The Wearing of the Green

St Patrick's

St Patrick's (Photo credit: bigdmia)

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.

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14 Responses to The Wearing of the Green

  1. witsendnj says:

    Gardening used to be just about my favorite thing to do. I gave up after 2008, it’s too depressing…even though I’m irrationally tempted to try again this year. I refuse to spend any money on shrubs and watch them die, but I may try some annual seeds.

    I would be curious to know if you recall any damage to leaves as shown in these photographs here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2012/03/void-between-rhetoric-and-reality.html

    I didn’t take them – they’re from an air pollution fumigation experiment in Spain. There’s a picture comparing potato yield about 18 down that is disturbing.

    thanks,
    Gail

    • theozarker says:

      Hi Gail, it is a little depressing to put so much work into something and then – nothing. But, like I said, it’s either eat my garden or eat my lawn (though i don’t mind eating both. 😀 )

      Dang, those pics are scary. The grape leaf looks a little like some of mine did in the worst of the heat last year – even though I made sure they had enough water. Wonder if heat might leave things more susceptible to the ozone or vise-versa. A lot of the other plants I don’t recognize, but the damage doesn’t look familiar – so far, at least.

      Well, we are going to have to strive to deal with mother nature on her terms or starve at some point, aren’t we?

      • witsendnj says:

        Ozone and heat are intimately connected and enhanced, because ozone is created for the most part in the nexus between precursors (reactive nitrogen), VOC’s and UV radiation. The more heat, the more ozone…and ozone is a heat-trapping gas – so one of many amplifying feedbacks.

        Poor Mother Nature has lost control over this process – her terms have been abridged and her only recourse is a well-deserved revenge – it is driven by us, drilling and extracting ancient (billions of years old) hydrocarbons in a flurry of briefly-lived enjoyment, for which there’s going to be hell to pay.

  2. pamela says:

    LOL Linda, you sound like me! I’ve been trying to stay a step ahead of this crazy weather and have been putting in plants 6 weeks early. they are doing great but I have plastic covers for the beds at the ready, just in case. that’s the doomer way!
    I have Japanese mustard that has actually bolted and is trying to flower and go to seed already! I’ve been eating it as fast as i can though. Tasty stuff!
    another thoughtful and though provoking essay my friend.
    I wish there were more voices like yours out there, maybe in time there will be.

    pamela

    • theozarker says:

      Hey Pam. I was just out in the garden. I told you the rhubarb was up about 5 inches last week, but the asparagus has popped up now, literally overnight. Maybe by coming up so early, it will fool the grubs of those asparagus beetles that were swarming when I pulled up the asparagus fronds last September. I split the batch I picked today with the tenant. He’s never eaten it before from what he said. Too windy to get any planting done today, but I’ll try again tomorrow. But I shall dine on the batch I kept tonight. (Yeah!)

  3. cactus wren says:

    It has been unseasonably warm during the day,here in NM, but my nights are still in the 20s. I was thinking about putting in some kale and peas. Now,it`s supposed to snow Monday, and get very cold again, so,I`m glad I didn`t get stuff planted. Our last frost date is May 30th, and we had a killing frost last June 21st. So, no fruit last year.
    I`m still learning gardening. Some successes, some failures.
    I figure that while I can still buy stuff, it is a good time to learn, as time is approaching that I won`t have that option.

    • theozarker says:

      Hi CW, our nights were seasonably cold/cool when this warming started, but they’ve also been about 20 degrees warmer the last couple of weeks. Our last frost date is usually mid to late April. I do worry that we’ll come a cropper in late March or early April (which is why I’m planting some of the early crops either in the house or on that porch where they’re sheltered and I can cover them if necessary.)
      I’ve only been seriously gardening for about the last seven years, but my dad was a wonderful green-thumb gardener.
      I do think we’re all going to have to try new things and not be afraid to fail while we still have some time to do it. So we all may wind up being beginners again.
      I was sure glad canned stuff was still available this winter after the summer garden failed last year. 😮

  4. theozarker says:

    Gail, that’s the thing that so many people don’t realize. It’s not just a matter of things getting a little hotter; it’s all the feedbacks and amplifiers and the fact that complex systems can go in so many different directions once they’ve been destabilzed. I suspect mother nature will have its way in the end, though it may well be our end that’s demanded to put the system into some kind of new order. Hmmm, we were such a promising species, too.

  5. graveday says:

    Holy ozone. We’ve gone from ozone hole to ozoned out in double time. In a lecture Heinberg joked that climate change had the seeds of its solution in peak oil, which birthed/sired it.
    Greek tragedy of a global order and no joke, as Heinberg was quick to point out.
    I will keep wearing the green of the garden kind too. My rhubarb is up the same as yours Linda, just in time for the ‘rhubarb’, eh?

    • theozarker says:

      Hey grave. Yeah, it’s a little early for both the asparagus and the rhubarb here, at least. I think we and mother nature are headed for a “rhubarb” all right. Sigh.
      I did get out and plant some carrots and beets today. So now I have lettuce, spinach, radishes, onions, beets and carrots, rhubarb and asparagus – plus my pepper and tomato starts. Sure hope mother nature decides to play nice. 😀

  6. graveday says:

    Mothers are usually nice if you don’t cross them, but we’re talking double cross here.

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