Elaine Ingham’s manifesto: Let your garden’s wisdom guide your gardening and your life

Elaine Ingham
Photo courtesy of Living Web Farms and Organic Growers School

Commentary by Pat Battle

“We need to educate people to understand that plants can, indeed, take care of themselves without people getting in the way,” asserts Elaine Ingham, an iconic figure in organic farming and a world-renowned soil microbiologist. “No need to have complex feeding schedules and mind-boggling mathematical calculations on rates of adding nutrients or adjusting pH.”

Ingham’s expertise is in the incredibly complex relationships of microbial soil life — including fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes and micro arthropods (teeny-teeny insects and such). She is an author of the USDA’s Soil Biology Primer and was Rodale Institute’s chief scientist from 2011-13, according to her Wikipedia page.

“Simply putting down the highest quality, most expensive organic nutrients in your garden is not likely to result in great plant growth, unless the correct microbes are present,” Ingham says.

After more than a 15-year hiatus, Ingham is returning to Western North Carolina for two upcoming engagements. On Friday, March 6, she’ll lead an all-day workshop for Living Web Farms at the Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center. And on Saturday evening, she’ll give the keynote address at the 22nd annual Organic Growers School.

Given the length of time since her last visit, Ingham’s workshop presentation, “Better Soil Ecology for Better Farming,” is likely to help spread her knowledge and inspiration to a whole new generation of farmers and gardeners. And her keynote will examine the dynamic between holistic farming and holistic lifestyles, as seen through a scientist’s eyes.

Ingham does a spectacular job of imparting her knowledge of the invisible yet incredibly fertile micro-world underground, and of inspiring folks to farm and garden so as to enhance the natural systems rather than disrupt and even destroy them. Ingham is among the very few in the scientific community who understand that farmers don’t have to have scientifically-proven documentation for what comprises their soil’s ecology in order to be guided by the principles she imparts.

For the great bulk of the scientific community, it is sacrosanct that nothing can be said or acted on it if it has not been thoroughly tested using standard scientific practices, specifically, randomized, replicated, controlled trials that are written up and submitted for peer review. However, Ingham argues, there is way more going on in the soil than science (at the rate that research is currently being funded) can begin to understand. Exacerbating this problem is the fact that, increasingly, we have had to rely on the science that somebody is willing to pay for. Rarely it seems these days is that somebody a government or nonprofit entity. By in large, our science is driven by corporate needs, corporate values and corporate agendas. What’s more too much science is inherently reductionist in approach.

The problem of drawing conclusions about soil ecology is that the utter interconnectedness of its cycles are extremely difficult to understand, even for scientists who get the complexity of the soil food web and understand how crucial it is to growth. Setting up carefully controlled experiments can be almost impossible if many factors are to be considered. Yet our soil-fertility systems function as a whole with a wonderful myriad of pieces, each one of them a factor unto itself, but critical to the whole. Add this difficulty to reductionist science’s all too frequent need to work within the constraints of and need to satisfy the agendas of funding corporations. The end result is too often a great divide between holistic growers and science.

As Meredith Leigh, education and outreach coordinator for Living Web Farms says, “In so many ways, the way we do science is limiting to the way we exercise scientific findings. In Ingham’s evening address on March 7, she will speak about her personal experience reconciling reductionist science with holistic farming. When it comes to land management, the whole absolutely is greater than the sum of its parts, and Elaine’s work proves it.” And ironically, Leigh continues, “we would not know that without the take-it-apart science that got Ingham there. It’s a fascinating and confounding relationship.”

The implications of this conundrum, of course, extend beyond farming. For example, the human body is its own ecology, and the essence of holistic medicine is that you cannot separate and treat any one part — as we are becoming ever more aware that the 3 pounds or so of microbial life in each of our guts and on our skin that keep us healthy and efficiently digesting our food. Yet modern medicine chooses (or maybe is trapped in a model whereby) it looks at the individual pieces more often than many of us are comfortable with. Ingham’s insights, as they apply to farming, can help us also to begin to discover ways to address this conundrum with the medical community. With her insights and inspiration, we can begin to ask of each other and our society that we stop ignoring our interdependence in the realm of human as well as soil health. The glory of creation is that everything is interconnected and we can fully expect Ingham to offer much experience-based wisdom on how we can best come together, as farmers, eaters, patients, scientists and ultimately good and healthy “citizens” in the amazing web that is life on Earth.

For a sense of Elaine Ingham’s approach to growing, read her answers to frequently asked questions. And consider attending one or both of her presentations this week. To find out more or register, visit Organic Growers School and Living Web Farms.

Pat Battle is well known for his appearances on the WCQS Garden Call-In Show as well as at the Organic Growers School. He is also an instructor at Maryland Community College and Virginia Tech’s farmscaping program. Currently, Pat helps coordinate Living Web Farms in Mills River, which is presenting Elaine Ingham’s Friday workshop.

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