Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Small town agriculture

Lately I've been consumed with getting our garden going. We bought a house with an enormous, flat, treeless lot in November; the previous owners had rigged up a rather Byzantine sprinkler system to keep the huge plot of land green with grass. Of course, where we live is a desert climate with very little rainfall (and dwindling water resources); having an enormous plot of green grass seemed wasteful and prohibitively expensive.

I've always been interested in gardening (likely owing to my rural Midwestern roots; my grandparents still put up a half-acre vegetable garden, fill the root cellar and can for the winter), and particularly, organic gardening (very much out of line with my upbringing). I did a lot of reading and constructed some large raised beds and layered them with soil and lots of compost. Now that we are in the heat of the summer, I get it. I use very little water for the garden, owing to the water retaining properties of the compost. In Texas I had a normal garden plot and spent the summer watering everything all the time-- sometimes twice a day. Here, it is drier and hotter, and things are good with a nice soaking every ten days or so. This is why citrus does so well in these parts-- the 13 citrus trees I planted like to be deeply watered very infrequently.

The point of this post isn't to talk about my garden; rather, to talk about some of the interesting reading I've been doing. I've also been thinking about the point of gardening-- heretofore, I have planted vegetables because they just taste better than anything you can buy in the store. Using the right seeds, the difference is amazing. Most commercially available cultivars are bred for things like slow ripening (to make long truck trips), thick skins (to withstand mechanical picking), and resistance to certain diseases (which may or may not be a factor in different parts of the country). Heirloom varieties, especially those that have been long-cultivated in particular geographic regions, have been selected for things that home gardeners like-- yield, resilience to local climate and local diseases, flavor, texture, quick maturity, etc. Of course, knowing how and with what amendments your vegetables are grown is a huge benefit.

On a whim, I read Steve Solomon's book Gardening when it Counts. This is a really fascinating read; the book explains how to very, very cheaply produce a bulk of your food yourself. It is aimed at reclaiming something of the subsistence farming of the past. I can only imagine that this book has seen a spike in popularity throughout the unfolding of the financial crisis this year, not to mention the run-up in commodities prices last year.

Edward Smith's The Vegetable Gardener's Bible is one book that I have relied on a great deal. It outlines a method for organically producing healthy, high-yield vegetable gardens year-round (the guy lives in Vermont and has something fresh for harvest every month). The guy is a real garden dork-- something of the Alton Brown of the organic gardening world.

I'm a big fan of Rosalind Creasy-- she's something of a rock star in the gardening world. I highly reccomend her book The Complete Book of Edible Landscaping. Since the 70's, she's been on an apostolic mission to convince Americans to plant more edible plants in their yards. She argues that our infatuation with non-edible ornamental plants stems from a European aristocratic notion that one grows ornamental plants to prove that one has a certain amount of money; that is, enough that edible plants needn't be grown out of necessity. This is socially coded, even though it makes little sense, especially given how easy and beautiful edible landscaping can be. You can also hear an interview with her on American Public Media's The Splendid Table from a few weeks ago. She also has a great website with some beautiful photographs.

Perhaps the greatest tract I have read is Joseph Jenkins' Humanure Handbook, the undisputed canonical text of composting human waste for agricultural purposes. Even better, this book is available for free via PDF download here. It is a fascinating read, chock full of science, history, and some really funny shit (pun, of course, intended). Composting any kind of manure (be it human or animal waste from factory farms) creates something beneficial to agricultural-- compost. Uncomposted, large quantities of waste serve as a significant pollutant and breeding pool for disease. In one section, Jenkins writes about the difference in cultural practices regarding human waste. In Europe at the time of the Plague, waste and poor sanitation contributed to pestilence, while in many Asian countries, the people used humanure for agriculture and avoided the same kinds of large-scale disease outbreaks. As he writes:

Perhaps the reason the Asian countries have such large populations in comparison to Western countries is because they escaped some of the pestilences common to Europe, especially pestilences spread by the failure to responsibly recycle human excrement. They presumably plowed their manure back into the land because their spiritual perspectives supported such behaviors. Westerners were too busy burning witches and Jews with the church's whole-hearted assistance to bother to think about recycling humanure.

Of course, I can't really vouch for the accuracy of the history here, but it does give pause for thought. Plus, the book has some cool designs for toilets that reclaim humanure.

This has been some interesting reading, and extremely helpful and influential with my own garden. Missing from my list are books about urban container gardening-- I know there are some good ones out there, and many people produce amazing things on balconies and apartment rooftops. Green roofs, especially edible green roofs, ought to be standard on large construction projects. Though my goal isn't to survive the complete collapse of the economy by growing my own food, I would like to produce a critical mass of it in a few years' time. I have a lot of space and a lot of garden-- almost 40 tomato plants, a dozen varieties of peppers, and a host of other things in somewhat large quantities. In any event, the feeling of producing and controlling the content of one's food is a good feeling-- not to mention that eating stuff is better than looking at (and mowing) grass.