The mindset with which we approach growing fruits and vegetables, whether they are for market or for home use, makes a great deal of difference in our results. There are two common philosophies when it comes to gardening on any scale:
- Plant positive.
- Pest negative.
The first philosophy basically encompasses any approach that seeks to maximize the vibrancy of the plant. The second encompasses any approach that fights back against insects and diseases once they appear.
The Pest-Negative Philosophy
The pest-negative philosophy is familiar to all of us, as it is widely promulgated in extension publications and handed down from generation to generation of experienced gardeners. The basic idea is that, as soon as a pest appears, it should be doused in some type of antidote, usually one of the chemicals that line the shelves of supermarkets and home improvement stores.
More recently, an “organic” variation on this approach has emerged. In this approach, the chemicals with the most dangerous-looking warning labels are eschewed in favor of substances that more closely resemble something natural. A fungus is treated with a copper spray or an insect pest is coated in bacteria, for instance. A more creative gardener might even draft an army of purchased beneficial insects to do battle on his behalf.
Regardless of whether a more conventional method or an organic alternative is pursued, the basic thinking is the same: Pests and diseases are an inevitable and unpleasant fact of gardening. There is little that can be done to prevent them, but the gardener will find it necessary to go war every season once the perennial problem emerges.
The Plant-Positive Philosophy
Far less common is a plant-positive philosophy. To see how this type of thinking works, start with the following premise—that natural systems were actually designed to work, not just to survive but to thrive.
This premise immediately suggests a number of ideas that would naturally follow. The first idea that presents itself is that the further a garden is from a natural system, the more work it will take to maintain. To provide a few examples:
- Growing a large number of a few species of plants is exactly the opposite of a natural system, and it is a policy that may deplete soil nutrients and attract pests.
- The annual rite of tillage destroys soil structure and brings up fresh crops of weed seeds.
- Overzealous reliance on supplemental irrigation flushes nutrients from the soil, encourages plants to grow shallow root systems, and, if groundwater is used, may even lead to a buildup of harmful soil salts.
Another idea arising from the basic premise is that a plant that fails to thrive is perhaps the wrong plant for the environment. Many modern hybrids these days are developed for irrigation-based systems in the balmy parts of California. It would not be a great surprise if they were for that very reason less ideas suited to heat, cold, drought, floods, wind, or a number of other less moderate conditions.
A third idea is that perhaps pests are part of the natural system. Not only do they serve as food for the beneficial insects so many gardeners are anxious to attract, but pests and diseases routinely target the weakest plants, eliminating them from the system.
Implementing a Plant-Positive Approach
If we accept these principles, then it becomes a matter of fostering the most vibrant plant life possible. There are many components to this, but the five tenets below are possibly the most important:
- Start with well-aerated soil rich in microorganisms, organic matter, and a wide spectrum of nutrients.
- Select plant varieties adapted to the situation at hand.
- Respect the natural ebb and flow of the seasons when deciding when to plant.
- Maintain a supply of moisture deep in the soil and encourage plant roots to seek that reserve.
- Visit the garden frequently so that potential problems are forestalled before they ever arise.
The first four principles mimic recurring themes we see in nature. The last principle ensures that the gardener will reap the fruit of his labor.
And what is the fruit of a plant-positive approach? Plants so healthy that insects avoid them. Many garden insects have comparatively simple digestive systems and therefore seek out simple carbohydrates to eat. Vibrant plants, those that are shunned by insect pests, tend to be higher in more complex carbohydrates and rich in a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. Needless to say, we could all use more of this type of food in our diet. It tastes good, too.
With such rich rewards offered by the plant-positive approach, one may well wonder why it is not more common. For one thing, the knowledge of how to implement such an approach is far too scarce. For another thing, we time-pressed gardeners tend to opt for well-marketed quick fixes and surefire solutions. It takes time to rebuild a natural ecosystem that has been allowed to degenerate. The results will not be reaped in a year, and perhaps not even in the first three years. Restoring a natural system in the garden is possible within a relatively short amount of time if dedicated effort is applied, but it will be nearly impossible if a more cautious approach is taken.
To take the determined approach necessary for rapid results, we must truly believe in a plant-positive approach. The pest-negative philosophy inherently assumes that we are waging war to secure scarce resources. To fully embrace plant-positive thinking, we must believe that abundance is actually an integral part of nature. We must recognize the wise design behind the system.