Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Nature abhors a vacuum and living in the woods has confirmed this for me. If I leave any amount of soil exposed during the warm months, something will grow there, whether I want it to or not. In the vegetable garden, what I want is nice clean soil between rows. Just the rows of lettuce and broccoli and corn and nothing in between.
Mother Nature has other ideas and weeds are the result. At this time of year I’m appalled by how many weed seeds are in my soil. As I suggest in “The All You Eat Gardening Handbook” the best way to deal with weeds is to keep them out of the garden to begin with. This means keeping your garden weed-free every year. Otherwise the weeds that go to seed ensure that you’ll have a weed problem for years to come.
I’ve seen proof of this in my own garden in recent years. I’ve discovered that when I make my garden a priority and keep on top of the weeds, I reap the benefits of my hard work the following year when I notice a lot fewer weeds. During the summer that we filmed our gardening DVD I kept the garden meticulous. Last summer while I was writing the gardening book and taking a lot of photos in the garden, I tried to keep up with the weeds. But unfortunately there have been too many years in between when I’ve had other commitments with work or projects like installing my wind turbine or upgrading the solar system and weeding the garden got relegated to a much lower place on the priority list. Once you let the weeds move in, they are here to stay. I expect them to peter out as the summer passes but they don’t. They just keep coming in waves.
There is an upside to this though, and it’s with how nature rejuvenates itself. This makes me feel a bit better about the potential to deal with climate change. When I lived in the city my hobby was growing trees. I’d take any maple seedling that grew spontaneously or black walnuts and chestnuts from trees in my neighborhood and grow them in pots. I sold some at garage sales and planted them everywhere I went. When we bought our 150 acres there were areas around the house that I wanted filled in, and I had hundreds of trees ready and willing to take up the call. And so I began planting.
I cannot believe how well they’ve done. When we moved here there was a large field in front of the house with a clear view to the road. This is where I planted the first and best trees. And as you can see from this photo, they have thrived. This first photo shows the field between our house and the road shortly after moving in.
This second photo was taken in the winter several years later and you can start seeing the spruce and pines that were hidden in the field last time.
The third image shows what it looks like now. “Welcome to the jungle.” This has been the case wherever I’ve planted. They have thrived despite some brutal summers with long-lasting droughts where I have not been able to keep the seedlings watered.
We have a very sandy soil and coniferous trees like pines and spruce love it. The hardwoods like oak and maple do not and grow very slowly. In fact some of the maples I planted seem like they’re growing in suspended animation and hardly seem to grow at all. But plant a pine seedling in our soil and in a couple of years you’ve got a Christmas tree. In a decade you’ve got a forest.
I like how well the trees have filled in because it helps me rationalize my carbon output. We are obsessed about our carbon footprint — we don’t fly, are phasing out our use of propane, growing more of our own food, buying as much of the rest locally, riding a solar-powered electric bike to town, etc., but we still drive. We still own a car and as much as we try and not use it, or gang up multiple errands when we do use it, we still drive. It seems to be the biggest challenge of rural living.
I question the validity of some carbon offsets that people purchase when they fly, but I don’t question the validity of the trees that I plant. They are sequestering carbon. They are growing and absorbing some of my carbon dioxide and storing that as woody biomass. If I burn the wood eventually, it’s carbon neutral, because it is only releasing what it stored while growing. I heat with wood and have generally only taken down dead or dying trees, but as I’ve expanded the garden I have periodically taken down a few live trees. At one time I would have hated to do this. Now I don’t worry. I know they’ll be back. Like rust, they never sleep. It’s like the “Day of the Triffids” with the plant-like creatures that were taking over. And this is a good problem to have.
It reminds me that when we finally stop developing and expanding our cities, and we start tearing down big box stores and we pull up the pavement from their parking lots, nature will be back, really quickly. If humans could just cool their heels for a while, say “OK, we’ve got enough ‘stuff,’” and give Mother Nature a chance to catch up, she will. She’s awesome! I wish I could just convince her to stop blowing ragweed and purslane seeds into my vegetable garden.
All photos by Cam Mather.