Nature vs. Nurture, or Nature IS Nurture?
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
I used to be so obsessed with being the perfectionist gardener, that in hind-sight, I think I was actually molding myself into the most imperfect gardener instead.
I have read so many blogs, forums, books, and online publications about the 'Do's and Don't' of gardening, so I created this mindset that I had to follow all of these steps in order to be successful, but in the last 3 years, my mindset has slowly shifted, and this summer is the first time I have thrown all of my old ways out the window to try a new approach: Let nature nurture.
Over the last 2 years, I have taken a deep dive down the rabbit hole that is regenerative agriculture, as many of you know that keep up with my blog, Facebook, and Instagram platforms. The big idea around this practice is to keep a healthy micro soil environment, and a healthy macro environment that contributes to, and compliments the micro soil environment. Regenerative agriculture works off natural biological processes that allows a self-sufficient ecosystem to thrive.
When we moved to this new farm, only 2 short months ago, I was anxiously awaiting the discovery of all new things that would sprout on this land. As spring is slowly shifting to summer, I am finding so much life. We have gorgeous flower gardens that surround the house, many perennial foods that inhabit the garden space, and a cluster of fruit trees, that I have named 'The Orchard'.
If you take 5 minutes and think about all of the food and life that is already growing here, you start to ask yourself questions.
"Why is everything flourishing so well?"
"Why doesn't the garden have a fence around it?"
"Why does the grass grow so high around the asparagus patch?"
"Why are there so many random greens growing in awkward spots in the flower gardens, that are off-shoots of larger, established plants?"
I have spent a lot of time observing the new world around me and realizing that there are simple answers to all of these questions, and it all boils down to the nature of it (no pun intended): Nature IS Nurture.
Everything is flourishing so well because the perennials have all taken deep roots, and have thrived through the harshest weather conditions, and with each new year they become a little bit stronger. It has been over a year since anyone had lived in this farm, and even though there have been no people to nurture these plants, they have continued to sprout, grow, flower, bloom, and produce food because they are a smaller part of a bigger ecosystem at work. Observe my farm for 5 minutes and you will see it teaming with birds, insects, and livestock!
The chickens scratch the soil in the gardens to naturally aerate it, while dropping poop to fertilize and give nutrients. The insects pollinate the flowers which causes fruit and vegetables to take form. The birds eat the seeds, disperse the seeds, and poop them out into a nature made "seed pod starter". When you think about all of the moving pieces, you realize that Mother Nature cares for these things all on her own.
The garden has no fence because this side of the farm offers zero protection from rodents that love gardens. The vegetable garden runs adjacent to the farmer's crop field, and the cattle pasture. The space is wide open, with no vegetation cover for rodents to hide. There is a reason why the previous owners never put a fence in.
My conclusion on why the grass grows so thick around the asparagus patch is simple, a symbiotic relationship. I believe the grass and asparagus may have formed a mutualistic symbiotic relationship over time. A symbiotic relationship means that 2 or more biological entities have some type of relationship in their biological process. A mutualistic relationship means that 2 entities compliment one other, or both benefit from a give-and-take relationship.
My thought is that the grass provides ground cover for the asparagus, meaning the grass helps to shield the asparagus spears from the sun, rain, wind, and helps hide it from potential predators. The asparagus has no shoots or leaves to provide this protection, so that is where the grass comes in. Also, I have a hard time finding the asparagus spears sometimes because the grass does such a great job of camouflaging it. The grass benefits from the stored energy from the asparagus. Asparagus is a huge power plant. It can take asparagus up to 3 years to begin producing and to establish a sustainable network because it spends its first few years just storing energy. I believe the asparagus stores additional energy that it provides to the grass in payment for its protection.
Pretty cool stuff, ey? As crazy as this may sound to some people, these are some of the fundamental building blocks to a biological ecosystem (and yes, I spent 2 semesters of my college career solely learning about micro and macro ecosystems).
To answer my last question, the perennials are doing so well, that they have expanded and started sprouting and budding off new plants. The root structures have anchored so well into the soil that they expand and new stems and shoots can form and look like separate plants. Just think about it for a minute...if the root structures expand under the soil, they increase their capacity to hold nutrients, but in order for the plant to fully use these nutrients, they need to metabolize them. Plants metabolize (breakdown) their macro nutrients by the process of photosynthesis (generally speaking). So, in order to increase their ability to efficiently photosynthesize, they need to expand their above-soil surface area to obtain more sunlight through their chloroplasts. Plants do this by growing new stems and leaves.
So, after I came to all of these realizations. I have decided to stop all of the old, conventional ways of gardening that I have read about and been told that it is the right way to do things. I am not saying these ways are wrong, because for some people they are absolutely right, but I am saying that they are wrong for me and my land.
I no longer use weed paper. I used to spend hours covering the garden in weed paper and staking it down. Sure, it works well, but I have found that not using it requires half the work, it is more environmentally friendly to not use it, and it has the same outcomes. Last year, I took a weed-whacker between the rows of crop and kept the weeds short, but allowed it to grow to provide ground cover. I have talked about this in previous blog posts, but exposed soil can create very bad and damaged soil. As long as the weeds do not overtake the garden and choke out the vegetable crop, I am perfectly fine with them staying.
I no longer feel the need to till until the soil looks like a chisel-plowed field. I used to go through 3-4 rounds of tilling, then raking, then laying weed paper, then cutting holes in the weed paper and planting juvenile plants that were already started, then continuing to weed what the weed paper did not prevent growth on, and repeat. I tilled the garden once this spring, because the soil has not been worked in at least a year, and maybe more. I wanted to give it a fresh stir and then let the bugs, birds, and chickens work at it for a few days before I planted.
Going back to the idea of birds dispersing seeds through their poop. Do you think the bird gets out the rototiller and tills up a nice spot before if defecates the seeds out? Probably, not. The seeds just take root and grow, so why does gardening have to be so different?
I would say one of my biggest lessons learned was 2 years ago when I turned a bedroom of my old farmhouse into a greenhouse. I built a big table and started 500 plants in that room. Yes, 500 plants! I started them around early March when I got the garden itch that needed to be scratched. And just like that, BOOM, all 500 plants took life, and I was beyond excited to put them in the garden. Well, the summer finally came, and everything had about 3-4+ inches of height to it so I planted them. About 1 week later, everything besides a few pea plants were dead. ALL 500 PLANTS DIED! I was devastated and felt like the world's worst gardener.
My Father told me from the beginning I would fail. It wasn't that he was being mean or discouraging, he just told me that seeds go straight into the ground, because that is when they become the most hardy and can withstand all weather, and that I need to let the soil do the work. I laughed it off and thought, "well that's not what I read in my garden research, and that is not historically what I have done". So, I decided to learn the hard way, and when that day came that all 500 plants died, my Father calmly repeated again what he initially told me. "Plant the seeds straight into the soil".
That year, I planted bean and squash seeds into the soil, and bought all of the other juvenile plants for the garden. The beans and squash did the best, by far. The squash even came back the next year all on it's own!
I WAS CONVINCED.
This year, Austin and I decided to plant the garden on Easter Sunday, and we did it straight from seeds. Since then, we've had countless inches of rain, about an inch of snow, freezing temperatures and frost, warm days up into the 70's, clouds, and sunshine. And guess what? Everything is starting to sprout and looking extremely healthy, and I didn't have to compromise my sanity to make this happen.
It really is the survival of the fittest. The stronger seeds flourish into healthy plants that produce high quality vegetables. I did not have to interfere and help nurture, or provide synthetic fertilizers or chemicals. They grew and sustained all by themselves. This fall, after my crops have been harvested, and the plants die, I will let the chickens clean up the stalks and eat what they want, and leave the rest of the organic material to decompose into the soil to add more nutrients, and act as ground cover through the winter. When spring rolls around, I will clean up the remainder of the decomposing organic matter, and sow the seeds straight into the soil once again.
I urged everyone in my last blog post to challenge themselves. Challenge your mindset and take a different route of thought and see how that thought forms into a beautiful idea or realization.