There are people who come on forcefully. Soldiers are trained to take charge first, ask questions later. Cops are trained to assert their authority immediately, then figure out what’s going on. The approach isn’t limited to those fields. I’ve known some pretty tough math teachers….
Driving a tank, wearing a badge and gun, or wielding a grade book likely shapes the approach that’s taken. I don’t have a lot of evidence in my own life, except as a gardener.
For decades, I’ve taken a minimally invasive route. Tutored by an early love of The Secret Garden, Heidi, and Rabbit Hill, I respect a garden’s complex mysteries. I’ve chatted with devas (who may or may not have been listening), followed lunar calendars, enthused about books by Christopher Bird and Stephen Buhner, aspired to co-create gardens like Findhorn and Perelandra. I’ve applied permaculture techniques, even built modified hügelkultur beds. I’ve let daisies, thistles, joe pye weed, ironweed, and wild carrot live along garden borders for their sheer beauty. I’ve accepted that rabbits, slugs, and birds will take their share.
It’s not necessarily garden smart, but it’s not in my nature to wipe out living thing. I honestly apologize, quite often out loud, when I have to pull weeds or remove bugs.
I never thought, for a minute, I’d take a weaponized approach to gardening. Then this year, too lazy or busy or heat-addled, I went on the attack using both a spray and a machine.
For the first time ever, I used a poison. I’m not talking pure evil (like Roundup, I’ll never go there). Pyrethrin is a synthetic version of the friendly chrysanthemum’s power to repel pests and, under some guidelines, approved for organic growers. It loses effectiveness in a few hours and is supposedly safe enough to apply close to harvest. I was driven to this edge by squash beetles.
I’ve lost to squash beetles too many times. These are well-equipped invaders. I’ve asked them many times, “Why are you destroying your host plant?” and “How about we compromise and you just eat this one plant?” They seemed unconcerned, aware I’ll go ahead and plant squash again the next year. (Rotating to another garden plot, dear reader, at least I try.) Adult versions of the squash beetle look like armored vehicles. I’m not sure exactly what they’re doing lumbering around the base of my large and lovely squash plants, but they seem to be patrolling their own cucurbit military bases. Squash bugs have four, count ’em four, life cycles starting with eerily lovely copper-colored eggs, which hatch into spiderish creatures, which turn into nymphs, which grow into those armored vehicles. I’ve become weary of their domination.
I grow the healthiest squash plants I can. I save seeds and start plants indoors, tending them with kind words and bright light. I tuck them into spring-warmed ground with aged poo from our beloved cattle. I water and weed like an overly attentive nanny. Then I watch them succumb to the bad influences of powdery mildew, cucumber beetles, vine borers, and squash beetles. This summer, enough was enough.
I felt the itch of cognitive dissonance as I mixed up a batch of pyrethrin in a small squirt bottle I once used for art projects. And then I went out to kill. My dad patrolled his garden every evening, plucking offending insects from plants and dropping them into a jar of soapy water. I’ve never been able to bring myself to do that. But my naturally gentle nature, I swear, was altered by the weapon I used. I’d part a few leaves to find squash beetles, then spray them with a vindictive, “You can’t hide from me!” I thought guiltily about their tiny nervous systems breaking down, about the place they held in the ecosystem, about my species’ hubris. But that guilt gave way somewhat to my new sense of power.
Yes, I carefully avoided lightning bugs and butterflies and toads, although I know it’s likely those pyrethrin droplets affected more than just squash beetles. That didn’t stop me from mixing up another small batch to repeat the treatment a few days later. Thanks to that spray, I only lost three squash plants out of 15. After decades of not always successful person-to-insect negotiations, I’ve declared myself in charge. So much for co-creation….
Which leads me to my new weeding method. I’ve kvetched here many times about the trials of weeding an organic garden, often losing the battle with wild carrot, morning glory, thistle, and crabgrass. I’ve gone on at length about my various attempts to control weeds, even stretching old cut-up jeans between rows (it works, btw). But, my friends, I have hit upon a method that actually works for me.
It has to do with a machine that gives me dominion over weeds.
Thanks to that machine, this year I put down paper or cardboard only a foot or so around each plant, topped with straw or grass clippings. Because I have big garden beds and lots of room, I can leave plenty of space between plants. Instead of laying paper and straw everywhere I don’t want weeds to grow, I’ve hit on whacking the weeds between plants.
I’m not tall enough or strong enough to operate the monster weed whacker that lurks in the corner of our barn. But this spring my husband bought me a small battery-powered weed whacker. Using it means the soil isn’t left bare (unnatural for soil anywhere) and the vegetables plants aren’t compromised by weeds using up their sun, water, and soil nutrients. I feel faintly guilty mowing down healthy velvetleaf, pigweed, dock, and nettle. I know these plants have their uses and their presence helps the soil. I still want to keep them from choking out my eggplant, tomatoes, and beans.
It’s a revelation to me how extraordinarily easy it is to control weeds this way. Compared to the slow, laborious, plant-by-plant process of hand weeding or hoeing our 1,200 square feet of vegetable gardens, this is like wielding a machine gun. I still need to do close-up weeding around individual plants (which I’m totally ignoring in this August heat) but oh my lord, this is an agent of liberation.
It also, far less pleasantly, changes my relationship with the soil and the plants. Where before I was right there, on my knees, now I’m standing and ruthlessly whacking. Wet green splatters hit my boots and plant shrapnel speckles my peppers, basil, and broccoli. Our garden rows look far more circumscribed and smell like what’s cheerfully called “cut grass” even if it’s quite honestly the smell of plant mutilation. I’ve got mechanized dominion now, despite what the nature world prefers.
After all these years of the most gentle approach possible, I seem to be shedding the hairshirt of idealism that has always made gardening so difficult. It’s pretty obvious that these methods are easier. Much, much easier. But it’s also clear that the method used truly does affect the mindset. I can see the distance made by machines and sprays, even ones considered eco-friendly, right here in my own life. The effect is worth pondering.