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Another excuse not to weed

Anna Bowen

It’s grounding to read about permaculture from my garden, which was, as my neighbours don’t hesitate to tell me, once a “prize winning garden” until the former owner let it “naturalize.” Naturalize here is not said with an optimistic smile but rather a raised eyebrow in the direction of the golden rod and wild grape vines.

“Maybe you should teach your toddler to weed,” said one neighbour helpfully.

So I’m swatting at mosquitoes in southern Ontario, eating watermelon probably trucked in from somewhere with a longer growing season, surrounded by the most beautiful weeds:  Jerusalem artichoke, lemonbalm, motherwort, bee balm, enjoying them and the thought of the enormous business I could have making medicinal teas, were that my calling.  It’s hard to believe that in some circles I’m thought of as a gardener.  I have a lot of organic farming, community gardening and (let’s admit it) some hippy background, but on a bad day I seriously consider getting a bush hog or a weed whacker in here.

Or maybe I’ll save face and rent some sheep.

I’ve been reading a book here in the garden that I’m really excited by called Tangled Roots by Matt Soltys. It’s a collection of interviews with folks from across the continent, although, full disclosure, it was DIY published here in Guelph. The book takes a biocentric approach to social justice, looking at the intersections of social and ecological justice as well as mental health.  The chapter I started with includes reflections on PTSD and permaculture.  The chapter is an interview between the author and Lisa Rayner, author of several books on eco-cooking, gardening in the mountains, natural canning, and “wild bread.”   She is a human rights activist and “transition town” stalwart, and a great permaculture enthusiast.

Rayner talks about the way in which our bodies can harbor accumulated stress over time, just like the earth, that can boil over suddenly.  The idea of permaculture is that it’s a way of continuing to engage with and cultivate the earth but in a way that is more closely aligned to the natural systems of the environment – an idea sometimes called “biomimicry”.  And, as Rayner puts it, “permaculture principles are expressly designed to help ease ourselves back down from the high plateau of energy use that we’re on now, and help move us down to a lower energy use, more ecologically compatible society.”

The connection of food security to permaculture is a tightly wound one. Permaculture calls for not just local, but “site-specific” solutions to agriculture.  Really simply, as another interviewee, Erik Ohlsen says in Tangled Roots, permaculture “is about designing human culture that is beneficial to both the land and to human at the same time.”

If you read Michael Pollan’s book The Botany of Desire way back when, you’d remember that Pollan gets a kick out of describing how industrial agriculture really reflects the way that modern, successful plants – potatoes, pot, tulips, and apples — have actually domesticated us humans really well in order to meet their every need and let them thrive.  It was a mind-bending idea when I read it.  Unlike letting monoculture dominate us, permaculture says that if we move more in line with natural systems we won’t be sweating as much in the hot sun removing weeds from our potato beds and paving the way for climate change by trucking in chemical fertilizers.  Rather, we could be in the shade of an apple tree on an old stump eating honey, or something to this effect.  Right?

Says this permaculture website, “If you think ahead and design your permaculture garden right, it won’t take much effort, it will mostly look after itself, and it will also be incredibly productive and beautiful and attractive to wildlife.”

So if permaculture ideally represents self-supporting systems with high yield through biomimicry, what’s to lose? Under pressure from neighbours and relatives, I have been pulling artichokes and lemon balm to make room for other plants.  I still have a long way to go in getting to know the system that’s outside my door and combining that with permaculture principles, though the garden is rife with them already. I should probably just nestle up close to an artichoke patch and listen to what it’s trying to tell me.  I’m sure it includes some strong feelings about weed whackers.

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