Post 9-11 Lessons from my Humbling Garden

We bought our current house seven years ago. We were attracted by the idea of working nearly 2/3 of an acre of yard into gardens of edible delights—for us humans.

We started with a Bermuda grass front lawn, a mixed grass backyard, dozens of once-tended plantings that fell on hard times when the previous owner became infirm, the residual damage of an old gas leak in the front yard that did something nasty to the soil in that area, and over 50 trees casting too much shade and hosting lots and lots of critters, and the critters on which the critters feed.

Attempts to transform this space from a lawn grass-weedy-oak tree ecology to one where we could grow abundant food for ourselves have been humbling, and sometimes plainly humiliating.

There is so much I did not know about gardening, especially gardening in a larger area than I’d worked previously. I thought I knew enough. I did not. For example, just getting the mix of sun and shade right, especially with summer temperatures at a sunburn-level for so much of the summer. Or testing and amending the soil properly, based on what I was trying to grow, rather than simply amending with mushroom compost or our own blend.

And pests. Dear Lord, the pests! I know everything needs to eat, but my early, young, tender, lovely plants must smell absolutely delightful and look delectable to all manner of vine borers, ants, aphids, caterpillars, night-eaters, and egg-laying flyovers. Nearly every growing thing has been eaten by something else.

Thieves! I fenced the bunnies out of lettuce and carrot beds. But the squirrels! They who make their homes in the many oaks, gorging themselves on thousands of acorns (oh that the squirrels were heritage pork feeding on those acorns!), they are thieves and scoundrels.

I got my tomatoes in late and fruits were just filling out when the heat stunted their growth and the squirrels stole them as snacks. Evil squirrels. Where is the predator to take them out? That family of hawks should turn its attention from songbirds to squirrels.

There are not only pests and thieves to annoy. There are actual dangerous things. First poison ivy I’ve ever had in a yard (now, if the city would just allow us to have small goats we’d have fewer weeds and pests and no poison ivy). I’ve killed numerous brown recluse spiders living in our lumber supplies, plus a few in dark places in the house. The black widows send a shiver through me every time I see one, most recently a huge one dangling from a weed barrier a few days ago in an area I’m preparing to cultivate. (shivering sound)

But a problem about pests, thieves, and dangers is that I don’t always know which is which. Assassin bugs. The name sounds awful but they prey on other pests! Just don’t get stung by one. Wasps? Depends.

There were wasps that emerged to kill off the cicadas. There are mud wasps, building their homes just outside our 60-year-old window frames, like the one that stung me in my bed (40 years ago; I still have the scar from the sting on my back). And there are wasps that lay their eggs on the backs of a kind of caterpillar that strips tomato plants; when the larvae emerge, they eat the tomato plant eater. And that spider I saw the other night, huge, brown, dangling itself on its thread from the roof and hovering about the tomato plants, is it anything to fear? I don’t know. In the garden, I still cannot be sure what is friend and what is foe, what to cheer and what to fear.

For the all years we’ve lived here, we’ve battled bamboo. The original owner planted a small bamboo grove that took over a third of the yard. It attracted its own ecology of tics and nasties. We cut down the grove (filled a full flatbed truck), paid to have the rhizomes dug out to the depth of 18 inches, buried metal barriers in the ground to prevent re-infection from surrounding yards. And yet, I’m pulling up rhizomes when I find them and constantly mowing down new shoots. During the spring, those shoots can grow 5 feet in a week. I could spread poison on the bamboo but then I fear we’d be eating poison in our food. If I left the bamboo untended for a year, we’d be right back where we started. It has become native to this land.

Finally, I’m getting older. I tire more easily than I once did, especially in the heat. X-rays show arthritis in my shoulders and knees. I don’t know if I have the energy, the money, the time, or the will to complete what we started.

In sum: we ventured into a project far larger than we possibly knew. We did not have sufficient theoretical knowledge and know-how to get the job done; knowledge and know-how was out there, but we did not ask and act to the extent required.

We have tried to transform the property to use the land for our purposes but the native elements keep bouncing back. We’ve tried to eliminate dangers and nuisances, but we are still learning who is friend and who is foe. We surely have killed some of each and, therefore, have given power to the wrong critters.

There are deeply rooted trees and weeds and rhizome grasses that might be removable over a very long time with even greater effort but which would likely require so much effort or so much poison poured into the soil that the cost-benefit becomes a barrier to proceeding. Using poison may be a danger to all living things. And I am currently low on time, energy, money, and will.

If all this is so with a small piece of land, how much the more so for a nation whose leaders thought it could do nation building in a completely foreign nation, to make the other safe and useful for its own purposes, a nation that has persevered in outlasting transformers and invaders for centuries?

A humbling, even a humiliating experience, is an opportunity to learn, change, mature, grow. Become better grounded. For individuals, for communities, for nations.

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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