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Saturday, January 2, 2016

Why you should go organic in the garden

Robert Guyton in his Riverton food forest.

Where did it all begin, someone asked me recently, this organic gardening thing you do?

I didn't have to think hard to answer. It was a series of epiphanies I had during my childhood, beginning on a dewy morning when I was seven, walking around the streets near my home and picking toadstools from neighbours' front lawns.

Goodness knows what they thought, but I was in heaven, plucking slippery jacks and fly agarics from under birches and beeches, ink-caps and horse mushrooms from the clipped sward in front of the houses up and down my street.

I was entranced by organisms that were growing with rude good health despite the efforts of those 1960s lawn-enthusiasts to make life difficult for them, and I recognised there and then that nature had more to offer than what was on display in most suburban gardens.

I learned too, that those colourful toadstools were merely the tops of the subterranean fungal organism and wouldn't continue to grow when transferred into an aquarium half-filled with compost, but needed particular and subtle conditions in order to live.

Those 'shrooms shrivelled over the next few days, but my interest in the biosphere didn't. Nor did my realisation that habit, conformity to social norms and expectations works against the full expression of nature and her wonders. Quite a realisation, for a small boy.

I learned too that degraded habitats, like the mud-choked drain that marked the boundary of our section, could be brought back to life through hard work and the addition of plants purloined from a creek that flowed through town. By hauling out the stinking mud that had settled thigh-deep in the slow-flowing waterway, and poking arum lily rhizomes and clumps of water-cress into the banks, I began to naturalise the drain and help it become a free-flowing creek.

From that experience I learned that simplifying nature for the sake of ease of management was a false economy; stable systems need diversity and they need living things in abundance.

Nowadays, I live by those ideals realised when I was running around in short pants. Biodiversity and abundance are everything; herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, molluscicides and all of the other anti-life chemical concoctions that are so carelessly applied here in New Zealand represent the opposite to what I hold to be important in the garden and on the farm.

I have tried them though, at different times of my gardening career. Tempted by the spin that surrounds glyphosate, I sprayed the driveway of the first home we lived in here in Riverton. I borrowed a back-pack sprayer filled with Roundup and went to work, drenching shepherd's purse and dandelion as if they were my enemies.

Never again. The smell was warning enough, but the sight of those desiccated plants languishing for days afterwards until they finally succumbed and died, made me realise that death and destruction for the plant world was not my way. Nor would I spray insects from that day on, having over-stepped the mark with herbicides, pesticide's cousin.

Fungi are safe in my garden now, as are molluscs and any other organism, from synthetic sprays anyway – I'll still sluice them off with a hose or net them off my vegetables if necessary but essentially, I'm for increasing the amount of life in my garden, rather than stamping out the bits I don't like.

That means I employ methods I've discovered from years of study. Organics, biodynamics, biological farming, permaculture, natural farming; I've been inspired by any school of thought that teaches abundance and liveliness.

I've learned through listening to elderly gardeners and seeing their productive gardens, grown without modern chemical sprays and fertilisers. I've joined students at permaculture and biodynamic workshops and made compost cow-pat pits with them, read books by Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian and South American rice-farmers, fruit growers and forest-gardeners.

I've tried all sorts of tricks and technologies to avoid conventional management methods like spraying and applying NPK, but the thing that's worked best for me is to always bear in mind the importance of life itself and the self-defeating results of trying to squash, contain, restrain or diminish it.

Too much fathen in your garden? Add dock, dandelion and daisies! Too many weeds in your lawn? Multiply them and create a wild-salad garden to eat from.

Add, don't subtract; multiply, don't reduce. That's where I've ended up, after my years of thought and experimentation.

My garden's thriving and thrumming with life. It looks wild and it's getting closer to that happy state. I couldn't become a lawn-grooming guy, trimming and clipping, fussing and fretting, no matter how hard I tried; it's just not in me. My beard's evidence of that; it's permaculture gone facial and proof that my philosophy's deep. And it all began with those tempting toadstools. There's something very Alice in Wonderland about that.

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- NZ Gardener

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