The Practical Gardener

Before there were extreme sports, there were only fun brothers. For about six years of my life, beginning part way through college, I was part of a loose network of comrades whose ultimate goal was to spend all available cash on trips to go rock climbing, back-country skiing, fly fishing, ice climbing, bow hunting, kayaking, backpacking, and to engage in covert National Forest trail cruising (on stripped-down and tuned-up, used, fat-tire Schwinns – the predecessor of the modern mountain bike).

We all had flexible jobs of some sort to support our lifestyle and were committed to making whatever personal choices were necessary to allow us to continue our quest. It wasn’t a lifestyle attractive to most women, and few of us were cool enough to be hooked up with the seldom-available members of the opposite sex who also reveled in this lifestyle.

At that time in my life, I did a lot of reading, and one of my favorite authors was a fellow named William Nealy. Nealy’s work centered around celebrating, lampooning and documenting the fun-brother lifestyle, of which I was a part. Nealy’s work meant a lot to me. But more importantly, over the years, I came to view his writing and cartoon style as being so completely right on and tight that I believed his work had the scope to appeal to “Everyman.” Fact of the matter is, along with Erma Bombeck and Ernest Hemingway, I consider William Nealy to be one of the root inspirations and stylistic models for my own writing. And truth be told, I have trembled for years, knowing that someday, someone would expose my work for what it really is: a second-class stylistic rip-off of William Nealy.

It was a shock to me the other day when I read David Madison’s excellent article, “Goodbye, William,” [May 29 issue of Mountain Xpress] and learned that William Nealy had taken his own life about a year ago. That I hadn’t been aware of his departure was a clear indication as to how far removed I have become from that fun-brother lifestyle (which has now evolved into the adventure-and-extreme-sport phenomenon) and the associated periodicals and books in which Nealy was being published. “Jeez,” I wondered, “How did that happen?”

I got to wondering what it was about that lifestyle that I found so appealing. It was that go-for-it desire to be in the moment, to stop the universe, to be one with the Great Zest that is so elusive in a world where there are mortgage payments, traffic jams and deadlines in stressful jobs.

However, the fact that I can conceptualize this is additional evidence of how far I’ve strayed from the Way of the fun brother (where the very verbalization and logical labeling of the lifestyle is all it takes to pull one back into the conventional space-time continuum in which those of the Other World are forced to function). Hmmm.

How did I drift away? Why didn’t the recently staged Mountain Sports Festival (held in downtown Asheville) hold tremendous allure for me, given my previous interests? Does the spirit of the extreme live on when fun brothers turn their backs on extreme sports?

As it turns out, extreme living is going on all around us, for both men and women. Single women raising well-adjusted kids – that’s living on the edge. Choosing to do what’s right in a complex society when the seductive alternative is to do what is easier — that’s living on the edge. Not freaking when I see testosterone-pumped teenage boys hanging around my pretty and shapely 15-year-old daughter — that’s living on the edge.

And choosing to garden organically – that’s living on the edge as well. Choosing to successfully tend a garden organically carries the spirit of an extreme sport.

There is no question that it’s easier to tend a garden with chemicals, to fertilize the plants and to kill off disease and insect predication. It is not my intention to criticize those who choose to garden with chemicals. I think the question boils down to whether or not a gardener believes that chemicals in agriculture, on any scale, present a danger to themselves and the environment.

My belief, based on some compelling evidence, is that chemicals in agriculture are a long-term losing proposition for the world and mankind. But that’s my belief, and who am I to make value judgments about what another person believes? But for me, and for the sake of my family, the right decision, at the grassroots level, is to tend our raised beds at Jardin Fou using biological and organic methods.

Fortunately, in our bioregion, it is pretty easy to find role models of really great gardeners who garden organically. The first Wednesday of each month, WCQS hosts an hour-long gardening talk show with Peter Loewer (the talented and prolific co-host of this gardening page with a national reputation for his knowledge of ornamentals, among other things), and two other local gardening notables. One of these is usually Patryk Battle, a well-respected market gardener who, for many years, has trod the path less taken in his quest to produce quality veggies using organic methods. I enjoy listening to this monthly program, especially to hear Patryk’s solid commentary on an organic approach to veggie gardening.

There is no question that Patryk has approached gardening as one would approach an extreme sport. At gardening conferences where I have listened to his workshop presentations, and on WCQS’ “Back to the Garden,” I have been continually amazed at the depth and scope of his knowledge of his discipline. It is with that approach in mind that I present the following basic tenets that you may wish to think about this summer as you find ways to become a better gardener.

1) It starts with the soil. The biological gardener’s mantra remains the same: “Healthy soil makes healthy plants, and healthy plants make healthy people.” Start a compost pile or get re-inspired to score organic matter to add to the pile you have already started. Look for a source of cheap organic matter to add to the soil (your best local bet for this is at the municipal leaf dump at Catawba Street and Broadway, in Asheville). Get a soil-sample kit from the good folks at Cooperative Extension, gather soil samples, and send them to the state labs in Raleigh for analysis (for free, praise Zeus!!), and then take the results to someone at a local garden center who knows how to read them. Amend your garden with greensand, rock phosphate and lime, as suggested by interpreting the sample results. Start rotating cover crops, regardless of how small your garden space.

2) Don’t freak at the sight of the enemy. When you see strange critters eating your veggies or a bacterial infestation sprawling, don’t get mad, get knowledgeable. Jump into your predicament as fast as you can, and find out exactly what you are dealing with. Get over your squeemishness of pulling insects off your plants. Find out what plants can be planted that attract beneficial insects in to prey on the bad insects.

3) Save your own seeds. It’s the fast-track method for connecting with the Circle of Life, and it is surprisingly easy to do.

4) Question everything. This is what people do who are living on the edge. Buy a copy of any edition of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and keep it parked on the back of the toilet, where it will answer all your questions (my shower-steam-stained copy remained in the bathroom for the first three years of my search for the Way).

5) Read William Nealy’s final work, The Nealy Way of Knowledge (Menasha Ridge Press, 2000). And remember, there’s more to life than your garden, even if you are obsessed with it.

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