The philosophy of cultivation

(this is third in a series looking back on what I learned in Nova Scotia)

The first time I learned anything much about the philosophy of a garden was in Fez, Morocco. Our culture class spent a whole afternoon walking around to famous gardens around the city. As we sat amid the flowers and trees, our professor, Hassan, taught us why the gardens were built the way they were.

And it was a valid question for us Americans. The gardens were both meticulously organized and jumbled together at the same time. There were plants of all different types and trees growing right along with them – everything was mixed together, but still put in its exact place for a reason. Islamic gardens attempt to capture the wilderness and turn it into a place of order and beauty rather than fear. The zellij tilework, which imitates nature in a geometrical fashion using a specific combination of colors and shapes, and fountains are other facets of this philosophy.

For the next four years, I didn’t think about the philosophy behind gardening at all. I only thought things like, “wouldn’t it be nice to have some salad greens? well then I’ll build a cold frame and plant them in the yard behind my apartment!”

But I was reminded of the more theoretical side of things when I was in Nova Scotia. A lot of this had to do with two books that I read: Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison (ok, I definitely skimmed this one) and The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan.

I didn’t know much about permaculture before I arrived at Old Man Farm. It’s basically a philosophy of living in which people and nature get along, and people get along with each other (although the nature part is more interesting to me). On a permaculture farm, all of the different discrete things that you’d see on a regular farm – gardens, livestock, fruit trees, ponds, buildings – are organized so that their inputs can help the other parts succeed. Plants protect buildings from the heat and cold; animals provide manure for the gardens and eat fallen fruit from the fruit trees; etc etc.

There’s also a fair amount of ecology that goes into permaculture design, from applications like discouraging pests to allowing and making use of natural succession to more abstract things like maximizing edges. All this – and the integration of the different elements of the farm – seemed very cool to me. It’s like an even more extreme extension of the anti-monoculture trend.

In some ways the Islamic gardens I saw had this down, with their mix of trees and smaller plants within the same space. But philosophically, those gardeners were trying to take nature, domesticate it, put it in order, and make it less “other”, which is pretty much the opposite of the goals of permaculture.

Then I read The Botany of Desire. Although I studied plants in college, I am ashamed to say I had never taken a botany class – Dartmouth doesn’t offer one (for shame!). So when I read that apples and tulips, for example, do not pass their traits to their offspring – that is, the seeds will not grow into plants resembling their parents – I was fascinated. I wanted to go plant a handful of apple seeds just to see how differently the trees turned out from one another. (I was disappointed to realize that I wouldn’t be living in the same house long enough to see the results, if I actually tried such an experiment)

Pollan and Mollison take different approaches to the idea of wildness in gardening, but the combination of the two had a pretty profound effect on the way I thought about cultivation. It won’t stop me from buying seeds to plant in my vegetable garden. But it will make me think about trying to propagate some plants from seed, and about how to work with the natural world instead of against it. I’d recommend reading both books, or at least looking at Mollison’s pictures!

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