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Gardening For Diplomats

The way we garden has always been a measure of our relationship with the natural world. From sacrifices to the fickle gods that ruled the harvest to the industrial science that shapes modern agriculture and the modern trend toward recognizing and working within the complexities of a complete ecosystem, each gardener has to find her own way of being in the garden. Does she want the rigor and order of a formal English garden, or the wild wabi-sabi of a native wildflower patch? After taking stock of the gardening influences in my life, particularly two who sat at either end of the spectrum, I’ve found my own path.

The Combatant

The first gardener represents the combatant posture, which regards the garden as turf to be conquered, claimed, and guarded from intruders. A previous neighbor who we lovingly referred to as “Big Jim” was the ultimate garden guardian. He and his wife were in their 60’s and kept an immaculate, if eclectic, front yard, filled with lush green grass, a large cherry tree strung with antique japanese glass floats, and succulents growing out of vintage combat boots. The combat boots were a perfect metaphor for the military precision with which order was maintained. He took a lot of pride in his yard and was always offering to help us improve our scrappy brown yard dotted with galvanized metal tubs filled with veggie starts. When we were struggling with a pernicious blackberry growth in our backyard, he stuck his head over the fence to offer us an herbicide that as he put it, “You can’t even get in Mexico anymore.” Apparently he had bought gallons of the stuff when it looked like the FDA was about to outlaw it. As generous as his offer was, I was more reluctant to let our dog play in his yard after that revelation.

The Pacifist

The second gardener took a more pacifist approach. Nina and I worked in a garden together at the Berkeley student co-op where we lived during college. She was a dyed-in-the-wool hippie, except for the fact that she would never wear wool because the sheep might have suffered in the shearing. She and I worked together to turn a long-neglected side yard into a flower garden. We pulled dandelions, dug out the crab grass …. And we wore thicker gloves after we found condom wrappers and half a broken hypodermic needle. She had a lot of wisdom about gardening that often came in the form of proverbs like, “A weed is just a plant in the wrong neighborhood.” I learned a lot from her about organic gardening. But as time went on she became more fanatical about respecting all life, including insects and sturdy, prolific tap roots. Eventually she went so far as claiming it was immoral to do anything to prevent the aphids from eating our roses. The little patch we were gardening slowly turned back into a haven for tenacious invasives, and the garden was lost.

The Diplomat

My own gardening style resides somewhere between these two extremes. I tend to think about pests and unwelcome plants as rude guests - the best way to deal with them is provide ample distraction and set clear boundaries. If you’ve ever seen those videos of tiny martial arts experts who can redirect the energy of opponents twice their size, throwing them to the group with barely a flick of the finger - that’s how I want to garden. Slugs may have entered looking to feast on my lettuce starts, but they will find themselves breaking down my compost pile before they know what’s happening.

Here are some of my favorite strategies for keeping garden guests polite:

Copper Tape: This is how we kept slugs out of our garden boxes this year - the first successfully slug free lettuce box we’ve ever had. While there’s dispute about how it works - some people think it’s that the slugs get a little shock from the conductivity of copper - anecdotally, it’s been very effective. Perhaps they don’t like the texture. Another benefit to this strategy is the aesthetics - copper border on the distressed wood of a garden box is very shabby chic. You get garden decoration and pest protection that lasts a few seasons, for less than the cost of a garden gnome.

Ground Eggshells: Another slug barrier!  Place ground eggshells in a border around the plants you want to keep safe. The crumbled eggshells are most definitely uncomfortable on the soft underbellys of things that slide along the ground. This barrier is harder to keep in place than the sticky copper tape, but it works on gardens that are in the ground, and it’s a very economical solution.

Beer Traps: This is a strategy of distraction, though unfortunately a deadly one. Bury a cup part way in the ground and fill it halfway with beer. The slugs are understandably drawn to the yeasty sweet smell of the beer, topple into the traps, and hopefully expire in a drunken stupor. The secret to this strategy is to bury the cups with at least an inch sticking up above the ground, so that slugs can slide up but helpful creatures, like beetles, will be locked out of the bar.

Rethink Weeding: With the wrong frame of mind, weeding can make you feel like Sisyphus. Especially in the lush northwest, where weeding in spring amounts to laboring in the sun for eight hours only to find that most of what you pulled has re-grown in new places within a week. But if you compost, most weeds aren’t so dangerous and tenacious that you can’t pile them in a heap to dry and use later in the year,  as the dry, carbon-heavy layer between your wet food-scrap compost.  So when you think about it that way, you’re not weeding, you’re gathering fuel for next year's rich soil.

Food-based Pesticide: Keeping other critters away from the fruits of your labor - pun intended - doesn’t mean slathering them in toxics. You can make a simple pesticide out of water and vegetable oil, in the ratio of one gallon to one cup. The oil will cover and suffocate any insect eggs. Add a spicy ingredient to dissuade grown bugs from munching. Garlic, cinnamon, or pepper oil works well, and can be easily washed off when you’re ready to eat them. To apply the solution, use any clean spray bottle.

Have Enthusiastic Pets: Most people don’t think of squirrels as a garden pest; I didn’t until we moved into a house with an almond tree. But they are aggressive and industrious in stripping that tree of nuts before any of them ripen. To add insult to injury, they aren’t particularly careful or effective when it comes to actually making use of those nuts. They left most of the green almonds they plucked half-eaten on the ground below the tree. A simple solution to this problem was our bouncy chocolate labrador, who ran to greet the squirrels every time I let him out. Letting him spend more time in the yard kept at least a third of our harvest safe.

The bounty of garden guests that fly, creep, and crawl is great for the garden; it helps with propagation and keeps the soil rich. Gardening with diplomacy has helped me keep peace with those little helpers, while keeping relative order. Though our space is a little rough at the edges, and particularly rough in the wildflower patch, it still provides a bounty of fruit and vegetables that have been only slightly sampled by other critters.

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