The most deeply entrenched aspects of the culture you are living in are often the most difficult to see. We live in the fossil fuel powered machine age, where productivity and efficiency overrule all other considerations. Their inexorable pressure is mediated by the rules of money which dictate that whatever approach generates the most profit in the shortest time gradually pushes all other options out of the way. This effect can be seen clearly in organic farming, a movement started with the purest of intentions that has gradually transformed into industrial organic farming for the most part, with plastic sheet mulching to reduce expensive human labour and the same tendency for labour exploitation as conventional farming. Large farms crush small ones due to the economies of scale required to connect with a mass market. Farms that try to do better at a price are eventually pushed out by those that cut corners and get away with it. The same logic of converting cheap inputs into profitable outputs rules, with plants just a relatively unreliable cog in the larger money making machine.
This culture goes to the heart of what most people consider vegetable growing, even on a personal backyard scale. Modern vegetable growing culture can trace its roots back to the intensive market gardens that grew alongside the development of large urban centres throughout history. In these crowded spaces the limitations of transportation and space made it difficult for city dwellers to get fresh perishable produce. This drove the development of intensive growing methods that produced the largest volume of harvest from the smallest space in the shortest period of time. The availability of concentrated inputs such as horse manure and human night soil helped support these intensive systems. Varieties were bred that gave the most rapid growth in response to these intensive conditions, with further selection to make the resulting produce easier to harvest and transport. All of these selective efforts tended to produce plants with weaker root systems and pest resistance that were completely dependent on humans to supply water, nutrient and protection. Today in our crowded cities and suburbs this model of growing food makes more sense simply because the space and time required to grow food using more extensive often does not exist. When land is limited and expensive, while inputs are cheap and reliable thanks to our industrial infrastructure, it makes sense to pump your produce up to mammoth proportions. The popularity of personal allotment gardening in industrial Europe bloomed at the same time as competitions for the largest zucchini or heaviest cabbage became extremely popular, all supported by mineral fertilisers mined and shipped by steam from half a planet away. That attitude still persists today, particularly in sharing of pretty pictures of “home grown abundance” on social media.
This culture however has become so dominant that the alternative of extensive gardening has almost been lost from our collective memories. Going way back, hunter-gatherers did eat various plants that we would today call vegetables but they were usually a relatively small component of the diet. The relatively high nutrient density of their unprocessed meat, nuts and starchy staples meant they had relatively little need for supplementary minerals, vitamins and fibre. For example warrigal greens were apparently very rarely eaten by Aborigines, despite its reputation as a “bush food” today. In the early phase of the transition to settled agriculture it was starchy staples and legumes that were domesticated first, followed later by select fruits. During this time vegetables were presumably harvested from remaining wild populations, functioning more as seasonings and medicines than a bulk component of the diet. In non-western cultures, especially in Asia, that deeper history of the relationship between vegetables and humans has been kept alive, with seasonal wild vegetables being viewed as precious delicacies. Currently a growing movement to understand edible weeds is resurfacing in the industrialised west, though this culture persisted in the more remote rural areas in many parts of the world.
Broadening your cultural perspective to understand the alternative to intensive farming and thinking about the extensive end of the spectrum has potential benefits, even for people with limited space. Home gardeners typically struggle to reach the level of consistent intensive inputs that an experienced market gardener working full time can. As a result many of the familiar varieties that are available to them were selected for ideal intensive systems meaning they adapt poorly to the inconsistent conditions in home gardens. Trying to reproduce the supermarket in your backyard fails for most, particularly because different crops often require quite different soil and growing conditions. As a consequence of all this the majority of suburbanites correctly assessing that growing vegetables isn’t worth the money, time and risks involved following the intensive approach, especially when some industrial vegetables are so cheap in the shops. If they were aware of the extensive approaches to growing then they could probably grow low input vegetables in a way that doesn’t require the large upfront costs and high levels of ongoing work. Instead of pushing their systems to produce as much as possible at any cost and reproduce the industrial offerings at the supermarket, they could shift to less familiar low demand crops that produce smaller amounts of high quality seasonal produce. It is also worth considering that intensive/extensive is a spectrum and you don’t need to structure your whole garden around just one level of intensity. A useful strategy is to have a very small intensive area for continuous production that matches the resources available to support it, with the rest of the space at the more extensive end of the spectrum for more opportunistic and seasonal production.
The resources that make intensive vegetable gardening possible in its current form may not be as cheap and reliable in the future that is unfolding around us, and for many in less privileged positions the resources required are already out of reach. Reconnecting with low input, extensive growing systems has the potential to make growing your own vegetables a net profit and accessible to a much wider cross section of the community than the popular high input approach.
2 thoughts on “The Mechanical Garden”
This post really hits home with some hard truths. I agree.
What do you think of the growing research on the link between fiber and gut health? Do you think it is worth considering from a zero input ag perspective to grow more fibrous foods in a greater percentage of one’s diet? Maybe not leafy greens, but perhaps legumes or hull less farro.. I wonder if a society that gets most of its calories from nuts and meats could benefit from a higher percentage of fiber that you say they did not need. I imagine the asian seasonal mountain vegetables provide enough fiber to maintain low inflammation and longevity.