It’s strange how something that seems insignificant can have far-reaching effects. One night I went to a student party with a friend. Thirty years or so later I began to grow organic food. No, you haven’t missed something – all will be explained.
I liken my transformation to the Butterfly Effect, from the Chaos Theory: “It has been said that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.” Even outside of the scientific world, small changes can have unexpected results.
The party was not a special event, just the usual gathering of a few boozy students and their friends. I usually refused to attend weeknight parties and this departure from the norm had a vital impact on the rest of my life. It was there that I met my future husband. This was the only party that we both attended.
In a moment as brief as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing, I unwittingly chose my future path
My friend, Anna, knew most of the people present and as soon as we arrived she wandered off to talk to them. I stood there feeling rather lost, when an attractive guy called Mike (men were attractive, handsome, groovy, spunky, etc in those days but never “hot”) caught my eye, raised one eyebrow, and said: “Come and sit down.” Even then I felt butterflies in my stomach fluttering up a mini storm.
We stayed together for most of the evening – talking, eating, drinking but mostly talking. Mike walked me to the bus stop and I caught the last bus home. I saw him again a few times before he left to start work in another city.
Several years rolled by. We saw one another occasionally when he was home on leave from work. In between his visits, I waited in anticipation for his fortnightly (or so) letters. It wasn’t until he returned to the city to live that we grew closer. Then, one unforgettable evening he proposed marriage and a little over a year later we became husband and wife.
Grow Organic – The Metamorphosis Begins
What has all this to do with organic gardening? A lot, actually, but you will have to wait a little longer to find out. Mike was not an organic gardener. He diligently followed the spraying regime that diligent home gardeners used back then – well, to begin with. How we both hated that spraying! The smell of some of the sprays was stomach-churning. Occasionally we sprinkled some dusty fertiliser around in the hope it would do some good. Watering? Oh, yes. When we thought of it.
We decided early on that the vegetables didn’t need spraying. Too bad if the celery eventually became spotty. Mike gave up growing cabbages and cauliflowers because of the caterpillars and aphids – neither of us knew how effective a hose can be at removing light infestations of aphids and the occasional caterpillar. Insects in the garden were pests. Why did Nature foist them on us?
Mike seemed to lose his pruning skills between the book he consulted and his secateurs. As a result, the fruit trees grew a lot of barren branches. Over time he sprayed only occasionally, then not at all. The leaf curl became worse, the trees bore hardly any fruit, and brown rot claimed what did grow. In the end, he removed the stone fruit trees, leaving us with just the apple tree that was on the property when we bought it, and a plum tree that looked set to take over the backyard.
At about the same time, Mike gave up gardening. He felt that the result wasn’t worth the effort he put into it and he buried himself in his books.
I Try My Hand at Gardening
After his desertion, I reluctantly tried my hand at growing vegetables and caring for the remaining fruit trees. With three children to care for, we needed the homegrown fruit and vegetables.
I had never been much of a gardener – I was a teacher and the work I brought home kept me indoors. Growing a few indoor plants had been my gardening experience until after my marriage when I discovered roses. While Mike toiled in the vegetable garden, I tried my hand at growing roses and a few other flowers. I didn’t develop even a green thumbnail.
When I took over the vegetable garden I ignored the toxic substances that supposedly would polish off the bugs but I made no attempt to grow organic crops. I’m not sure that I knew what organic gardening was at that stage. To my surprise, the results were mediocre to not too bad. I loved my roses but didn’t care much for anything else, and anything else disliked me in return.
Then I took some years out while I returned to university to study. The garden was soon a bed of weeds. I was too busy to do anything with it. In fact, I barely noticed it.
Growing With Nature – sort of
With my desire for an education satisfied, I returned to gardening. I was also breeding guinea pigs at the time. Now, I’ve seen pictures of guinea pigs wearing nappies (diapers) and living in beds with warm and washable bedding. That probably works well if you have two or three guinea pigs and plenty of time. It wouldn’t do as housing for sixty or more animals, so I used newspaper, straw, and hay.
As you might imagine, I had an almost endless supply of straw and droppings for compost, though I mostly used it as a mulch. I didn’t know the difference back then. But I did a lot of reading about gardening. From it, I learned that plants enjoy being surrounded by rotting greenery and smelly animal dung.
One year I had bags of bedding from the cages, too much for the garden, I believed. But I didn’t want to pay to have it dumped so I used it all. The vegetable garden was ankle-deep in it.
That summer the garden was spectacular. The corn was as “high as an elephant’s eye” and I still remember the tomatoes, one plant in particular. It was a Russian Red, which started to resemble Jack’s beanstalk. No bug dared to touch it. It was loaded with tomatoes and was still laden with green and partly ripe fruit when the frosts started. I tell you, guinea pig poop is powerful stuff.
The Butterfly Effect Revisited
If you’re still with me, you may have noticed that so far my organic gardening had evolved through trial, error, and an abhorrence of toxic sprays. Hardly the Chaos Theory with its intriguing Butterfly Effect. More along the lines of Bumble Theory, wouldn’t you say? Well, wait for it: here comes the typhoon.
About thirty years after Mike’s eyes and mine met across a crowded room, our youngest offspring, Samantha chose to study organic gardening at the local Polytechnic. Backed by theory, some practice and a large folder of photocopied notes, she talked to me at length about feeding the soil, making compost correctly, saving the planet…etc. As the young will do, she pointed out my sins… my gardening ones, anyway.
She may not have recognised a hellebore if it jumped up and bit her (though the hellebores I know are well mannered) but she taught me a lot about organic gardening: how to obtain and maintain a natural balance in the garden, how to grow organic food, and why you should do so. I eagerly learned much more as well. In return, I taught her how to prune roses.
In a short time, I was hooked. I had started as someone who knew plants grew in the ground, that you watered them, and you fed them some powder or lumpy stuff when you remembered. Trial, error, and reading had improved my understanding of what plants needed in order to grow.
I had learned about compost and animal manure as plant food and had a better knowledge of when to apply fertiliser. I had even heard of organic gardening. However, Samantha opened the door to a whole new way of thinking. I became engrossed, learning to grow organic food and ornamentals and there was no turning back.
I fed my plants organic fertilisers when I thought they needed them. Through my practice of not spraying, I attracted beneficial insects to the garden. When aphids and tomato bugs tried to take over, as they occasionally did, I used homemade deterrent sprays or Neem (at times when bees weren’t around). I had learned the basics from Samantha and from reading. But surprisingly, I found that some of my ideas were instinctive, developing as I studied the plants more.
With no internet back then, I raided the local library. I won’t dwell on the fines I received for overdue books. The exciting ideas I read about, I tried out in my own garden. It would be grossly untrue to say that everything worked as planned or according to the book. Sometimes, if you had seen parts of my garden, the word that sprang to mind would have been “chaos”.
Some say you should love your garden and its individual plants. I did. As a result, I started seeing them as living entities with likes and dislikes. I now filled my garden with these individuals. It was no longer a 3-D landscape with pretty or edible plants growing where I’d placed them. Nor was it a part of the environment that I’d configured but a mental or spiritual extension of me.
I made any number of mistakes and sometimes learned very little from them. I read, tried, tested, thought long and hard, talked to the plants. Over the years, I gained knowledge about organic gardening and built on it. I’m still learning.
It Had to Happen
And I’m still wondering, would I be an organic gardener if I hadn’t gone to the party with Anna all those years ago? Chances are, I would never have met Mike, so Samantha and her siblings would never have been born. The thought gives me an eerie feeling. Our lives and the directions they take seem to be so dependent on chance. Even the fact that we exist at all is tenuous.
I like to think that Mike and I were meant to meet – and he felt the same way – that fate rather than chance had brought us together. However, I believe that it was a mix of fate and my personal inclinations and beliefs that made me an organic gardener. The greenish thumb?
The greenish thumb? My ability to grow plants successfully increased over time and with diligent practice. Incidental learning came from the practice with its trial and error but I needed book learning to help correct that, put me on a successful path and save a few plants in the process. Now, most of my growing projects turn out well but occasionally… I’m reluctant to say I have a green thumb but feel I’m getting there. So, in the interests of accuracy and honesty, I’ve settled for calling it a “greenish” thumb.
How to Grow an Organic Garden
There’s always something for the home gardener to learn about any kind of gardening, especially if he or she wants to grow organic crops. Nature is the ultimate organic gardener and she doesn’t use handouts or videos to teach. So we must learn by observation, by doing, and by trying to pick up the subtle messages that plants give us – a leaf changing colour here, some petals drooping there.
Home gardeners don’t need to be experts but we must care about our gardens as well as care for them. I admit freely that I don’t know everything: I’m still learning and I still make mistakes.
Fortunately, plants and gardens are very forgiving.
[This is how I came to be an organic gardener, as I remember it. However, I’ve changed the names of the people involved to protect their privacy. Sadly, I lost my soulmate, Mike, to cancer 13 April 2000. Anna, a close friend for nearly 60 years, died in November 2016. Samantha now has an adult son, two horses and a very large dog.]
How did you become a gardener? I would love to know. Do you have any other comments about this post? Please share with us in Comments below.