticultures greatest men, Masanobu Fukuoka, Japanese 'natural farmer' and philosopher-gardener, recently deceased. 
Mr Fukuoka developed his 'let it be' growing system over a decade or two of thinking and experimenting with planting and harvesting, rice in the main but also cereals, vegetables and fruits on what had been his father's citrus orchard. 
Against a backdrop of intense herbicide and pesticide use, mechanical ploughing and harvesting regimes and a monocultural mindset, unfortaunately titled, The Green Revolution”, Mr Fukuoka un-did the changes that had been adopted by his dad and turned instead to methods he thought of himself, based on his close observations of how the natural world operated. 
He noticed early on, that steel ploughs and spraying booms were not common in nature. 
He decided instead to try doing what had been done by Gaia or whoever it was the Japanese natural-gardener believed to be responsible for the up-keep of the natural world, and the results he achieved are now legendary. 
Without digging, he produced bumper harvests. By not burning the stubble of his rice fields, nor flooding them in the traditional manner, he topped the charts for grains-per-hectare, soil improvement and biodiversity, the three best measures of success in anyone's book. 
Mr Fukuoka professed a 'do-nothing' philosophy that required the farmer or gardener to stop mucking up the natural patterns plants follow, to stop force-feeding with petroleum-based fertilizers, to stop killing insects, friend and foe, when they are best left to sort themselves out. 
He was a revolutionary thinker and a difficult teacher. Students from all over the world flocked to join him on his un-garden, his not-orchard and his dry rice paddies, but he didn't make it easy for them to follow his lead; he talked in parables and teased them with half-finished sentences. 
But Mr Fukuoka wrote a book that carefully described his world-view and I have a copy of his “One Straw Revolution”, and that, in the main part, is why my garden is becoming an 'un-garden'. 
And it's thriving for it. Insects thrum, birds twitter, vines twine and fruit swells. I've adopted many of the natural farming methods I read about in the One Straw Revolution and have adapted them to conditions in the south of the South Island of New Zealand. Most important of those methods, is the 'stay-your-hand' one. Do nothing, or at least, progressively do less than you used to do until you're doing next to nothing. It's not for everybody. 
Gardeners love to garden, but there's more to gardening than digging and lugging. Sowing seed is a majestic occupation. Mr Fukuoka and I recommend it. Both of us have tried wrapping seeds in clay, calling them seed balls, and casting them onto the soil to sprout and grow, safe from pecking birds and chewing insects. Both he and I have learned that creating bare earth is counter-productive in a system that seeks to build soil, rather than lose it. We sow into standing crops, chosing the moment that is the most suitable with regards soil moisture and temperature (Well, Mr Fukuoka did do those things. As I mentioned, he passed away a few years ago. If he was still alive, he would be doing this still, I'm certain). 

My plea for a 'down tools and take a breather' gardening comes in part as a result of recent discussions I've had with visitors to my forest-garden, and there have been serious numbers of those. Gardens of the sort I've created here (we've created here, I should say and will write about the way in which this garden is a shared one, soon) have become very popular and sort-after for visiting and, I hope, copying. I've been leading troupes of enthusiastic soon-to-be forest-gardeners along the push-through paths in order that we can all see how un-gardening works. Or doesn't work though it's me who doing the most not-working. Learning to watch and wait is a revelation in a garden and helps a gardener to understand that non-intervention can be a powerful gardening tool.

So consider the lilies in the field and other such great advice from teachers that have given deep thought to how we can co-exist with our winged and leafed friends. Not-gardening might be one way in which you can re-connect with the natural world and help it along. Goodness know it needs a helping hand just now.


Philip Todd said...

There was once a book written called "The Kiwi Joker" by a Gavin someone. His guide to gardening was 245T and a chainsaw.
Looks like you will have to write the Southern Blokes Guide to Gardening.
We do have a love of manicured and cut grass where many overseas parks have large areas left to go wild. If we see long grass we want to cut it or graze it.

robertguyton said...

You feel you want to graze on lawn, Philip?
Perhaps you could write about that!

Philip Todd said...

haha no rather graze a sheep and than eat the lamb chops. I was meaning we have been taught to keep up with our neighbours and have the best lawns while farmers want every bit of pasture eaten off. English countryside is full of hedgerows and small areas of trees which house wildlife and birds.

robertguyton said...

The countryside you describe is the one I aspire-to and intend to provide for future generations of Southlanders. I've been busy working on the project for years and have had some success, however, I intend to do a great deal more than I've manged so far. My 'hebe' project is the next step. The heritage apples work has gone very well and I expect the next phases to do even better. I'm opposing the clipped, mowed,shaven and shorn world-view that has ruled for so long here. Accordingly, I've abandoned the use of razor and clippers and have begun a 'hedgerow' beard. Join me, if you will, in re-clothing Southland!

fredinthegrass said...

I'm not sure I'm ready to 'ungarden' Rg, but I look forward to seeing yours one day. Southland beckons but our last venture south saw us 'hijacked' near Alexander to "grandie mind"!!
A question if you would be so kind - We have two large - football size - cones that have shedded some seed. Can I grow the seed and if so how? would be grateful for your wise counsel, Rg.

robertguyton said...

Fred - you'd be very welcome to visit and have a look. Growing those pine seeds should be easy - I'd plant them in a bed now and let winter do her magic. Come spring, they should erupt.