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: Bokashi Fermenting System

The Interconnected Way of Life in the Soil.
The Interconnected Way of Life in the Soil.

I learned of the Bokashi fermenting system last year on sabbatical while visiting the Edible Churchyard at Union Seminary (where all wonderful and dysfunctional things happen). Bokashi is a practice developed centuries ago by Japanese farmers. The farmers would cover food with nutrient rich, local soil full of microorganisms that would ferment the food waste. Bokashi is a ramped-up, high-speed composting type method. What's the difference between this and regular composting?  Think of the difference between wine and grape juice, and you've got it.

What does Bokashi create?


Mircoorganisms are vital for healthy soil. Healthy soil is vital for growing yummy veggies and beautiful plants. It's also crucial for the well-being of the planet. TRUTH.  These sometimes visible, sometimes microscopic organisms are part of the soil food web underneath our feet. These critters are needed to create soil structure, fertility, and eat the bad stuff that comes along.

With a diversity of organisms in the soil, there is a reduction in soil erosion, water runoff, sedimentation, soil compaction ( a condition that creates conditions for weeds), weed growth, and a rise in water quality, organic matter, carbon sequestration (capturing carbon from the air), and plant fertility.

Bokashi puts these microorganisms into your soil to do all the wonderful things above.

How does it work?

Typical composting needs oxygen as part of the process of breaking down veggies and brown stuff to create soil. Bokashi uses microbes that come to live without oxygen (anaerobic). This is the basic type of process that gives us pickles, wine, and kimchi.

Pink Peeps in Bokashi bucket.
Pink Peeps in Bokashi bucket.

Bokashi works really quickly--weeks instead of months (or a year, ahem) like compost. Bokashi is great for urban areas since you just need a bucket that's kept indoors rather than a compost bin that needs to be outside.

With Bokashi, ALL food waste goes into the bucket. With compost, I only put in veggies, fruits, tea bags, coffee grounds, etc. No meat, dairy, cooked food, etc.  By all food waste I mean everything, including pink Peeps leftover from Easter.

How to create Bokashi:

I bought a Bokashi "kit" online. It comes with a the Bokashi bucket and the Bokashi mix. The mix contains wheat bran, molasses, and EM1, the efficient organisms that drive the fermentation process.

Dump leftover food in the bucket--cereal with milk, meat, bread, scrambled eggs, peeps, veggies....you name it. After 1-2 inches of food in the bucket, sprinkle with the mix. Have another meal, take leftovers, dump in bucket, and add mix. Rinse. Repeat.

When the bucket is full, you close up the air-tight lid and let it sit for two weeks.

As the food wastes ferment, the microbes create a diverse array of beneficial substances: enzymes, vitamins, amino acids, trace minerals, and organic acids. The fermenting process controls pathogens and damages seeds (no more volunteer plants!)  in the container.

After two weeks, you dump the bucket of pickled food into a 1 foot deep trench in your garden or area with crap-ass soil. Dump food, cover with soil. Wait two weeks before planting. Worms, insects, and other beneficial microbes finish the process of digestion by gobbling up the pickled food waste in the soil.  The result---over a couple of weeks is increased microbe populations and bio-available nutrients supplied to the soil and plants.

From soil we have come, to soil we shall return says the Book of Genesis or New Beginnings. Bokashi is one way of tending to the soil in my eco-location.

Farming: Tending to the Roots

Shooting Star Flower
Shooting Star Flower

Life is slowly starting to lift itself out of the soil of my home garden, reaching itself above the threshold of a cold-ass winter. Every morning I go out to my garden and check on the progress of growth. How many more leaves came up over night on my coneflowers? How expansive has my oregano become? What has broken through the soil that I had forgotten about over the long winter?

I've been paying particular attention to one of my Shooting Star plants.

One of mine looks great and is on the verge of blooming. The second one is tiny, too tiny. I took a closer look the other day and noticed its roots are exposed, resting on top of the soil. Garden 101: roots need to be BELOW the soil.

I've gone back to this Shooting Star each day since, looking at the exposed roots, picturing the hard winter snow, wind, and cold slowing moving the soil off this plant, leaving it vulnerable to the chilly spring and die with roots exposed.

Exposed roots of my Shooting Star
Exposed roots of my Shooting Star

Then I caught myself this morning: Why do I just keep looking at this plant? Why don't I dig it up, transplant it and give it a chance at growth? Why am I just sitting here staring at it? Why am I acting all powerless with this plant?

I dug up the plant, created a hole in the soil, placed it down, covered the roots with soil, and watered.

Agency. Power.

Exposed roots leave plants vulnerable. Too vulnerable. The same with me.

Being a pastor is a public act. I work in community. Every Sunday I get up in front of 80 people and share interpretations of life and Biblical stories. I share parts of me, take risks in sharing parts of me in order to feel connected to the liturgical space and people of Pilgrims, and to also give others permission for others to express their own vulnerability.

Shooting Star with roots underneath the soil.
Shooting Star with roots underneath the soil.

There is a dance with sharing. If I share "this" will I be over-exposed? Will I share too much of my roots? What happens if I release too much of my essence? Can I get that back?

Soil contains plants. It covers up the roots in order for a plant to grow, flourish, give back to the planet, and release its beauty. The roots need to be covered up. If exposed I can be that plants agent, act on its behalf, and cover it up.

There is always a risk in transplanting. But there is a bigger risk in doing nothing at all.

My morning ritual is this: I get up, do legs up the wall for 5 minutes and count my inhales and exhales. I picture honeybees flowing gently in and out of my hive. I drink a homemade tea of lemon, honey, and raw apple cider vinegar.

This is my soil. This is what contains me each day. This ritual takes my roots and grounds them within me. I feel held. Contained. When I skip this ritual, especially several days in a row, I feel all ziggy-zaggy. As if my roots are exposed like the Shooting Star. Soil is a boundary against the elements. My morning ritual creates boundaries and builds boundary awareness--knowing when my roots are over exposed, when they are grounded within, and that each day I have the power to know the difference.

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.