Urban Farming: Plants are Political

How gorgeous is this? Native plants creating texture, color, light, and shadows.
How gorgeous is this? Native plants creating texture, color, light, and shadows.

The day of the native ornamental is drawing near.  ---Douglas Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home

Historically, gardens were intentional, artificial, human creations loaded with exotic plants. Exotic introductions were (and still are) plants that are brought from outside the local landscape and imposed on the natural landscape.  The exotic species of plants had the aggressive ability to colonize, displace, and disrupt the original community of plants.

Meaning, the outsider/exotic plants would be plants then take over the original, native plants and disrupt the natural ecosystem of the land that the native plants were creating and sustaining.

Image: White Europeans coming to North America and dumping their exotics into Native American land and trashing their crop landscape with foreign plants. Native plants were seen, or constructed, as unwanted plants.

Colonization of land.

What's an exotic plant? A plant that did not occur naturally in that particular area (example: Chesapeake Bay Watershed) and was brought to and planted into the ground by human agency.

A native plant is defined by Douglas Tallamy, who wrote Bringing Nature Home, in this way:  "a plant can only function as a true native while it is interacting with the community that historically helped shape it."

Butterfly weed plant: Monarch can eat nectar, lay eggs. Life cycle on one plant.
Butterfly weed plant: Monarch can eat nectar, lay eggs. Life cycle on one plant.

For example, many garden plants are nectar supplies for bees and butterflies, few are able to be a breeding host ground for native insects, or beneficials. A butterfly weed is an example of a plant where the monarch butterfly can get food and lay eggs--using this plant as host for its complete life cycle.

A native plant is essential to a garden's eco-system, and it can be of great value when the plant has a connection with the geographical area where it was planted. Biodiversity depends on native plants for food, shelter and living space for birds, insects and animals, All depend on indigenous plants.

In my garden at home and at Church of the Pilgrims, native plants dominate the landscape.  Native plants have gone into the ground as food for our honeybees.  Native plants invite the beneficial insects that chomp away on the insects that can create chaos in the garden.

Garden can look like, and be, individual endeavors. I have my garden in my house. Pilgrims has its garden on its land. My favorite farm, Red Wiggler Farm, uses native plants as part of its organic agricultural ways. On the surface they appear as separate from each other.

But our gardens and farms are connected and political in nature---building a community of healthy bugs in the soil, creating homes for insects and animal life, retaining water through bioretention or controlling natural water run off through plantings.

Mexican Feather Grass--one of my favorite native plants.
Mexican Feather Grass--one of my favorite native plants.

Plants are political. Gardens are a communal endeavor, even if separated by neighborhood and a river. Gardens are more than creating a Martha Stewart, well manicured beauty-for-the-eye only experience. Plants are part of our ecosystem and, like humans, can disrupt, destroy, and dominate an already existing cycle of life.

Native plants extend the story of creation---they are an invitation to see the web of political life, the human and the non-human. And create beauty that persists.

Urban Farming: On the Threshold....

winter garden

This one of my favorite quotes about a garden:

A garden in the winter, especially in places like D.C. where it snows, is quiet. It's gentle. It looks like it's at rest, as if nothing is happening.

But the roots are down there. Life underneath the soil is down there. The worms, centipedes and mico-life are hard at work keeping our soil alive and ready for the next planting. The winter makes me appreciate the subtleties of the garden.

I appreciate:

  • Watching a lone bird eat from one of our feeders.
  • Seeing ice on our little ceramic bowl that's out as a water source for birds and bees in the summer.
  • Dead lettuce still in the soil. The leaves may be dead but the roots underneath the soil are still providing structure--letting air and microbes find space to move and do their work.
  • How the light of winter creates shadows with the architecture of anything, but especially the trees.
  • Our fig trees covered with a blanket and wrapped tight to keep it from freezing. One of our members did this--took the time to wrap a tree to keep it alive.

A garden in the winter is a tender place with a neutral color palate that makes you want to keep on walking by, maybe claim "that looks kind of boring."

In some ways, a winter garden is kind of boring. It isn't a place of over-stimulation like a summer garden literally buzzing with life above the soil. In the summer the beauty is more apparent---lush greens, red tomatoes, and beautiful native plants fill the garden with color.

In the winter, a garden is a place you wait, your quiet, and your trusting that the soil is doing the work that needs to be done for what is to come next. It's a place where I can be bored and still and slow it way down.


Second hoop bed with mizuna and kale. Front bed with radishes and garlic.
Second hoop bed with mizuna and kale. Front bed with radishes and garlic.

We are on the threshold of spring and Pilgrims garden is covered with snow after our 5 inches on Monday. Sunday after church 5-6 Pilgrims (two of those being new-to-us folks! Woot!) planted seeds for a spring harvest: spinach, kale, arugula, and radish.

We planted garlic in November and it's still at work underneath the soil to be ready in July for a harvest. Folks were turning our winter soil. Dropping down seeds while calling out one of my favorite comments, "I don't really know what I'm doing and I'm doing it anyway!" I checked on the bees--all three hives are dead. Crap. That sucks.

Front bed with spinach, first hoop bed with arugula.
Front bed with spinach, first hoop bed with arugula.

By the end of the farming time, this is what folks had created:

We created community--humans, soil, wood, seeds, and bugs.