Organic rules

“Mother Earth, Gaia, most ancient of all the gods appears inexhaustible in energy and abundance./ Her soil yields endless prosperity when one rotates the crops…/ Mother Earth allows her children to suckle at her breasts in an endless feast./ What is the child’s duty?/ We care for our mother…./ We have a duty to Mother Earth and to each other.”

In Sophocles’ “Antigone”, the interdependence between human beings and nature, and between one human being and another, is celebrated by the Chorus with a list of examples: hunters trap birds to eat – “yet they always return”; fishermen fill their nets at sea – “yet there is always more”;  horses roam the plains – “yet there are always more.”

Some 2,500 years later,  we can no longer take these observations for granted.

How has this happened? I think a lot of it comes down to Gandhi’s well-observed point: the earth has enough resources for man’s need, but not enough for his greed.

My interest in gardening  and eating organically arose from many factors. One was the conviction that, while many of us care a great deal about what kind of clothes we put on our bodies, we don’t seem to spend commensurate time and effort over the substances we put into them. Yet food and drink are the building blocks of our life and our health – in the Ayurvedic system of India, you really are what you eat, or rather: what you eat is what you become.

Too often, modern methods of cultivation look like organized and officially sanctioned violence. If a plant – even a whole hedge – gets in the way, uproot it. If it suffers from disease, zap it with something strong and trounce the bugs on which other creatures depend for their food. If there’s a cheap way to feed plants and animals, then let’s go with it even if it’s against nature and common sense; after BSE in the UK, we know where that may lead. Need to industrialize  poultry production? No problem, cram the chickens into the least possible space, de-beak them, condemn them to a living hell and then – hey, let’s slaughter and market them as cheap and easy bits and pieces on polystyrene trays. Why? Because, we are often told, that’s what the consumer wants.

Well, this consumer says: Enough! There are other ways to live and other ways to eat – ways that minimize the impact on the environment, and enable us to live in harmony with our neighbours and with Gaia.

How is this to be done? In terms of organic cultivation:

– The aim is to feed the soil, not the plants. Add organic, predominantly non-animal matter, both compost and surface mulches, to the soil in order to improve its health, nutrient status, texture and drainage. Use green manures (clover, rye etc). Then: watch the soil come alive, and thrive!

– Also: care for the earth. Don’t walk on it any more than you have to. Lay down stepping stones so you always tread on the same spot; construct raised beds up to about 1.5 m. wide and cultivate without walking on the soil.

– Make any plant tonics from natural sources – use the diluted run-off from the compost, or brew your own comfrey liquid feed (it may – or may not – work.)

– Re-use and recycle as much as possible. Most veg and fruit waste can be composted, along with plant cuttings, twigs, shredded cardboard, paper and natural textiles without chemical printer’s ink. Off-cuts of wood/pruned branches can be re-used for climbing frames, old pallets for compost bin fences or to stand potted plants on.

– Cherish wildlife. Insect eaters (ladybird, lizard, mantis etc) should be made welcome. However, where insects are a problem, there are safe and humane preventive measures: sow carrots in raised beds over 30cm high (carrot fly can take off, but not soar); cover beds with nets to shelter plants from insects, and from the sun in hot climates; try companion planting (the jury seems to be out on this one – but onions are useful guardians against some pests).

– Respect weeds. Hoe, mulch or hand-weed in order to keep them down, but whatever else you do, don’t use weed-killers. I prefer not to compost weeds as I don’t want them popping up again in other areas, but some gardeners compost pretty much everything as long as it’s free of disease.

– Try to use organically grown seeds if at all possible. In Egypt, this is difficult – seeds are sourced from local producers and are unlikely to be organic. Imported seeds, e.g. from the US and Japan, are very expensive and they are not organic. I bring some  packets with me from the UK; results with organic seeds are very mixed.

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