Milagro by Karie Luidens

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The real miracle my garden needs isn’t Miracle-Gro, it’s water. Water, as they say, is life. Although I’ve been thoroughly watering the seeds I planted both morning and night, that moisture barely seems to hold in the ground, and I suspect that dry dirt may be the main issue preventing germination. 

I’m not alone. As the Albuquerque Journal reported late last month, virtually the entire state of New Mexico is currently in a state of moderate to extreme drought. Last week Sylvia Rodríguez wrote on the New Mexico Acequia Association’s blog that, “Faced with too little water to irrigate as usual this spring, many acequia officers are currently holding stream wide meetings to talk about how to share and manage the shortages.”

This is a dry region even in the best of years, and water use has been at the heart of both community resilience and contentious conflict for centuries. Hence, for example, the plot of The Milagro Beanfield War, in which haves and have-nots, natives and newcomers, duke it out over whether an individual has the right to irrigate his family’s field. 

Since I’m hand-irrigating from the urban water supply rather than a shared acequia or well, no one is challenging my practices. But I’m conscious regardless of how much water I’m using these days, and how much it’s worth in pursuit of a minor miracle. 

Miracle by Karie Luidens

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It’s tempting, waiting anxiously for the miracle that is new life emerging from barren ground, just to reach for a miracle in a bottle. If my soil is too depleted to nourish new seeds, even with the bit of compost and worm castings I tilled in before planting, maybe I should purchase a supplement to help them along. 

A bit of research reminds me why I committed not to adding synthetic fertilizer, though. 

Chemical Fertilizers

Chemical fertilizers (also called inorganic, synthetic, artificial, or manufactured) have been refined to extract nutrients and bind them in specific ratios with other chemical fillers. These products may be made from petroleum products, rocks, or even organic sources. Some of the chemicals may be naturally occurring, but the difference is that the nutrients in chemical fertilizers are refined to their pure state and stripped of substances that control their availability and breakdown, which rarely occurs in nature.

Advantages of Chemical Fertilizer:

  • Since nutrients are available to the plants immediately, improvement occurs in days.
  • They are highly analyzed to produce the exact ratio of nutrients desired.
  • Standardized labeling makes ratios and chemical sources easy to understand.
  • They’re inexpensive.

Disadvantages of Chemical Fertilizer:

  • Chemical fertilizers are primarily made from nonrenewable sources, including fossil fuels.
  • They grow plants but do nothing to sustain the soil. The fillers do not promote life or soil health, and even packages labeled “complete” do not include the decaying matter necessary to improve soil structure. In fact, chemical fertilizers don’t replace many trace elements that are gradually depleted by repeated crop plantings, resulting in long-term damage to the soil.
  • Because the nutrients are readily available, there is a danger of over fertilization. This not only can kill plants but upset the entire ecosystem.
  • Chemical fertilizers tend to leach, or filter away from the plants, requiring additional applications.
  • Repeated applications may result in a toxic buildup of chemicals such as arsenic, cadmium, and uranium in the soil. These toxic chemicals can eventually make their way into your fruits and vegetables.
  • Long-term use of chemical fertilizer can change the soil pH, upset beneficial microbial ecosystems, increase pests, and even contribute to the release of greenhouse gases.

Concerned by Karie Luidens

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Knowing other farmers who have been doing this longer than her, I can comfortably say that this concern never really goes away—each year after planting time you’ll fret until you start seeing green shoots. No matter how familiar with growing patterns you get, there’s always room for doubt in your mind. (Robin Babb in this week’s Alibi)

Well, that’s reassuring. I mean, I don’t actually feel reassured. But it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only would-be grower who’s concerned. 

Powerless by Karie Luidens

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Supposedly we all have some flower power in us, sure. These days, though I mostly feel helpless when it comes to flowers. Or leaves, or stems, or roots. It’s been two weeks since I began planting seeds in my new garden bed and so far not a single seedling has emerged. Have I failed them all? Did I, as I feared, doom them from the start by putting them in depleted, collapsed soil—compacted mineral silt devoid of nutrients and microorganisms? Sure, I tilled in the sparse grass cover that had mostly dried up over the winter; I buried worm castings around each seed and I’ve been watering faithfully each day. What more could I have done with what I had? What more should I be doing now? Are my seeds growing just beneath the surface and preparing to make their appearance any time now, or has it all gone terribly awry?

Grenades by Karie Luidens

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A favorite technique of guerrilla gardeners that I recently had the pleasure of experiencing myself: throwing seed bombs. These are little hand-formed balls of soil and seeds that people can create en masse, then carry with them wherever they go. Most often they contain local wildflower seeds, but anything goes when you’re a guerrilla. In theory you can toss them wherever you see empty land that could benefit from a bit of green—under an overpass, alongside the road, in a vacant lot. Once you lob them grenade-style over a fence (or bury them with more care where possible), they’ve got everything they need to germinate and take over from there as only wildflowers can. 

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As for me, I’ve yet to interfere with public landscaping. I guess I’m a pacifist, even by gardening standards. But I did get a seed bomb labeled “High Desert Wildflower Mix” at the Albuquerque seed swap a couple months ago, and thoroughly enjoyed tossing it into the yard. The food garden will receive most of my attentions in the months ahead, but won’t it be lovely if wisteria, yucca, prickly pear, and wildflowers come up all around too? 

Guerrilla by Karie Luidens

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One last illicit addition from a recent walk. I picked a few prickly pears off of cacti in the city landscaping, slipped them into my pockets (prickles and all—ouch), and brought them home to bury. I might have a problem. Time was, I vaguely enjoyed people’s flowers and xeriscaping. Now everywhere I look on our morning walks I’m hungrily inspecting what’s in bloom, what’s going to seed, what’s ripe for the taking at each yard’s edge. 

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All this theft of cuttings and seeds might be considered a form of guerrilla gardening—maybe in reverse? Instead of descending upon neglected patches of land and revitalizing them with unauthorized plantings, which is the mission of the original guerrilla gardeners, I’m taking up neglected bits of potential plant life and giving them a home. 

Criminal by Karie Luidens

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Okay, I did it again: I’m a thief. This time I swiped some seed pods off a neighbor’s yucca. They were overhanging the sidewalk on the tips of the plant’s long stalks, and just about to burst and scatter their contents onto the concrete. So really I’ve rescued them, right? Instead of getting stepped on and swept off the curb, now they’re raked into the dirt along my yard’s southern fence, where—if my dog doesn’t dig them up, a very real possibility—I’m looking forward to yet another member in the growing community out there. Or, the community that’s growing out there. Take your pick. 

Confession by Karie Luidens

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I have a confession. I’ve stolen from my neighbors. 

 Wisteria in all its glory in a neighbor’s yard.

Wisteria in all its glory in a neighbor’s yard.

Over the last week or two the whole neighborhood has suddenly become flush with fragrant wisteria blossoms. Block by block, the dog and I pass them in countless forms, from well-groomed trellises braided with vines to unkempt bushes so loaded down with their pendant flowers that they look like overflowing baskets. 

Their color pops delicately against a landscape of desert browns and greens. Their scent is sweet and wafts thickly down the street. It’s not just me: each patch I’ve seen has been abuzz with drunken bees. 

 A bit of random chain link out back; future home of some climbing wisteria?

A bit of random chain link out back; future home of some climbing wisteria?

The desire was sudden and visceral: I wanted some of this wisteria in my garden. So I did a bit of research and found that fresh cuttings will take root when replanted. I suppose I could've knocked on someone's door to ask their permission, but instead yesterday morning I got impulsive. A thick tangle of branches was overhanging the sidewalk. A moment later, with a twist and snap, it was down a twig. Who would ever notice? 

But I’ll notice if this cutting grows into a whole new wisteria patch. And there just happen to be a couple panels of chain link behind the garage that must once have fenced off the driveway, but now stand alone, serving no apparent purpose. Why not make a trellis of them?

Why not indeed? When I got home from the walk I promptly watered the stolen cutting into the dirt at its base. If all goes well, that baby wisteria will put down roots and start climbing—another plant to nurture in the months ahead. 

Nurture by Karie Luidens

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Of course, it’s not all waiting from here on out. Nature has the ultimate say in what will happen over the course of the growing season—the character of the seeds, the immutable soil texture, the temperature’s rises and falls, the sun and wind and rain. But that doesn’t mean I can’t contribute to the conversation with irrigation, soil amendment, trellising, pruning, weeding. In their mission to grow, capture solar energy in sugars, develop fibers and fruits, and go to seed all over again, these crops won’t be on their own out there. Nurture: that’s what makes this agriculture rather than wilderness. 

Nature by Karie Luidens

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Yes, seeds “want” to grow. It’s in their nature. Plus, as I learned at Native Seeds/SEARCH a couple weeks ago, domestic crop varieties tend to germinate more easily than wild plants: over millennia of seed-saving, humans across the globe have selected for local landraces with desirable traits, including ease of starting seedlings.

Nothing’s popped up for me over the last few days, though. Still watering and waiting...

Waiting by Karie Luidens

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“What if I planted too soon? Or too late? What if we get another cold snap? What if it’s already too warm because of climate change? Some of these guys are supposed to like the desert, but others might not so much, and the sun gets so hot, what if they just bake out there? How do I know if I’m watering them the right amount? What if they never germinate because they’re too dry, or I just drown them first thing before they stand a chance? What if I didn’t do enough to amend the soil and they starve and wither up? What if I doomed the seeds?”

My partner tipped his head thoughtfully. “The seeds want to grow, don’t they?”

I bit my lip. 

“They want to live. Whatever the conditions, they’ll do everything they can to make it. I think they’ll be fine. You’ll just have to wait.”

So I’m watching that dead-seeming dirt where my seeds are now hidden, and waiting. 

Watering by Karie Luidens

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Slow, frequent waterings when the sun is low: this is the way to go. There’s no point losing moisture to evaporation caused by wind or midday heat. The goal is for every drop of precious water to soak deep into the ground, so that new roots will pursue it just as deeply and thus form a stronger, more drought-hardy base than shallow root systems offer. 

Still, every now and then it’s nice to tip the nozzle up into the sunlight and admire the wisp of rainbow you’ve conjured. 

Turning by Karie Luidens

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The passing of Albuquerque’s final frost risk of the spring this week (fingers crossed) marked a turning point out in the garden: planting season.

It was also a turning point for my pet worms. They’ve been living in a cozy indoor bin of leaves, coffee grounds, and vegetable scraps for a couple months now, and seem quite happy there churning out a rich natural fertilizer. But it’s time for half the herd to brave the great outdoors.

After turning the backyard compost heap to ensure it was properly aerated and evenly damp, I transferred some of my red wigglers into the mix. My hope is they’ll accelerate the ongoing breakdown of yard wastes into usable soil amendment for the coming summer, while freeing up room in the smaller vermiculture bin for the overall worm population to keep growing. (I’m told the population reproduces to fill the space it’s in and stops when it’s at its limit, so ideally both the indoor and outdoor populations will now be free to get busy and make babies.)

Good luck, little guys! And please don’t die off out there under your new and more rugged conditions. I’d feel like a terrible worm mom. 

Planting by Karie Luidens

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The grand reveal: my garden! Does it look barren and dull, especially under all that cloud cover? Don’t be deceived by appearances. As of this past week’s planting, a whole world of seeds is scattered atop that ground and tucked just beneath its surface: tiny grains of amaranth, flecks of sunflower, pebbly kernels of corn.

I hope the mild soil temperatures and sunlight will inspire life to unfold from dormancy. As I write this, each seed coat may be peeling or melting back, letting moisture kiss the living embryo within to wake it from its sleep. Tiny, cramped radicals will loosen their clench and start curling outward into the world, feeling for ups and downs. Threads of newly-green shoot will reach instinctively skyward. 

I hope. But their fate is no longer in my hands. I’ll mist them every morning before the sun climbs over the rooftops and amend the soil further where I can, but from here on out their growth is up to nature more than nurture. 

Planning by Karie Luidens

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I’ve been thinking on large scales lately: the rise of industrial agribusiness over the last century or so, the intractable complexities of today’s unsustainable food systems, the question of humanity’s ability to feed itself in the long run as both soils and fossil fuel reserves are depleted. 

It can be overwhelming. 

So here’s a breath of fresh air—my small desk and the breeze from the open window it faces. My piece of our great multiplicity.

It’s early April and just about planting season, which means, first, planning season. When and where and how will I sow each of the seeds I’ve collected in the freshly-dug and fenced-off garden plot out back? Based on what I’ve learned researching each plant’s needs and observing the space’s soil, light, and moisture patterns, I’ve been sketching a layout and setting up a timetable for the weeks ahead. 

Multiplicity by Karie Luidens

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The best way to resist a monolithic institution or corporation is not with a monolithic movement but with multiplicity itself. [...] The counter to Monsanto Corporation’s genetic engineering and agricultural patents isn’t just anti-GMO and antipatenting activism and legislation, it’s local farmers, farmers’ markets, seed diversity, organic crops, integrated pest management, and other practices that work best on a small scale. A farmer’s market selling the produce of local farmers isn’t an adequate solution but ten thousand of them begin to be. This creates alternatives that are far less visible and individually far less powerful; domination by Monsanto is news in a way that the arrival of the first chiles or peaches at the farmers’ market is not. The purpose of activism and art, or at least of mine, is to make a world in which people are producers of meaning, not consumers [....] Decentralization and direct democracy could, in one definition, be this politic in which people are producers, possessed of power and vision, in an unfinished world. (Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark p 100)

Scalability by Karie Luidens

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An individual garden will never be the solution to systemic problems with how we get our food as a nation here in the U.S. Growing a few vegetables, particularly on a rented plot of land, won’t suddenly safeguard anyone’s food security. 

But what if we scale that up to a hundred individual gardens? A thousand? Even millions? 

Amid the rationing of World War II, average Americans created 18 million “victory gardens,” including 12 million in urban settings. Think what that means: millions of ordinary people otherwise surrounded by concrete, actively reconnecting with the dirt underfoot, carving out spaces within cities to cultivate their sustenance from scratch. A backyard here, a curbside patch there, a row of potted plants lining window ledges—lots of little pieces adding up. At their peak these home gardens grew some 30% to 40% of the nation’s produce. As farmer and author David Buchanan puts it, “This shows what’s possible, at least when someone is shooting at us” (Taste, Memory p 133). 

What’s to stop us from recreating these productive home gardens today with as much enthusiasm and pride as the country’s “Greatest Generation” had back in the 1940s? Do we really need the catastrophe of war to drive us to take responsibility for our own food? 

Consider the significance of individuals cutting their reliance on commercial agriculture from 100% down to 70%, 60%, or beyond. People who grow a significant portion of the food they eat no longer count solely on monetary income and the vagaries of the markets to feed themselves. They no longer rely on the soil quality, water stability, and weather systems of farmland fifty, five hundred, or even five thousand miles away. They’re no longer dependent on distant infrastructure and distribution systems that are themselves vulnerable to violence and political forces. 

Instead they rely on themselves, their neighbors, and the manageable conditions of the block where they live. As they become that much more self-sufficient, you might even say they’re that much freer and more sovereign in life. 

Self-Sufficiency by Karie Luidens

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“So what do you think we should do?” I asked Joe. “In terms of national policy, to address the way our whole agricultural system has gotten unsustainable in the last forty, sixty years? To take some control back from the few big corporations? To protect against food shortages, have more food security?”

“In terms of policy?” He sighed and shook his head. “I think things are too far gone.”

“So... we should all just grow our own food?”

“We should all just grow our own food.”

Freedom by Karie Luidens

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There is, then, a politics of food that, like any politics, involves our freedom. We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to be free. (Wendell Berry, Bringing It to the Table p 229)