Secret Garden

Little sisters — corn, bean, squash

I did some good gardening yesterday, although I’m not sure it would count as farming. Yes, I did plant: lettuce, bok choy, Brussels sprouts, corn, beans, butternut squash, Thai basil, sunflowers, catnip, and two trees — avocado and apricot. But is planting whatever you feel like, more or less whenever you feel like it, actually farming — or is it yet-still-further re-enforcing rampant consumerism through the pursuit of instant gratification?
 
 My current feeling is that it’s only consumerism if, paradoxically, you don’t consume what you grow. If you’re just growing stuff to say, look at me, I can grow stuff, then maybe your aesthetic could use a tweak. And when I say you, I definitely mean me.
 
 This is all a good example of how I talk to myself while gardening. Fortunately, Lilly came outside to keep me company towards the end of the day’s labors. I pointed out that the apricot is an especially merry-looking tree, with leaves that float and twinkle. 
 
 “If it’s so beautiful, why are you planting it back here?” Lilly asked intelligently.
 
 “Because this is the secret garden, and it’s got to have some good secrets.” The secret garden is on the side of our house, sequestered by a front and side fence as well as a thicket of pittosporum. It’s really an orchard, with three apple and two plum trees already thriving. The avocado has two neighbors in the front yard for mutual pollination. The new tree looks like it means business, already pushing forth pollin-y tendrils. If we could become self-sufficent in avocados, that would be a real grow-your-own achievement. The challenge here is that backyard avocados are notoriously watery. We will have to get good at growing guacamole-caliber fruit. It’s within our capability to grow our own. I know because two years ago, we made hard cider from the apples. Last year we mainly let the harvest go, which means we’re batting .500 in terms of insidious consumerism vs. benign eco-kindness.
 
 Certain crops have a symbolic value beyond their nutrional value. For example, the Brussels sprouts were Lilly’s suggestion. She said, “I love Brussels sprouts,” and that was good enough for me, even though she is not going to be here to enjoy them. She will be in Chicago, developing her life aesthetic. Meanwhile, the Brussels sprouts can remind me of her. For Claire, who worries about the two cats getting attention while she finishes at Berkeley, I planted two clusters of catnip. And the apricot tree made Stephanie smile an I-got-what-I-really-wanted-for-Channukah smile. I am so glad to be able to induce that sensation within her.
 
 As for me, I am pleased by the corn-bean-squash symbiosis. That is the staple diet of indigenous people in North America; the pinnacle of 10,000 years of agricultural experimentation. It only took me an hour, but I honored the indigenous tradition by singing “Cortez the Killer” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse in my head. The “Three Sisters” system of agriculture goes more or less like this: corn for carbs, beans for protein, squash for overall veggie goodness. The trio also provides mutual physical support: corn to support bean vines; beans to fix nitrogen in the soil; squash to spread big prickly leaves that shade out weeds and keep out pests. 
 
 If they don’t prosper, it won’t be for want of soil amendments. I added worm castings for nitrogen and greensand for aeration to a mix of chicken manure and compost that had already been settling in. This could either be showing due respect for the soil or another example of rampant consumerism, since after all I did buy all that stuff — except the compost, which is home-decomposed. 
 
 I think the bottom line is that what we’ve got going on in our backyard could be a farm if we show integrity. Wikipedia says a farm is an area of land dedicated to food production. What counts is not the vastness of the spread or even the strategic nature of cultivation. What matters is eating what we grow.

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