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'Holistic' gardening?

Paul Kingsnorth

1st February, 2008

A year ago, my brother, who is probably a better gardener than me (even though he does insist on giving half his land over to mangel-wurzels, whatever they are) gave me a book called "Gardening and Planting by the Moon"

I’d never heard of the author, publisher or, to be honest, the idea of gardening and planting by the moon. The book’s cover promised me ‘higher yields’ and ‘better flavours’, though. ‘Why don’t you give it a try?’ said my brother. ‘You never know – it might even work.’

I still haven’t done it. Every time I see the book I tell myself that I'm going to get started on it next week; get some kind of experimental 'moon plot' up and running, perhaps. It sounds as though it could be quite fun, and it surely has to be worth trying. Yet it never happens. Why not? Mostly because I’m disorganised, and because growing food the more ‘conventional’ way takes up enough time as it is. But also partly, I’m sure, because I’m quite conservative – with a small ‘c’, I hasten to add. Maybe that’s what having an allotment does to you: you inevitably and gradually turn into a grumpy old man in wellies and a donkey jacket, who looks askance at anything new-fangled.

Maybe it’s just a matter of time.

Or maybe it’s just me. Either way, anything that smacks of New Age freakery immediately gets my back giving up. There are no wind chimes on my allotment, no Cree dream-catchers or crystal slug-repellers. I will not wear patchwork trousers and I will not sing to my seedlings – they can get on and grow without it. Good old-fashioned common sense will prevail here. This is the trouble with organic growing. If you’re not careful you can be assailed from all sides by the sort who assume that because you don't use chemical fertilisers you must be a practitioner of Wicca or a professional reiki dog masseuse. Growing food, like so many other areas of life, has become, for some, a blank canvas on to which they can paint their need for spiritual fulfilment. Don’t get me wrong: spiritual fulfilment is, generally, a good thing. If you want to find it by growing carrots in the name of the Mother Goddess, then you should feel free. Just don’t tell me about it.

Take, for example, biodynamic growing. This is a form of agriculture pioneered by Austrian philosopher and weirdo Rudolph Steiner in the 19th century. Biodynamics claims to be ‘founded on a holistic and spiritual understanding of nature’ and to offer ‘a clear and accessible means for attaining spiritual knowledge.’

As such, it already has me running for the bar. Any sentence that contains both the word ‘holistic’ and the word ‘spiritual’ is, in my book, a sentence to be avoided.

Having said this – and guaranteed myself some hate mail – much of biodynamic agriculture is based on practical research and organic good practise: manure preparations, no artificial chemicals, reducing external inputs to a minimum and promoting ecological diversity. Results on the ground are often very good, and plenty of knowledgeable people – including the Ecologist’s biodynamic wine writer Monty Waldin – are prepared to swear by the results.

Unfortunately, there are always some people who want to take things too far. Along they come, with their guff about energy vortices, planting by the horoscope (sigh), harnessing 'cosmic forces’ to improve yields and burying cow horns full of manure naked at full moon (or something). Serious advocates are convinced biodynamics is the solution not only to global hunger, but also to the spiritual poverty of modern life.

Call me repressed, call me closed minded, call me terribly English, but when I go to my allotment I’m not seeking spiritual knowledge. I’m seeking vegetables. And perhaps a bit of fresh air and exercise. But that’s all. I’m not there to unblock my chakras. I haven’t got time. I’ve got to put horse poo on the bean rows. Leave me alone.

But biodynamics is quite conservative these days. On the fringes is some much weirder stuff. Goddess gardening, astrological gardening, New Age gardening. Harnessing the power of ley lines to improve yields. Arranging your broccoli beds according to star charts drawn up especially for you. There is nothing, in this age of pick and mix spiritual fulfilment, that your garden cannot do to help plug that gaping void where God used to be.

There’s nothing more spiritually fulfilling, of course, than laughing at hippies. Yet while it can fill you with a warm sense of self-satisfaction, this energetic dismissal of all things knitted and rainbow-coloured can also sometimes throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because, if I’m being honest, there is more to this growing food lark than simply providing something for the pot. It does nourish more than your stomach. The simple act of spending time outside, surrounded by trees, birds, the odd frog, the wind and, too often, the rain, is a welcome reminder of the real world that persists beyond office and computer terminal. Monks have long viewed gardening as a form of meditation, and I can see why: it unclutters the mind wonderfully. Japanese Zen monks have been making spiritual gardens for millennia and no-one laughs at them. Not to their faces, anyway.

So perhaps it’s all about striking a balance; about keeping your mind open to new approaches while employing an intelligent scepticism to filter out the woolly bilge. Take growing by the moon, for example: it seems that the principle behind it is not esoteric after all – it’s based on the long-noted influence of the moon on water on Earth. The moon’s pull causes the tides to flow in and out, and seems to do the same for groundwater, too. Knowing the moon’s phases can therefore be helpful in planning when to plant, how much to water and even when to apply fertiliser.

Plenty of level heads, it seems, swear by this system. One of them – John Harris, head gardener at Tresillian House Gardens estate in Cornwall – even turned up on Radio 4’s Gardener’s Question Time , the imprimatur of bourgeois gardening respectability. He plants according to the phases of the moon, as did his father and grandfather.

‘It’s not folklore,’ he insists. ‘It’s practical knowledge that works. People call me the “loony gardener” but I don’t mind.’

Obviously I need to be more open-minded. I should have listened to my brother. I’m going to take that book off the shelf, I think, and give it a shot at last. Just don’t tell the Wiccans. I don’t want to encourage them.

Contact me If you have any questions, comments or anything you think I should know, email growit@paulkingsnorth.net All my previous columns on allotments and food-growing are collected on my website, visit www.paulkingsnorth.net

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2008


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