Culture

Published on July 6th, 2008 | by Justin Van Kleeck

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Compassion in Action 2: The Careful Gardener

Having discussed one way to be compassionate in your home by safely catching a fly, I feel compelled to be of even more assistance in helping you to be a kind, friendly presence outside of your own abode as well. So now that you are well practiced in the fine art of catching and caring for critters of all makes and models, I hope you are ready, willing, able, and eager to go out and practice some more random acts of kindness.

And as someone who loves gardening, from the toil of clearing a plot and weeding the rows to the belly-filling delight come harvest time, I thought I would share some tips on how you can be a compassionate, caring, careful gardener.

This is particularly important, too, since even small family gardens can become places of profound natural tragedy, places of mass murder and intensive pollution, places of blood, sweat, and tears. Ironically, gardens can often be the least “green” when the plants in them are shining with the deepest, richest shades of green.

And the main reason for these instances of terror and destruction and death? One word: VARMINTS.

Yessir, critters, pests, thieves…call them what you will. They come in many forms, and they seem to come at every moment, nibbling and draining and infesting and infecting and basically ruining everything that you plan to enjoy. Yes’m, the varmints launch a perpetual (seemingly organized and strategic) assault on your goodly little garden…and so appropriate countermeasures surely seem justified.

But, alas, most of these countermeasures employed on any scale are far from careful, far from compassionate, and extremely far from sustainable or natural or eco-friendly. Just go into any garden center or hardware store and look at the panoply of pesticides, sitting there as an ingredient in a witches’ brew with other chemical fertilizers and enhancers. You may start to feel dizzy even before opening one and inhaling the fumes!

So, then, how can you make your garden green in the healthiest, most sustainable and ecologically friendly ways? How can you be a careful gardener and a small-scale steward on your own little plot? How can you save lives even as you nourish your and your family’s (and maybe even your whole neighborhood’s!) lives? Here are just a few ways you can garden green to get a green garden.

  • One of the best ways to do repel insects without resorting to death-in-a-bottle is by using plants that have insect-repellent compounds or properties. Marigolds are a classic, effective anti-bug device; not only that, but they are also some lovely little flowers to plant liberally in your garden…and flowerbeds and indoor planters, too! Other good choices are strongly aromatic herbs, such as the mints and rosemary, and lavender. Just plant them in between your other plants and on the perimeter of your plot.
  • Another time-honored method to keep bugs at bay is through companion planting. By arranging your plants strategically, you can utilize the benefits that come from having specific species coexisting close together. These benefits include more than just pest control but also higher yields and richer soil. Some of the most successful garden plant pairs are tomatoes with carrots, corn with squashes, and cabbages (broccoli, cauliflower, collards, kale, etc.) with onions. On the flip side, though, are plants whose marriage will surely end in a bitter divorce–such as beans and onions or corn and tomatoes. Try alternating one plant with the other in a row and also arrange rows in planned patterns.
  • Much as you now can catch and save the flies in your house, you can also deal similarly with insects and weeds in your garden: Go out pickin’ with a slow, gentle hand. Just get a jar or some other container and give yourself ample time to do the grooming. You can avoid using (toxic) chemical insecticides by removing the bugs by hand. And it is usually pretty easy to do. But be warned: You will need to do it a lot, and you will be doing a lot of it. You will learn a lot, too. Squash bugs are fairly easy to pick off, though once they find your plants you are simply delaying the inevitable. You will be getting up close and personal with caterpillars and Japanese beetles and ants and grasshoppers. And unless you have a taste for exotic cuisine, you will want to take these many, copious harvests of bugs far away from your garden and release them somewhere else. (Hopefully you will not release them near someone else’s garden…unless you bear a grudge against a competitor for the title of neighborhood garden champ!) This pickin’ may seem tedious, but it can also become kind of fun, like a game of hide and go seek. Plus, by saving creaturely lives while you save your plants and your food supply, you are practicing some serious compassion in action. Of course, weeding by hand is ancient, effective, and sustainable by avoiding the need for herbicides. It is also fairly satisfying for the vengeful elements of your nature as you pluck up one little intruder after another by the head.
  • What about non-insect varmints–bunnies and deer and groundhogs and so forth? Fencing is the most obvious method–even if it often seems ineffectual or downright pointless. Another thing you can do is to take hair clippings, tie them up in pantyhose or some other material, and then hang the little human-scented bundles around your garden. This will help to keep your dreadful human presence present in the garden even when you are not present and so hopefully keep would-be intruders out. Equally useful, though less attractive for sure, is to “mark your territory” like the animals do–with urine. Yessir, it seems strange, but the scent is strong and unmistakable and distinctly yours. With these ways, you can make the scarecrows and other anthropomorphic devices even more human, which in turn will make the critters less inclined to sneak in for a late-night snack.
  • Fight fire with fire by reaping the benefits of “predator pests.” In this case, you are sort of using traitors to the insect kind who prey upon their fellows. Ladybugs and praying mantises are just two of the good, effective predator pests to have in your garden. Birds are another great natural predator; they do wonders for reducing the bug population. Attract a winged garden patrol with bird feeders, houses, and baths, as well as with birdie food plants like sunflowers. (Unfortunately, the patrollers can also become straight-up pests if they happen to start enjoying your garden’s goodies, too. But, try to take it in stride and see it as feeding your own forces.)
  • Build your soil naturally, so that it is strong and nutrient-rich. You can prevent weeds, insects, diseases, and other problems by giving your plants a good foundation to grow from. Using compost and other natural fertilizers throughout the year, not just when the veggies are in season, keeps soaking the soil in nutrients that the plants will later drink up. Mulch also protects the soil, not to mention helping reduce weed growth; grass clippings, pine straw and sustainably harvested wood mulches are great choices. Another out-of season method is to use leguminous cover crops that lock nitrogen in the soil: alfalfa, soy, clover, etc. Also practice crop rotation so that you do not keep planting the same things in the same places; traditional rotations include wheat, corn, soy, and then a cover crop. Finally, make your garden like the produce section in a grocery store: a place of variety and wide selection. A diverse garden is itself a natural pest repellent, since pests thrive in, monoculture environments. Monocultures are seedbeds for pests because they allow for one-stop buffets. Diverse planting forces the insects to work harder to find the goodies they want most and “confuses” them by mixing up scents and food sources. So keep your garden healthy and diverse, since it gives you a wide variety of tasty produce and reduces the need for insecticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and other unsustainable countermeasures.
  • Keep your garden clean.If you have lots of sickly plants, encroaching vegetation, and weeds, then you are inviting all of the pests you would otherwise want to repel: the weaker the plant, the more susceptible it is to attack. So always weed out sick plants or sick parts of plants. Do not let weeds or other vegetal litter get out of hand. Not only will your garden look nice, making you the envy of your neighbors, but it will also be more resistant to pests and easier to manage…along with being more productive.
  • Plant enough for everyone. No matter what you do, whether you are an eco-steward or an eco-terror, you are going to lose some of your crops to the varmints. Rather than grind your teeth and lose sleep over this inevitable fact of gardening, plan ahead by planting more than you would normally. This way, you will come closer to guaranteeing yourself a plentiful harvest, and you may well reduce the sorrow and stress you go through over the losses you incur. And, after all, everyone and everything needs to eat to live. So be generous.

These are just some of the many ways that you can be a successful gardener by being a careful, compassionate gardener. As you feed yourself and your loved ones, you can also nourish the Earth itself. Instead of filling your belly with the fruits of suffering and getting high from continued “substance abuse,” you can practice stewardship on the small scale with an eco-friendly, sustainable garden plot.

Image credit: HelgeReider at Wikimedia Commons.

What other methods of sustainable, careful, compassionate gardening do you know and practice? Please share with your fellow green-thumbs!



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About the Author

I am an ethical vegan (since 1999), a writer, an educator, an activist, an organizer, and a vegan-of-all-trades. I have a PhD in English but then left academia to work on social change. I focus on veganism, animal rights, local foods, farming practices, environmentalism, and sustainability--starting from the position that humans are just one part of the biosphere, not the center of it.



  • Nikki Sowell

    Thanks for making gardening fun and educational. That photo is gorgeous.

  • http://www.88888.co.in Venkat

    Great blog. Keep writing.

    The organization I am volunteering with is launching a campaign in India to spread awareness about global warming.
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  • Karin

    I’m looking for a book on compassionate gardening in german

    Can you please help?

    Thank you

  • http://www.compassionatepestcontrol.com saraspunda

    The Ahimsa Store (www.compassionatepestcontrol.com) has a solar-powered mole and gopher repeller that really works! It’s powered by the sun and one repeller covers 1/6 of an acre by producing a sonic pulse that burrowing animals such as moles and gophers just can’t stand. The store also sells a repeller that uses high-pitched frequencies to deter small animals such as dogs, cats, raccoons and opossums from invading your garden. Help is available for some of your garden pests!

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