Monday, April 6, 2009

Working with Nature, a book review and musing

As we head out into our gardens this spring I feel the need to lament the combative perspective so many good people take when it comes to life in the garden.
Some good friends of mine moved out to the country. Land was cleared, a house was built, then a garden, followed by a small pond. The garden attracts rabbits and birds and mice to which vast amounts of netting and cages are engaged in battle. The pond attracts frogs, hungry for clean water in which to lay their eggs. The eggs are unwelcome because the frogs make too much noise.
I live in the city, where apparently even the bees that pollinate our plants are considered technically a "nuisance." That first year in my yard I walked the mostly unmowed space only to have a startled snake scare the breath into me. Now the yard is mowed and I haven't seen, what was probably a very helpful snake, in the five years since. I also have rabbits (perhaps because I no longer have snakes). I enjoy seeing them hop around the yard eating the clover that covers my "lawn." The clover keeps my rabbits happy, butt the lettuces and fresh spring vegetables are always in danger, raised beds and hardware cloth have become my means of defense. Thankfully, I don't have a problem with deer, but what about the slugs, snails, squirrels, raccoons and mice? In my work, I hear complaints about everything from crocus stealing chipmunks to berry stealing Robins.
The life in your soil, is the most valuable resource a gardener has, and it also depends upon all that other 'irritating' life above ground. Earthworms, nematodes, protozoa, arachnids, bacteria, fungus, mollusks and even mammals are all important parts of "the soil food web." Yes, I have been reading a lot about soil lately and the more I read the more I understand just how invaluable each and every life is to our natural environment, including the garden.
One of the two books I am reading right now is Teaming With Microbes by By Jeff Lowenfels, Wayne Lewis, and Elaine Ingham. This book will grab any gardener who dares just to read the preface! With amazing photographs and well written, story like chapters on each of the lifeforms that makes the soil-plant relationship sustainable this book will have you rethinking how you treat your soil and probably cause you to tread a little more lightly. The first half of the book dedicated to filling you in on all that life and all of the very important work it must do. The second half of the book is dedicated to teaching you how to best support that life, via compost, compost teas and much more. Click Here to read on Google Books.

The second book I am finally getting to is Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery. I will refrain from writing too much here since Natalie has already written a wonderful review of this work. I was afraid this book would be too daunting and depressing, but instead I have found it to be so full of amazing information and powerful stories I can hardly put it down. In the midst of developing his main message about the importance of protecting soil as one of our primary life sustaining resources, Montgomery engages you with information on Charles Darwin and the last book of his life (it's on earthworms), why the soil in the worlds tropical regions doesn't support agriculture, what caused the dust bowl of the 1930s, or the interesting question he poses concerning the Mayan, Roman, and Greek civilizations all lasting approximately 1,000 years. Click Here to check it out on Google Books.

For most of us, gardening is a bonus. The loss of a lettuce or summer squash is frustrating for sure, and when times are tight it is even more upsetting, but it is my opinion that finding ways to live with all the other life out there is more important than the loss of your ornamental holly berries, or the occasional tomato. As angry as it makes us to see that fruit with just one bite taken out, how many of those fruits do we to often let rot on the vine or on the ground below? Perhaps on some sunny day, we can pause to enjoy the garden and a good book, take a break from our garden warfare and pause to think about how to better live in harmony with all those 'pests,' and to nurture the soil life, and garden life that in the end nurtures all of us.

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