Some people repeat Ralph W. Emerson, saying “A weed is a plant whose virtues remain undiscovered.” But although I appreciate that many weeds do have virtues, I doubt that many gardeners would accept that definition as the final word. Most of us have had extensive experience with Bindweed, Thistle, Goathead, Ragweed, Dandelion and Cheat Grass; not to mention some aggressive natives like Whiplash Daisy, Wood’s Rose and Hairy Goldenaster; and certain herbs like mints, Comfrey and Sweet Grass. So in talking about managing weeds non-toxically, the main point seems to be: How can we keep certain plants under control?
“Where can I get some good topsoil?” That’s a question I hear frequently at our nursery. And I often look wistfully towards the plains and say, only half-jokingly, “You can get good topsoil about 800 miles east of here.” That’s where I grew up, in Iowa, and where two tomato plants feed a family of six. It’s not that local suppliers are trying to deceive us when they sell Colorado clay as topsoil; it’s just that the glaciers didn’t dump three feet of loam on top of our clay.
A newer science that’s not tied to petroleum profits is emerging to challenge the industrial approach to agriculture and gardening. Enormously powerful, politically connected giants like Monsanto, Bayer, and Dupont will continue to make money, but after 60 years of dominance, the “Better Living Through Chemistry” model can no longer hide its fatal flaws. Mountains of evidence now point to the downside of chemical agriculture: poisoning the earth, driving global climate change, causing major health problems, killing pollinators, destroying the life of the soil. The good news is that a more long-range, wholistic view called Biological Agriculture and Gardening is starting to take its place.
This “new” method is based on an entirely different paradigm or model of plant culture. Instead of the bellicose mentality that birthed the pesticide-fungicide-herbicide and chemical fertilizer approach, the biological approach taps the same cooperative relationships that Nature herself has long employed successfully for survival and sustainability. Instead of seeing bacteria as germs, fungi as diseases, and insects and weeds as pests, the biological model sees Nature as brilliantly creative and diverse, and basically good. The scientific truth is that few insects, bacteria and fungi are harmful; most are beneficial or essential to plant development, plant health, and subsequently for human health.
Four years ago I was among the group of Boulder County residents who were asking to ban GMOs on our publically-owned farm lands. The Commissioners at that time voted to add GMO Sugar Beets to the already approved GMO corn, but they also increased the acreage of land to be used for organic agriculture and agreed to take another look at neonicotinoid use if there was new evidence. There is now new evidence on GMOs, Roundup that is used on 80% of GMOs and on neonicotinoids linked to the death and weakening of all our insects, including bees.
So in 2011, in order to find out if there were practical non-toxic options to manage larger pieces of farm land (like 200-300 acres), I traveled to Ohio to an Acres USA Conference. Attending that conference were over a thousand farmers and ranchers. ACRES has been guiding eco-agriculture for 45 years now; the last conference I had attended was in 1977. I met farmers and attended talks by farmers who were managing 100-1000 acres without GMOs and without toxic chemicals.
A New Model for the 21st Century
A newer science that is not tied to petroleum profits is emerging to challenge the industrial approach to agriculture and gardening. Of course, the enormously powerful and politically connected corporate giants like Monsanto, Bayer and Dupont will continue to make money, but after 60 years of dominance, the “Better Living Through Chemistry” model can no longer hide its fatal flaws. Mountains of evidence now point to the effects of chemical agriculture: poisoning the earth, driving global climate change, causing major health problems, killing pollinators and destroying the life of the soil. The good news is that a more long-range, wholistic view is starting to take its place. This new approach is being called Biological Agriculture and Gardening.
It has been suggested that this period of the 21st Century might well be called The Age of Biology, because the biggest challenges will be biological and the biggest breakthroughs will be in the realm of biology.
In this article, we will continue the discussion from the last issue on Biological Agriculture and Gardening, but this time going into specifics of biological thinking, biological discoveries and applications that improve plant and food success with biological solutions.
Food safety is one of the most critical issues of our time. What we eat is directly related to our health, and health care has a direct impact on our personal and national economies. Major chemical companies like Monsanto, Bayer, Dow and Dupont have introduced 86,000 synthetic chemicals into our environment, food, drugs, cosmetics etc and most of them have never been tested for toxic effects on human health and the environment. Since the mid 1990s, some of these same companies have been filling our grocery stores and feed stores with genetically engineered food products which may be causing serious health problems but are being approved by our government without safety testing.
Most of us were taught that gardening is about control, about battling unruly, ravenous nature to succeed with our objectives. And a very complex and prosperous industry sprang up in the late 1940s to provide us with the power and weapons to meet those expectations. Petroleum products from World War II chemical weapons, defoliants and bombs were reformulated to solve our plant problems and feed the world. These chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides have now had 50-60 years to show that this aggressive, heartless and poisonous approach has failed. Foods with little nutritional value and a polluted world are inspiring a strong international movement toward sustainability.
How can we deal with all the bugs and diseases without using toxic poisons, and how can our gardens really produce without high-powered chemical fertilizers? Many people wanting to garden sustainably are asking these questions. And it is not easy to find the answers, partly because the answers are not simple. I want to admit this up front, but don’t be scared off, because it’s not that hard to garden sustainably once you get the hang of it. However you must know that you can’t just exchange a slam-bam chemical approach for a slam-bam sustainable approach.
The key to minimal maintenance and a low input approach is Gardening Without Fear. The solution to gardening without fear is twofold: being empowered to garden successfully and being relaxed and tolerant. If we are fearful, we will react to every little problem, worry and criticize ourselves. Then we might seek an immediate solution like some poison.
We have been guided to believe that we need these petroleum products by companies that sell them. In fact, these products weaken the support systems of plants and make them more vulnerable to diseases, pests and drought. The truth is—we don’t need them.
Last month we raised the issue of invasive introduced plants and the idea of being responsible gardeners who respect our native habitat and make an effort to not release invasive plants into the wild. We began with obvious noxious weeds that are having strong negative impacts on our native populations of plants and animals. This month again I am profiling weeds which have been declared as noxious, but this time a question is beginning to arise about under what circumstances are some of the less aggressive weeds invasive? In other words, is it possible that we might find a middle way that guides us strictly with the truly harmful invasives and more leniently with the less aggressive and more useful weedy plants? These are questions I am asking myself and will be asking in future interviews. We also welcome your views on this issue.
In February 2000 President Clinton established the National Invasive Species Council. Agriculture secretary Dan Glickman, Commerce Secretary William Daley and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt were asked to work together on a plan to minimize the economic, ecological and human health impact of invasive plants and animals not native to the US. The executive order on Invasive Species directs federal agencies to prevent the introduction of invasive species, to control populations of such species in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner, to monitor populations, restore native species, conduct research and promote public education on invasive species.
One of the hot subjects in horticulture these days is the issue of the invasiveness of introduced plants. Since they did not evolve here, they lack natural enemies, and whereas most are harmless, some have engulfed vast areas of wilderness, national forests, range and farm lands. This has led some people to campaign for “natives only” and others to attack the introduction of new plants as an ecological nightmare. In response to these attacks some in the plant industry have dismissed these fears as invalid over-reactions. As Colorado gardeners, most of us can be both excited by new plant introductions that are well-adapted to Colorado conditions, and feel very protective of our natural ecosystem and our native plants. In a series of articles, we hope to uncover some truths regarding these issues and to educate ourselves about how to work with this situation in a constructive manner.
The forgotton greenhouse gas and how it relates to growing plants
Nitrogen is one of the most essential nutrients for plants. Nitrogen is required for building amino acids, DNA and RNA, in stimulating growth, supporting health and is a critical ingredient in chlorophyll, the chemical needed for photosynthesis. In our gardens, when nitrogen is lacking, plants are small and yellow, and roots do not perform well. In Colorado, almost all our soils are deficient in nitrogen and organic matter. So we gardeners often add fertilizers and composts to our soils.
You may have noticed that the word “sustainability” is cropping up frequently these days. What does this word mean?, and why is it suddenly so popular? The word “sustainability” naturally means: the ability to sustain or to endure through time. And why is this idea so relevant to gardening, farming, economics, foreign policy, trade agreements, water use and automobile and product design? I think it is because the world can no longer ignore the reality of our earth’s limits. We humans have been going through a long adolescent period and now it is getting harder and harder to ignore the necessity of growing up and taking responsibility for our actions, and for the entire earth’s children. We have been burning our candle at both ends, acting like there’s no tomorrow, assuming our resources would last forever, thinking there is place called “away” where we could throw the waste and poisons of our expedient solutions. We have put cheap products and fast profits ahead of real essential values.
I used to be prejudiced against grasses because I associated grasses with the American monoculture of Kentucky Bluegrass that we all know as “the lawn”. But after testing many kinds of xeriscape plants for over 20 years I finally realized that most sustainable ecosystems have grasses mixed with the other plants. And I also came to appreciate that grasses are strongly self-replicating and that they can be more easily grown from seed than most perennials, so that installation and maintenance costs could be much less. I still think low-water shrubs and Colorado-adapted perennials have an essential place in a sustainable landscape, but I have been wondering how grasses could fit in. Of course Piet Oudolf and Kurt Bluemel have shown the potential for using grasses in a garden, but their examples look well watered and seem like they would be high maintenance. The prairie model so successful in Wisconsin and the Midwest focuses on tall-grass prairie that is out of place here, and so I have been wondering how grasses could be used in a Colorado-sustainable landscape.
GMO has become a dirty word and a symbol for Monsanto’s corporate control over our health. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the result of slamming DNA (genetic material) from one organism with the DNA of another, yielding altered characteristics. The bizarre results are discarded and the profitable ones, like being unaffected by the herbicide Roundup, are reproduced. Current approved GMO crops include Roundup Ready corn, soybeans, canola and this year, sweet corn. The advantage with these crops is that a farmer can have easy perfect weed control, by spraying the whole field with the herbicide Roundup, killing the weeds but not the crop.