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Garden religion

Helen McKerral

Helen McKerral

May 2, 2012

Last blog we considered plant diet, and the plethora of available products. New gardeners have every right to feel bamboozled, not just by the products, but by the implication that they should be following one or another particular approach. As we saw, human diets in developed countries vary with culture, religion and belief systems, with the latter diversifying diet still further, so people may be vegetarian for ethical, environmental or health reasons, or any combination of them. Similarly, all gardeners eventually adopt an approach to gardening somewhere along a philosophical and practical spectrum that encompasses where and how they grow plants, and how they manage pests and diseases.

Definitions on the internet are problematic, but in this case perfectly illustrate my point. Take a look at the variety of definitions of some of the following garden philosophies:


Web definition:

• A method of gardening where all materials used in the garden come from natural sources and [are] not chemically produced by man.

• The method of gardening utilising only materials derived from living things. (i.e. composts and manures)

• A term for ways of raising plants without using chemical fertilisers or pesticides.


Web definition

• Coined in the 1970s by Australian Bill Mollison: “a beneficial assembly of plants and animals in relation to human settlements, mostly aimed towards household and community self reliance, and perhaps as a ‘commercial endeavour’ only arising from a surplus from the system.”

• The development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient

• A form of horticulture concentrating on purposefully creating an ecosystem relying on established knowledge of inter-plant relationships


Web definition

• Biodynamic agriculture is a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasising balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, animals as a self-nourishing system without external inputs insofar as this is possible …

• an organic gardening or farming method with a spiritual tinge, using a holistic approach to the soil, plants and animals as a unified ecological system. …

• This farming is based on the same principles as organic farming and while organic and bio-dynamic are similar in that they are grown free from chemicals, biodynamic goes one step further…


Web definition

• The use of all appropriate techniques of controlling pests in a co-ordinated manner that enhances, rather than destroys, natural controls. If pesticides are part of the program, they are used sparingly and selectively so as not to interfere with natural competitors.

• The co-ordinated use of knowledge about pests, the environment, and pest prevention and control methods to prevent unacceptable levels of pest infestation and damage by the most economical means while minimising hazards to people, property, and the environment.

• A mixture of chemical and other, non-pesticide, methods to control pests.


Web definition

Agricultural astrology is a type of electional astrology that advises the planting, cultivating and harvesting of crops based on moon phases and astrological signs.


Web definition

• Sustainable gardening … comprises a disparate group of horticulture interests that share, to a greater or lesser extent, the aims and objectives associated with the international post-1980s sustainable development and sustainability programs developed to address the fact that humans are now using natural biophysical resources faster than they can be replenished by nature. Included within this compass are those home gardeners… that [sic] integrate environmental, social and economic factors in an attempt to create a more sustainable future. Organic gardening and the use of native plants are integral to sustainable gardening.

I’ve called this blog entry “religion” because many gardeners believe passionately in their own approach. Often, this belief is based on faith, not science; often, people try to convert others to their own approach and are intolerant of others’ beliefs; often, you’ll find a spectrum of believers within each philosophy, ranging from extremists to moderates to those who never attend church at all. You’ll also find sceptics, agnostics and atheists!

But the definitions also indicate there’s much overlap between approaches. Since Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ and the beginning of the environmental movement, basic theories of gardening, like the basic tenets of respect for human life and kindness to others held by all moderates in all mainstream religions, now also apply to gardening in the form of treading lightly (or as lightly as possible) on the earth.

Like most other gardeners, I have my own philosophy, which falls somewhere between integrated pest management, permaculture, sustainability and organic gardening. I really admire the passionate public faces of various gardening approaches because, without them, there would be no new ideas, change or improvements to the mainstream. But I’m afraid I’m one of those annoying fence-sitters who refuses to commit fully to any one philosophy, and who instead cherry-picks what I hope are the best bits from each.

For example, in my garden, I

• grow native plants, recycle, compost and re-use for sustainability;

• minimise (but don’t exclude) the use of highly concentrated manufactured fertilisers;

• use almost no insecticides (‘organic’ or ‘chemical’, and always the least toxic option; some ‘organic’ chemicals like derris dust are more toxic than many ‘chemical’ pesticides)

• use only organic fungicides, rarely and sparingly (cultural prevention is preferable),

• use herbicides rarely… and only via spot spraying or cut-and-swab, only in preparing the new area, and no longer at all in the old garden

• plant using the microclimate principles of permaculture

• improve soil following organic principles, and so on. I’m 95%-98% organic in my practices, but a truly organic gardener by definition requires 100% compliance.

I’m looking forward to applying BD500 and BD 501, the biodynamic soil conditioners, although, again, I’m far from a biodynamic gardener. Burying cow manure in cow horns for a certain time, then agitating it in water, and sprinkling it onto soil in the late afternoon or at night, is based on Rudolph Steiner’s teachings and may sound like voodoo to many… but it also makes scientific sense when it’s viewed as a microbial soil inoculant, activated in highly oxygenated water and then applied when the sterilising effect of sunlight is minimised. My interpretation of BD500’s action, and my cherry-picking from what is intended as a holistic approach, may offend some practitioners, but so be it. At worst, BD500 won’t improve my soil. That wouldn’t mean it doesn’t work, it would only mean it didn’t work in my garden (either because I haven’t incorporated additional components of biodynamics, or for other reasons). However, many years ago I saw the unmistakable improvements BD500 and BD501 made to a relative’s dairy farm, so I’m open-minded and optimistic.

I applied another soil inoculant, Go-Go juice, to the new garden area this morning; I’m considering biochar as well. The one belief I won’t incorporate is lunar planting… but then I don’t believe in astrology, either.

I’m also ambivalent about the term ‘chemical’, used pejoratively in many gardening circles. But everything, organic or otherwise, is comprised of ‘chemicals’. Inappropriately-applied, highly-concentrated organic fertilisers, like fresh chicken manure, burn plant roots and kill soil fauna as effectively as manufactured fertilisers. Avoiding chemicals is impossible, and chemicals, as a group, are not inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’, although individual chemicals may be harmful or beneficial depending on how they’re used.

So what’s the point of this blog if it’s not to throw my weight behind any one philosophy? Well, just that, actually.

In the past, average home gardeners just got stuck in and did it. Today, in my opinion, there’s often an unspoken implication that you’re a sinner if you don’t follow a certain gardening philosophy. Customers come into the nursery where I work and guiltily, apologetically, ask for glyphosate, or a ‘sledgehammer’ pesticide that requires just one application. It’s as if they’re buying an illegal substance, or asking for magazines in plain brown wrappers from under the counter! Sometimes, it’s appropriate to encourage softer (or no) control options, but other times customers are elderly, frail, or time poor. Sometimes they have their hearts set on a product and it’s pointless recommending anything else because it’s a matter of faith or culture – “Dad always used it”. Even if my scientific knowledge were infallible (ho-ho, far from it, very far from it indeed!), if science is not the determining factor in the customer’s decision-making, my opinion is irrelevant.

As Marcelle noted, many organically-inclined gardeners buy organic products that aren’t technically so (eg synthetic pyrethroid ‘Pyrethrum spray’) or products that are based on organic materials but which have manufactured chemicals added. The confusion isn’t helped by manufacturers who are sneaky with their labelling.

So what’s the point of this blog? Of course I’m presenting and defending my own gardening philosophy – it’s inherent even (or especially) in blogs like the last one, ‘Diet‘ – and readers will variously agree, disagree or not care. But I hope that some will cherry-pick ideas that suit them, or re-think their own approaches, just as I do when I read others’ blogs, articles and books. All of us gardeners develop over time, fine-tuning our skills and techniques to suit our personal situation. Thankfully, none of us spring fully-formed from any gardening guru’s brow!

I hope to encourage gardeners in their pursuit, however they’re pursuing it, not to brow-beat them onto another path. Maybe some will be persuaded to take a different fork in the road but, if not, the important thing is that gardeners are inspired and supported. With the walls of so many houses nowadays touching property boundaries, outdoor “rooms” of paving and bricks, and many children unable to identify the provenance of cotton as animal or vegetable, surely any road that encourages gardeners to keep going, via whatever route, is a positive goal.

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