The Spiritual Gardener: Gardening without Chemicals

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I woke up early yesterday to hurricane force winds in the dark ayem, blowing so ferociously that after each blast I would actually cringe with my head under my pillow, waiting for the crash of a towering tree on our roof, and I reflected on how nice it is to live in a house made of two-foot-thick granite walls and ribbed with foot-thick New Jersey cedar beams.

Then the great winds finally eased up and I ventured timidly outside and it was actually HOT and humid, which was very disorienting, but I guess that accounts for the fierce winds.  It was 60 degrees at 8 a.m., a temperature that was so shocking that I had to look up the temperature in LA.  So I checked on the internet and it was a paltry 47 degrees (F) there, so sad for them. Then torrential rains commenced, on the cresting waves of which I floated into the city, and it rained furiously all day. All very odd.

And today we are afflicted by an ice storm! It was cold and raining this morning, on top of last night’s light snowfall and last week’s more serious leave-behind. It was quite a mess and the morning commute was atrocious, but the world was beautifully transformed in that way it is only once or twice every year or two, by a serious ice storm that glosses every twig and bud and branch in creation with an icy lacquer, and which turns the snow on the ground into a hard coating of frozen marzipan.

Huge icicles like this are a sure sign of an older house with issues of escaping warm air. They worry the homeowner, but still, he has to admit, they are lovely in their way.

It gives the garden an otherworldly shimmer and sheen and picks out every single complex detail in strikingly brilliant relief. It really is quite a new way of seeing altogether. Extreme cold and snow and ice are healthful and useful in the garden, and many bulbs and flowering plants cannot flower and fruit without a requisite number of cold days, so the gardener should glory in the bitter weather, as much as he can bear to, really. It is difficult in life to remember to be thankful for everything you are given, not just the things you want or were hoping for or think you need, and the garden helps us to remember this.

And we know that, at a minimum, a good hard coat of ice or snow actually protects rather than hurts the plants it covers, holding their temperature at the freezing point and protecting them from the much colder temperatures they might otherwise be killingly exposed to.

And yet, the gardener frets and worries and wishes the cold weather away, so perverse are we in our wish to control the elements and have the garden our way, not nature’s way.  “Chaos was the law of nature,” the American writer Henry Brooks Adams tells us; “order was the dream of man.”  And how true that is, of a certain kind of gardener.

I once, as a much younger man, thought of having this inscribed in stone and placing this at the entrance to our garden. It perfectly captured what I then thought of as the way the gardener tried to change, discipline and improve chaotic nature and wrest from it the orderly, beautiful and disciplined garden he had in his mind. That would only ever exist in his orderly mind. To my current way of thinking, I now consider this an absurd and actually rather immature point of view. One of the things I wish someone had told me long ago in my gardening life, and told me in a way that I would believe it despite my pig-headedness and unguided zeal (crosses I continue to bear), was that gardening is not about subduing or even changing nature, but is more about cooperating with nature.

If it is not in the nature of a forsythia bush to grow where the gardener would dearly love to have one growing, for example, blazing away in spring in a sulfurous flare of acid yellow to brighten up a dark and shady corner of the garden, then he would be well advised to find another place to put it, where it can flourish in its own way, and as nature intended.

If the gardener thinks delphiniums are gorgeous but has demonstrated no success with them whatever, which is the case with me, then he should accept the fact that delphiniums are probably not going to be in his life much and the sooner he accepts that and learns to love foxgloves, which are about the same height, same color range and nearly as gorgeous, then the better for all concerned, especially the poor delphiniums.

If I were to carve a motto in stone and put it at the entrance to my garden today, I think it would be a far more simple and modest one: “Qui plantavit florebit”. He who has planted will flourish. Especially if he has planted in a way that cooperates with nature rather than seeks to impose his order on the natural world around him.

I cringe now in shame when I think about how enthusiastically my young self poured out chemicals on the garden: fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides. I had a curious and inexperienced faith in their efficacy, and a zeal to remake the garden in a sort of chemical perfection. In mitigation of these atrocities I can only say that at least I only did them when I was very young and foolish. I did many stupid things when I was young and foolish, as who has not, for it is an excellent time to do them.

But I realized fairly soon to be skeptical of the powers of all these chemicals because I could see with my own eyes that they don’t work very well. And soon I could see, again just by direct observation, that what in fact does work well is healthy plants growing where and how they ought, in congenial conditions and in a healthy rich soil with the right amount of sunlight and water.

And gradually I came to be more in tune with the garden and to cooperate more with nature.  I learned that the better thing is not to think what the gardener wants and desires and needs of the garden, but to perceive what the garden wants and needs and desires of the gardener.  That is a very different thing altogether.  The garden is always teaching; the great thing is for the gardener to begin to learn.

If healthy and holistic gardening is not enough to win you over, perhaps you might consider this: recent research demonstrates that your chances of having Parkinson’s disease rise by 47 per cent if you are a frequent user of pesticides. Now I use no chemicals in the yard (except a bit of fertilizer on the grass out of laziness) and work instead to make sure the soil is healthy and full of natural nutrients.

This garden, in a sunny spot in the Mid-Atlantic region with a relatively benign climate for gardening – like England but sunnier – has now been chemical free for over eight years since we came here and it has been amazing to watch how fast nature heals. Birds flock here in huge numbers, and they do more to keep the insect pests down than any amount of pesticides. Bees and humming birds, fireflies and butterflies, all particularly sensitive to and repelled by garden chemicals, are in this garden all the time now, and I have often seen nearly a hundred butterflies at a time here: clouds of them in the strong sun of mid-day; they are fantastic.

I never have problems any more with common pests like aphids, which are eaten by our delightfully numerous ladybugs. I used to be plagued by Japanese beetles who shredded the canna lilies; now one never sees them. The grass is positively lumpy with all the earthworm activity, and if you dig a spadeful of grass up it is amazing how it teems with worms. Yes, our lawn looks rather seedy and tired in midsummer (we also do not have a sprinkler system, relying on rain and sometimes hoses), and the lawn weeds are extremely tiresome to remove by hand, but I consider it a small price to pay for the glories of yearlong birdsong and the sublime gift of seeing a hundred butterflies at a time in one’s garden or the joy of sitting in the dark on a warm summer night and seeing the charming, magical flicker of fireflies, alight all over the garden, while the orchestra of cicadas throbs and buzzes.

More important, perhaps, are the interior changes that come over the gardener when he is truly in tune with the garden and is cooperating with it intuitively and holistically. It is the same with faith and grace in the spiritual sphere; these are not two distinct ideas, but the same idea operating the same way and only seeming to be different.

But this is a truly large idea and something that a stronger mind then mine will need to parse.


David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.