I’m no Michael Pollan, but I have read his books. And while I cannot speak in the depth he does about seeds, the nature of plants, and the West’s increased reliance on hybridized seeds, I can speak to my own experience.
I’ve had vegetable gardens in Costa Rica from time to time, but I’ve usually given up. One year I asked a gardener of ours to control the weeds in my plot for me. He sprayed it with gramasone, a herbicide so toxic it blisters the earth bare for about three years, making it look as though it had been napalmed. Other years rain has beaten the ground and washed away all the seeds before they had a chance to sprout, and, of course, there are the bugs. And, if none of those things get the plants, there is always the humidity and blistering sun. When I was successful we ate wonderful green beans, spinach, and chards.
Until this year I’ve been a dutiful western gardener who planted seeds in tidy rows, grouped by their own kind. I tend to be a fairly linear person anyway and, like a friend of mine, am forced to draw a curved line in the ground of any garden design I make least the yard looks like a series of lap pools.
This year we have been growing heritage vegetables in my new and covered garden plot (the beds are rectangular; I couldn’t help myself). The errant gramasone gardener is gone, replaced by a compost bin and hand tools, and the rain is no longer enemy number one. I am still fighting the urge to plant like kinds with like kinds and am now making the garden more varied. There are tomatoes planted with basil, chard planted with spinach and bok choy, and arugula planted everywhere. Caramelized pear, roasted pecan and arugula salad is pure heaven.
I have not had to use pesticides and have had only minimal invasions of bugs. I do use a natural pepper spray that seems to deter the little buggers. It makes me cough when I use it, so I can only imagine their little lungs when they encounter it. The jungle is vast and there are lots of other choices. Go there, you guys.
But the most interesting thing that has happened is in the compost bin. Because Costa Rica is not a country that uses hybridized seeds, although that may change with the new trade agreement with the USA. Once you buy a squash or a cucumber or a tomato, you own the seeds to those plants. If you compost, rather than fling your wet garbage into the trash, they tend to germinate in the bin, volunteering when the compost is spread on the garden or around trees and shrubs. We now have a squash plant around almost every fruit tree on the place.
While the the volunteers are not spectacularly productive, they make up for it in heartiness. Unlike the packaged hybrid zucchinis I planted in the past, none of these vines have wilted in direct sun or molded in the humidity. In fact, they are robust and produce at about the pace that two households can consume. We even have a butternut squash plant that suddenly appeared in the vegetable garden. As though it knew it took up too much space, it “planted” itself on the edge of a raised bed and spilled out onto the lawn where it has produced two spectacular fruits for us. Because the butternut was so considerate, it has become a favorite of mine and I tend it, making sure it has enough water and food. Michael Pollan writes about plants being smart. I think this butternut squash is genius.