The Beauty of a Little Bit of Chaos

Originally published at http://ecoanthropologist.blogspot.com/ on August 3, 2016.

I happened upon a small community garden nestled in the middle of Ballard and marveled at the brilliant blue flax flowers, vibrant nasturtiums, and young zucchinis peeking out from under deep green leaves. I gazed at the small apple tree winding itself around and through a fence at the garden’s entrance. The mulch was soft under my feet, so different from the crunch of the dusty gravel usually under my feet in my gardens in Las Vegas. The air was so full of moisture and the soft filtered sunlight had a quality of making all of the colors brighter, while the intense sun of the Mojave Desert tends to bleach and wash things out.

The contrast is sharp between the effortlessly verdant community gardens of Seattle and the rugged defiance of my gardens in Las Vegas, NV. The nasturtiums I planted here in the Mojave scorched months ago. The work of an Urban Farmer Desert Rat is not an easy one. In the intense heat of the summer it is certainly no joke! The plants and the people must be of a tougher and harder variety. When I see my gardens in all of their comparative lushness in the middle of July I am convinced a miracle has happened. It seems so magical to plant a seed, watch over it, and then be rewarded with beautiful tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, zucchini, and so, so much more! The green spiny leaves with the brown edges represent a battle being won, a fight for life on the edge.

 walter-long-school-garden
A school garden in Las Vegas in the middle of July.

I am amazed I can grow food in such an extreme place. The Mojave is the driest desert in North America and Las Vegas is only a stone’s throw away from Death Valley. We only get 4 inches of rainfall a year. Our summer temperatures easily reach 116 degrees F in the shade. Our UV indexes are in the extreme category and, yet, in the winter we will have days below freezing and every once in a while snow will fall on the valley floor. This is a desert that will not suffer fools; human, plant, or otherwise!

To garden or farm in this desert, ideas about the perfect, beautiful garden must change… these gardens and small farms are rough around the edges and their keepers have dirt under their fingernails! We rain sunblock laced sweat onto the soil! My gardens are the one place I let go of control and perfection because I know in order to get the best production I have to let the plant be a plant and do what it needs to do. I am not in charge here! I let the plant do its thing and I just give it the support and help it needs. If I want cucumbers I had better be willing to let it spread out to its heart’s content. Attempts to maintain strict control will give you a smaller yield and could stress the plant; attracting disease and pests. Zucchini doesn’t care about the borders of a raised bed and will happily sprawl over the edge, but the reward is usually more zucchini than you know what to do with! Small cherry tomatoes grow best here and being indeterminate they will happily sprawl and grow and cover the ground. I have seen many attempts to cage and corral these beasts; resulting in huge plant towers and then crushed cages and broken stakes. The exposed fruits are scorched by the sun, eaten by the birds, and the leaves crisped. The thing about these tomatoes is if you let them spread out, they will create new roots along their stems which make it easier to transport water and nutrients throughout the plant; resulting in more tomatoes. The leaves will shade and hide the fruits from predators. It may seem messier, but the plant is healthier!

So many people have images in their heads of immaculate, controlled, orderly gardens but I am learning that a slightly messy vegetable garden is a very productive garden. The plants, the soil, and the entire garden ecosystem benefits from this slight wildness and little bit of chaos. It reminds me of how much people love pristine mountain lakes not realizing they are dead lakes… while a thriving, living, and biodiverse lake is a messy and sometimes scummy lake. If these gardens on the edge of the harshness of this desert are teaching me anything it is that life doesn’t flourish under strict order and control. Life is not pristine perfection. Life is a little bit ‘messy’!

We need to recognize as a society that our attempts to control nature and make her perfect are not in the best interests of life on this planet. We need to realize that the controlled gardening of our grandparents isn’t necessarily the best way to grow food. In fact, many of our agricultural practices and traditions, particularly in the west, haven’t been developed with the goal of using the same piece of land for thousands of years. Our model has been to use up and area and then move on to the next. Our goal has been to dominate and control our plants instead of working with and helping our plants flourish.

Our climate is becoming more extreme and we need to experiment and try new things with the aim of sustainability and growing food on a piece of land for the next thousand years. We need to re-evaluate our ideas of perfection and messy. We need to learn to let our plants be plants and do what they do best.

We need to see the beauty in a little bit of chaos.

Sources and Further Reading:

Macy, Joanna and Molly Brown. (2014). Coming Back to Life. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island, BC Canada.

Pollan, Michael. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. The Penguin Press: New York.

Pollan, Michael. (1991). Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Grove Press: New York.

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