March 17, 2012
Today is St. Patrick’s Day. If I remember my stories correctly, the wearing of the green on this day comes from the Irish habit of wearing a green shamrock pinned to the clothing to commemorate that saint, who used the three-leafed plant to teach his Irish congregants the lesson of the holy trinity. At least, so the story went when I was a child.
And for me, St. Patrick’s Day always brings to mind the terrible sufferings of the great potato famine of the 1840s, which hit Ireland especially hard. It killed – it is estimated – almost a million men, women and children in Ireland and drove away another million or so through emigration. Many of those immigrants arrived on our shores.
The reasons for the famine in Ireland are many – prejudice against the Irish by the ruling class of the British Empire, of which Ireland was a part; stupid (and cruel) political decisions by Great Britain (including the continued exporting of Irish beef and grain throughout the famine) in which that prejudice surely played a part; the system of land ownership and the poverty of the Irish farmers who, because of that extreme poverty, came to depend almost exclusively on the potato as a means of sustenance for their families. When the potato blight hit, those subsistence farmers, deeply indebted to the mostly British landowners, had no way to diversify the genetics of their potato crop or to diversify away from that mono-crop.
Monoculture is not, of course, an Irish invention. It has probably been practiced since at least Old Testament times, as the mixing of crops is admonished against in that book. Modern agriculture, as practiced in developed (and, increasingly, developing) countries around the world consists mainly of large tract monoculture of a few, often genetically modified, food crops which are then exported, year round, between countries around the world.
There is a certain financial logic to the practice. But, in an age of unstable local weather patterns, growing climate change around the world and decreasing energy supplies, many people see a worldwide system of monoculture, almost totally dependent on stable weather patterns and cheap, easily accessible energy not only as penny smart and pound foolish, but downright dangerous.
I thought about all this again when my seed packets arrived last week from Baker Creek Seeds. I’m trying to keep on hand seeds for at least two or three varieties of each of the heirloom vegetables I grow precisely because, like the poor Irish farmers and their potatoes, I’m dependent on what I grow in my garden for much of my food throughout the year. And, I expect that dependency to grow as energy and food prices rise.
As for the changing weather patterns, there’s not much I can do personally about that except try to outwit it where I can.
Last year, we had a normal early spring, with temperatures in the mid fifties to low sixties by mid march, and my early vegetables did well. This year, we are already averaging fifteen to twenty degrees above the norm. Because of this, I’ll go ahead and plant my early vegetables in the garden this weekend, but I’m also planting a smaller crop in the earth boxes on the covered south porch and even one on castors in the south window where they get morning and late afternoon sun, but are shaded during the early afternoon. And if that doesn’t work, I may have to try planting them earlier next year.
Last year, we went from a normal April to June and early July weather in May. By late June, when most of the crops I’d planted in mid May were beginning to produce, we had a heat wave and everything simply stopped producing. So, this year, if that weather pattern seems to be holding, I will plant my May crops in two batches, one two weeks early, and see what happens.
And – being an old lady with time on my hands – if that doesn’t work, I’ll eat my yard and make do with what vegetable I do get until time to plant some fall veggies. Then, I’ll begin to hatch a new plan of attack for next year. After all, we only have so much time to work on this.
Which brings me to some final thoughts on monoculture.
It’s unnatural. Take a walk through any field or wooded area that’s been undisturbed by humans for a few years. Nature doesn’t do monoculture. Yes, in soil that’s been deeply disturbed and depleted, she may start out with one or two hardier weeds or weed trees that break up the soil, begin to conserve water and restore needed nutrients, but within a season or two she has started to run riot once more.
Well-manicured lawns are monocultures. This is one of the reasons I don’t keep a well-manicured lawn. I like weeds – unless they’re big and nutrient-gobbling or wildly spreading in my garden. I love it when Nature surprises me with a new, edible weed in the yard. I keep several books on weeds, both local and regional. I even have a couple on weeds from other regions of the U.S. – just in case climate change displaces them and they decide to pop up in my yard over the coming years. We just don’t know, in these days of weirding weather, when they might have to form the basis of a new kind of gardening.
Well-mannered lives can become monocultures, too. In unsettled times, as in unsettled soil, we need to maintain some of the wildness and wisdom of Nature’s variety lest we end up starving ourselves, mentally and physically, in today’s “potato” famine.
In fact, on this Saint Patrick’s Day, you may celebrate by hoisting a green beer, but I think I will get out to the garden and celebrate in my own version of the wearing of the green.