Get Out of the Way

All too often, farmers’ and gardeners’ hubris actually cause their gardens harm.

by Rick Gush
urban cornfield

Photo by Rick Gush

This “cornfield” in Italy is growing in a tiny space between a parking lot and a building.

The photo to the right carries a message for us urban farmers: Be humble, and every once in a while, admit that the best agricultural practice is just to get out of the way.

A common foible farmers and gardeners have is that we begin to feel omnipotent, as if everything that happens in the garden is the result of our own hard work. The reality is that it just ain’t so. We are merely infinitesimally small specks in the great parade that is nature. Sometimes we can force things and make it look like we’re getting our way; I think that’s one reason why we like to plant our crops in straight rows, just because straight rows seemingly demonstrate our power over the crops. But we are not the boss.

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Shown is a pair of corn plants that decided to produce ears of corn in a most unlikely place — a crack between a brick wall and an asphalt parking lot; not exactly the well-prepared bed we assume would be the best place to grow corn plants. I doubt the plants were ever watered, fertilized or sprayed with Bacillus thuringiensis to discourage worms. The part that causes the most humility (and amusement) is that I had a number of stunted plants in my own carefully prepared and tended corn patch this year that did not grow nearly as well as these two healthy specimens.

I had a similar experience a few years back when I found a full-grown tomato plant loaded with fruit growing amidst the boulders that line the oceanfront promenade in Rapallo, Italy. There is no visible dirt there; it’s just a bunch of large boulders with bits of seaweed and trash stuck in between the rocks, where waves occasionally splash. Again, that tomato plant was doing considerably better than some of the pampered tomato plants in my own garden.

Maybe we farmers are actually more like the directors and choreographers of a musical show involving pre-school children. Sometimes the little actors will accidentally line up correctly in a row and chirp their lines correctly, but our control is not really the most important part of the program. We usually just have to step back and let things flow as they will and learn to appreciate our lack of control. The things the kids will do on their own are often more charming than all the steps we had rehearsed for them, and the plants in my garden behave in much the same manner. Similarly, we also have little control over when an animal will pay a surprise visit to our gardens. Just this week, we had another visit from a badger. It came in during the night and dug up half the lettuce bed on the top terrace. On the one hand, I am sorry to have lost the little lettuce plants that were only another week or two away from being harvested. But I am also quite excited to know that we still have an animal as exciting as a badger occasionally visiting us.

The badger is a magnificently arrogant beast, not at all afraid of us or our car, and sneers at us casually before walking calmly off into the forest. Badgers are dangerous, and when encountered, should not be approached. The best plan is, once again, just get out of the way.

Read more of Rick’s Favorite Crops »

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