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Gardens on the Go - Organic Horticulture

Thoughts on Chaos

I really wanted to listen to Des Kennedy’s talk on Sunday at the Central Vancouver Island annual Spring Festival Garden Show in March. Somehow the time went by at my “Gardens on the Go” booth, and I never got there. His topic, “Chaos Theory in the Garden” really struck a chord with me. Sometimes I feel like a real odd ball, but I just don’t get the attractiveness of neat. I mean some of my best friends are neat, my partner is neat, and my mother is neat, what is wrong with me? I seem to feel differently about neat, especially in my garden. The only uncluttered places on earth are the desert and the surface of the ocean, and there is not too much to garden with in either place. Nature is a perfect example of the clutter and chaos of life itself. Even ocean and desert have shifting randomness caused by wind, gravity, and currents. Why do humans have such an urge to straighten and to organize to control and predict? Randomness in nature is survival. I decided to “Google” Chaos Theory to see if I could find some enlightenment. 

Chaos theory - The theory that some systems, such as weather, are ultimately unpredictable because of the effects of small scale events that can't be included in the prediction equations. WOW, now that fits. The only thing that I disagree with is the word SOME. I feel that all of life itself is unpredictable. Weather is unpredictable, health is unpredictable, the stock market is unpredictable, interest rates can be unpredictable, economics, in general are unpredictable. I once bought a commercial fishing boat, did a tidy cash flow prediction, and one month later fish prices halved, fuel prices doubled, and the interest rates climbed by 10% (ahhhh 1980). None of this was predictable it seemed, and certainly the lethal combination of events was unpredictable. It was kind of like the perfect storm of my financial world, and totally unpredictable, even my banker thought so. To add to the list of unpredictables, computer glitches are mostly unpredictable, human behaviour is unpredictable, and how a plant will do in my garden is mostly unpredictable (refer back to human behaviour is unpredictable). 

The next definition I came across for chaos theory was: Chaos Theory: The theory of non-linear functions, such that small differences in the input of the function can result in large and unpredictable differences in the output. I have certainly seen this theory at work in my garden and in my life. Just skipping one small watering (human behaviour is unpredictable) for a plant can result in a very large difference in the health in the plant because the sun actually did come out that day after all, leaving nothing but crispy leaves by the end of the day (weather is unpredictable) Another example: a small difference in the input of mint in my front garden has resulted in a large and unpredictable (unless you REALLY know how far and fast mint spreads) difference in my front garden. Luckily I love mint tea. 

So if chaos is unavoidable in life, then why stress and strain to avoid it, control and contain it? I just don’t get it. I was asked to give a talk at the garden show about “Square Foot Gardening”. I purchased the book, and accessed the website. What I saw made me shake my head in wonder. All these neat little boxes, all contained like gardens in bondage. No spilling over into paths, no wonderful jumble of self seeded kale and chard. The beds were measured, precise, and well, downright neat. No suprises here! I was puzzled. Surely people wanted to hear about how to do this type of gardening, maximizing their yield and easily growing scads of vegetables without being so neat. Surely it was just a lot of trouble to build those little boxes, haul compost in to fill them, and maintain perfect spacing. It seemed to me to be much easier to just make a compost pile somewhere in your yard and just scatter seeds into it after a while, and harvest the thinning for the table. I thought that people would be interested in avoiding all that extra work of building beds, but I was dead wrong. Most of the questions after my talk were about how to build those neat little beds, and where to find the books that told you how to do that. 

I found an article on lasagne gardening, where you layer newspaper, fresh organic matter, and leaves. Now that seemed to be more my speed, but they still use those silly little wooden boards around their beds. I thought it was a pretty good concept until we came to that. Every time my partner and I go anywhere that has raised beds he always comments emphatically about how nice they look. He keeps offering to build me a tidy compost pile. I keep looking at the raised beds and contained compost pilesreally hard. I study their construction, the wood used, the paths between, all straight lines and sharp angles. I really try to think they look good to me, and that I really want to put some in my yard, but I find again and again I am lying to myself. I really like the look and feel of beds that rise and fall in a slope of good compost, with small veggie plants growing along the slope to keep the soil in place. I cherish the small lettuce plant that just happened to self seed itself next to the mustard green and Asian cabbage. I can’t remember the last time that I seeded kale, chard, or mustard greens, and even had a yellow cherry tomato self seed for two years in a row. My paths this year will be filled with pulled weeds and spent veggie plants (don’t try to tell me that any garden does not get weeds over time). These all compost over time and these enriched paths may, next year, be the places where I grow things. I deeply bury veggie waste, fish scraps and prawn shells wherever something is not self seeded all winter, and by spring there is not a trace of anything but good soil and worms when I loosen the soil with a fork. 

I know that some of you will say “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it” but I have! I found that weed roots have an inordinate fondness for the space immediately below the boards of a raised bed. I found slug eggs by the hundreds nesting warmly on the boards, and as the boards aged, they became wood bug condos. These same insects loved to dine out inside my strawberries and burrow into any squash that touched the ground it seemed. It just never worked for me. How do you keep the grass around the beds from spreading to the beds? Mine seemed to always find a way to spread under the boards and get truly entrenched there. Even before they spread there it seemed a pain to have to use the weedeater to trim around all those beds. I guess with wood chip or gravel paths the beds would not be invaded so badly, but I really would like to know how all that work is worth it. I guess I just don’t have the appreciation gene for contained raised beds. 

Years ago I lived in a plastic tepee on the beach on the west coast close to Ucluelet. I found out later that my best friend Rita also lived there, but the year before I did. We decided to take a pilgrimage to the west coast and find the spot where we both had lived. Over 20 years had passed since either of us had set foot on that beach. We hiked along the trail wondering if we could ever find the exact spot where the tepee stood. We came out onto the beach, and began our search. Suddenly we found a series of mounds that were laid out in straight lines, one next to another. Even covered with many years accumulation of moss and debrisit was obvious that this was the foundation of the tepee, because nature does not work in parallel, un-branched, straight lines!

I don’t mean to criticize those who find that raised contained beds really work for them. I just have a hard time understanding these things. Some of my closest friends tell me it is just that I am rebellious, and play the devil’s advocate in everything. Maybe they are right. I guess the real message here is that a garden is a very personal thing meant to be a form of self expression and joy. If straight lines and raised wood framed beds give you joy then that is exactly what you should do. Although it puzzles me quite deeply, I am sure many of you would be just as puzzled to my resistance to them and my quirky, every changing, every evolving, out of control type garden. The main thing is that we are gardeners, and we share the joy of expressing ourselves in our gardens and somewhere deep inside we hold a deep respect for every type of garden, and every type of gardener. Happy Spring fellow gardeners! Raise your beds up high!