There is an air about good soil. It smells rich, dark, alive. It is the source of “earthy”. It unfolds in your hands, revealing broken stems, shattered, dark leaf parts, wriggling earthworms. It is moist and warm and completely uncommon in this place where I live. Here, in the Big High and Dry that kind of soil comes in plastic bags…unless we create it ourselves in piles of green and brown compost. Placing a seed in this soil will bring about growth; placing the seed in the native soils reduces the probability of germination. Then, there is the seed itself and the level of potential it carries, and the condition of the shell and the life within. These are the initial conditions for gardens.
I have a terrible struggle with careful, organized approaches to creating a garden and the wild-looking result I love. I do not want to introduce harmful elements and yet I do not want to be fearful and precise. As humans we have an overwhelming need to organize the world around us. We plant in rows. But what plant releases its seeds in rows? We prune for clean lines and to remove the browned, frost-bitten tips, and then we put those clippings in bags and send them to the landfill. What forest works to remove the dead and dying to a foreign place? It seems that everything we traditionally do in the garden is contrary to what nature is.
Soil and seed are the initial conditions for the garden. Edward Lorenz used the phrase “the butterfly effect”. Although the original comment was regarding the wing movements of a seagull, Lorenz found the “butterfly” metaphor much more attractive. A seagull leaves a much more complex image. The point was that the movement of the wings of a butterfly impacts the atmosphere and therefore impacts winds and hurricanes and fluid movements in the fabric of our air. By entering the number .506 into a formula to forecast weather instead of entering the full .506127Lorenz found that the forecast completely changed. He saw this as a reflection of the theory of a very sensitive dependency on initial conditions.
One theory of landscape manipulation offers that any action should be taken as small, slow solutions entirely based on the belief that initial conditions have long term impacts well beyond our ability to predict. And with this in mind, prepare your soil, carefully select your seed, start with a few plantings and when it flourishes, I cannot help but see that we must cast the next planting to the wind, letting the seeds find their own initial conditions to bring it back to the wild.
Nature is so elegant, so well-fit. Light rain, light snow, falls from above and drips from the edges of the plant – the drip line. Water from above is immensely important. Root growth matches the drip line and mirrors the reach of the limbs, stems, leaves. The water collects nutrients from the leaves – dust of soil, bird and bug droppings, tiny dead bodies, full of nitrogen and nutrients – down into the soil below. The moisture underground keeps the roots warm and moist – think soaker hoses and drip systems – but it does not provide that which water from above provides. So bend down (gentle deep knee bends moves the blood and lymph systems in good ways) and check the moisture under the plants. Take a pinch of soil. If it sticks together, you can wait. If it falls apart or will not stay in a pinch, take the time, the quiet, the refuge of standing with the hose and the water wand on “shower” and sprinkle the plants from above. As rainwater is best so use rainwater…and condensation and melting snow, all that, by gravity are provided in such precious, limited amounts in this steppe, sagebrush environment. A very basic, very simplistic formula: 1″ of rain on 1000 square feet of roof = 600 gallons of life. Metal roof is cleaner and better transport than composite roof. Composite is made of petroleum products. Tiles are porous and can release chemicals or minerals. Seamless gutters are best. Downspouts into potable water tanks. Simple hoses or drains leading to gardens, windbreaks, hedges, food-forests. In one rainstorm 200 gallons were collected…200 gallons easily watered the nursery when things began to dry out three days later.Two hundred gallons less from the treatment plant at the river.
Stand in the quiet, the green peaking out of last years branches and stems. Listen to the water; enjoy the light blow-back of the spray; watch the life return. Not mastery; but stewardship. Try not to struggle.
Work with; learn from; let go.