One of the last books I read while living in Bolivia was Beyond Organics: Gardening for the Future by Helen Cushing, which is available for FREE from the Soil and Health Library online. As should be expected of books on the cutting edge of agriculture, organics and gardening the author is Australian. While many of the examples in the book are from the Australian context and therefore not as relevant to a North American audience, the overall principles are easily translatable to whatever context you find yourself in.
Probably because of their particular climate and the problems they have had to face long before the rest of us related to changes in climate, drought and other agricultural issues, Australia, the birthplace of permaculture, is often way ahead of the rest of the world in ideas about sustainable agriculture. Beyond Organics is no exception.
It isn’t until the end of the book that Cushing lays out some of the facts about how we treat our yards, but it’s worth sharing up front.
According to the EPA ‘almost 80 million pounds of pesticide-active ingredients are used on US lawns annually’. Also astonishing are these statistics from the US National Wildlife Federation:
- 30 percent of water consumed on the US East Coast goes to watering lawns; 60 percent on the US West Coast.
- The average suburban lawn receives 10 times as much chemical pesticide per acre as farmland.
- More than 70 million tons of fertilisers and pesticides are applied to residential lawns and gardens annually.
- A motorised lawnmower emits 10-12 times as much hydrocarbon as an average car; a brushcutter emits 21 times more; and a leafblower 34 times more.
- Where pesticides are used on lawns, 60-90 percent of earthworms are killed. (196)
These statistics seem much more dire after reading the preceding 195 pages of her book in which she explains what gardens have become and casts her vision for what gardens can be. Cushing takes on the concept of the isolated backyard garden and expands it into a network of havens for species, plants and life to thrive. Her concept is an environmental garden that stretches underneath, around and over the garden fence.
She takes us through the history of organics and gardening showing how gardens evolved into what they are and how we can reorient our ideas around abetter way of thinking and gardening. It’s also a very empowering book as she reminds over and over again that these gardens in our backyards matter. She paints a portrait of the unseen and unnoticed world of our gardens.
There is a whole society of birds, insects, reptiles, mammals who come here to wash, drink, feed, each attracted by the water and also by each other, with some becoming the meals of others. Plus there are the unseen millions, billions, of micro-organisms – the politics of ecology requires that this silent majority are not forgotten. (38)
It is easy to miss the life teeming around us whether we live in the suburbs or the inner city. We tend to focus on what we have been taught to see, the large animals, flowers and aesthetics of our gardens. What we miss is the web of life that makes the whole thing work. The other thing that tricks our minds into thinking badly about our gardens is fences.
The boundaries exist only in the minds of the property owners, where they allow that owner to limit his or her sense of responsibility to the space within those fences. It is easy to think that we don’t have much impact, because our land or garden is not so big. But the biosphere is fenceless, and time is long, longer than the river. The effect on the environment beyond our fence is the combined effect of many individuals over many years, many generations. In the same way, our concept of ecosystem is generally flawed, because it packages them into neat concepts that satisfy our desire to contain and present our understanding, as though ecosystems also have fences. But they don’t. (41)
Maybe your desire for a garden is simply to please your eye (or your neighbor’s eye). Perhaps instead it is to produce more of your food and be a good steward of the environment. Either way we still tend to think of our small gardens in isolation. Cushing pushes us to realize that this is not the reality of the world of biology and ecosystems. Life does not recognize fences or borders. This goes both ways.
There are things we do in our yards that are harmful, using chemicals, planting non-native (or invasive) species or selecting plants for our own aesthetics. Chemicals and seeds do not respect the fences we build. They find their way into other places, our neighbor’s yard and waterways. Our gardens can do great damage, not just by themselves, but along with all the other gardens and gardeners contributing an excess of water and chemicals to our shared environment.
On the other hand, if our garden considers the world beyond our fence and provides habitat for birds and animals, plants for pollinators, insect and other life, then it becomes one strand in an ecological web providing sanctuary for species rapidly losing habitat in many places and food for pollinators, insects and animals that need it. Our gardens can be a force for sustainability, not only as isolated plots trying to carve out an organic, sustainable niche, but as part of an interlocking network of gardens . Cushing describes the environmental garden like this,
The more the plants give in terms of food, shelter, habitat, nutrient cycling, soil stabilising and so on, the more they maximize the garden’s environmental positives. They are a resource for the environment, rather than a sink. If these same plants are low need, that is, virtually independent of you, the ecological profits go up even more. Ecology is based on the economics of nature. The words ecology and economics even have the same Greek root, which is oikos, meaning household. (171)
I was delighted when the author made this connection between economics and ecology. This way of thinking about our little plots of dirt connects them to the greater whole and makes them more important than just “keeping up with the Joneses”. So, as you think about what to do with that plot of dirt, no matter how small, wherever you live, remember that your garden matters. It is part of the web of life and can be a vehicle for transforming our environment.