Fit for peasantry?


Fit for peasantry?

Today is Earth Day, the 40th anniversary of this well-intentioned rite, semantically dedicated to the wellbeing of our home planet, Earth. Children seem to take it quite seriously. If it is convenient, their parents go along with whatever plans have been made for the observance by the classroom, after-school program, or scout troop.

The rest of society heaves a big “ho-hum” and looks the other way. Meanwhile political boilerplate rolls off the lips of policy makers, while business-as-usual loots the nation’s assets. The urgency of making today’s profit seems to leave us no scope to search for answers to the equally urgent question: how may we survive tomorrow on a despoiled, tapped-out planet?

Voltaire had it quite right when he recommended resorting to “cultivating one’s own garden” when the screwed-up affairs of state cause people to balk and throw up their hands in consternation. We can cultivate our own gardens and we can learn to do it sustainably. As we do so, we can learn to consider the environmental effects of what we do in the bigger scheme of things.

First, you might want to pay attention to your physical body. I pose the rhetorical “are you fit enough to be a peasant?” often to myself, as I am in the position of doing backbreaking work that women of my age are encouraged to avoid.

Try the following, it may be helpful: Warm up your back; perform Kegel exercises and knee bends; practice balanced shoveling, raking, or stepping up, by periodically alternating from the arm or foot you favor. Learn the trick of maneuvering heavy items into the wheelbarrow or cart, and then using levering pressure to get it upright.

The rhetorical corollary to the first question is: “Are you clever enough to be a peasant?” Today, in addition to being resourceful and thrifty, being clever includes gardening sustainably.

Several generations of upward mobility in America, and escaping “old country” roots, have caused a disdain for peasantry. The disdain has been woven into American culture, except on sentimental occasions when colorful recollections are retrieved. Maybe some peasants were “dumb” (or were kept that way by the elites whom their labor supported), but maybe we underestimate them.

If we could use a time machine to understand the skillful array of knowledge that such a life demanded, we would be impressed by how much resourcefulness, thrift, and industry was required to live and persist that way. Our unfamiliar new twist on that old know-how is permaculture. When you go to set up your garden, really do think about it. Try to acquire skills and do it sustainably.

Produce food, i.e., vegetables and fruit. It is healthy and healthful, challenging, and money-saving. Arrange shrubs and trees to best affect the house’s climate for winter shelter and summer cooling; choose a diverse array to benefit a wide range of life forms. Keep hardscape to a minimum to promote water absorption and minimize run-off. Be water-wise in use and consumption.

The old maxim still applies: Buy good stuff and take good care of it, whether that is investment in vehicles, tools, household goods, or shoes. Reduce, recycle, or minimize consumption. Reduce, eliminate, or transform lawns and the inputs “necessary” to maintain them. Virtually all the biomass, everything your lot or garden generates, can be composted on site. If it is not contaminated with persistent chemical residues, it returns the benefit to the soil and relieves pressure on landfills.

Your garden is your chance to demonstrate your understanding of sustainable goals: reducing energy and resource use, tying up carbon instead of releasing carbon dioxide.

What to Do in the Garden

Rhubarb may be harvested. Cut extra in pieces and freeze them dry on cookie sheets, then package in portion-control bags. Prolong production with dead-heading and compost.

Variable temperatures make setting out tender vegetables risky without provision for protection, and some are just better left inside cold frames, windowsills, or wherever they have been growing, rather than suffer a setback. Peppers and basil particularly come to mind. Pay attention to the seven- or fifteen-day forecast, especially nighttime temperatures.

That said, tender plants like cucumber, melons, and squashes profit from the jump provided by an early start, because they may become well established before the cucumber beetles do.

Do set up drip irrigation in the vegetable garden, or especially patio-growing planters, if you are handy. For the health of the plants and best utilization of water, drip is far preferable to overhead hand watering or using a garden sprinkler. While it used to be something for the pros, now the components of many different brands’ systems are simplified and widely available; they may be connected to rain barrels. Look for those with long UV life.

Put the finishing touches on rose pruning and scratch in two cups of low number organic fertilizer around the base. Pick a calendar day and plan to do this on a monthly basis. Even shrub roses, such as the Austin roses, benefit from some cleanup, although it is true that pruning can be ignored for several seasons. In general, look for canes that are discolored, crossing, or have damaged bark, and prune to a low, outward facing bud. For climbers, prune laterals on strong canes back to the second or third bud, and eliminate spindly growth.

Note congested perennials and bulbs. As soon as flowers are passé, spring flowering bulbs may be lifted, divided, and replanted to expand the display next year. Note iris with few flowers and mark them for division in September. Monarda and other mint family members are great spreaders and do better when renewed by frequent division. Trim or shear ground covers.