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Proverb Update: It’s actually better to be a gardener in the garden

By John Hershey:

Gnomes with Guns - now at a garden center near you!  (Yikes)	PHOTO: John Hersey
Gnomes with Guns - now at a garden center near you! (Yikes) PHOTO: John Hersey

Lately it has become trendy among certain “influencers” to quote this pithy aphorism: “It is better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war.” Supposedly it’s a Chinese proverb, but it sounds like the kind of fake saying used to lend credence to opinions that, without the imprimatur of ancient wisdom, might need to be thought through. Most websites featuring this adage don’t explain its origins but will gladly sell you a t-shirt emblazoned with it.


I guess the point is we must prepare for danger to live in peace. That’s profound and all, but why do these people have to barge into the garden with their metaphors? I have watering to do, I don’t have time to argue about whether we should be doing each other’s jobs. Let’s stay in our lanes, bro!


I actually agree with the second part of the proverb. As a gardener, I wouldn’t last ten minutes on the front lines. If I saw a trench, I would plant potatoes in it. And if I were ordered to take over territory, I would put down layers of cardboard and compost. But are the skills of war any more useful in a garden?


Unfortunately, the answer is not metaphorical. People have been literally acting like warriors in the garden for decades. The chemical weapons of World War I were modified into pesticides and are now banned on battlefields but oddly not in gardens. And ingredients of the bombs made for the next war became the synthetic fertilizers that turned gardeners’ fingers blue through the 20th century.


When we brought weapons into the garden, we brought the mindset too. Nature is the enemy we conquered to carve out the garden, but it’s counter-attacking with insects and weeds. So Weekend Warriors spring into action.


Another bit of ancient wisdom, from the Bible, urges us to beat our swords into plowshares. That’s a fine sentiment, but it’s really the same attitude: adapting weapons to use against nature in the garden. It’s nice that we’re not stabbing each other anymore, but plows are still sharp pointy things that do to the living soil what swords did to enemy troops.


Warfare in the garden, as elsewhere, degrades the land and damages the “collateral” population. Tilling harms the soil’s structure, and chemicals kill its beneficial biology. But if we don’t think of it as a battle, we don’t have to destroy the garden in order to save it.


Some gardeners have been showing us how to grow in peaceful cooperation with nature. Beyond organic, this method of keeping soil undisturbed and covered with organic matter goes by various names: no-till, lasagna, regenerative. I call it judo gardening. Judo means the “gentle way”. In judo, you turn your opponent’s strength to your advantage, achieving a favorable position with maximum efficiency and minimal effort.


You had me at “minimal effort”! These concepts are perfect for the garden. Without all the rototilling and spraying, the healthy ecosystem of a deep-mulched garden is strong enough to fend off most pests. Those that remain can become our allies. If we don’t demand total victory, we can turn the strength of even ruthless foes like aphids and bindweed to our benefit. Aphids don’t actually cause much damage to plants, but they attract beneficial insects that feast on the real enemies, like parasitic wasps who might go after the grasshoppers that have taken my big kale patch down to the studs. Bindweed’s strength is its huge biomass, which we can carefully compost to capture the soil nutrients. Sure, some might survive the process, but there’s no way to eradicate it anyway, and our deep mulch will weaken it.


If we’re going to bring the warrior ethos into the garden, let’s base it on a real Asian tradition of martial arts. Judo gardening is win-win for everyone, from me to my crops to the soil life. The military analogy doesn’t work because warriors and gardeners face opposite challenges. War is conflict, and people get into conflicts when they are competing for scarce resources, like oil or Taylor Swift tickets. In the garden, we’re coping with excess. Zucchini is the classic example but not the only one. When you’re seduced by the botanical illustration and impulsively buy a packet of daikon seeds, then a few weeks later you have to figure out what to do with 75 giant purple radishes, guarding your stuff from outsiders is the least of your concerns.


The bounty of the garden creates community rather than conflict. Free wood chips from Chip Drop are great mulch for perennial beds. The problem, again, is overabundance. It’s not easy to use a whole truck load, so recipients post frantic messages in garden social media groups: “Help! There’s a mountain of wood chips in my driveway! Please come and take some! I think my Mini Cooper is under there!”


We show up with buckets, get some mulch, and make some friends. The need to share brings us together. So of course, along with everyone else, warriors are welcome in my garden, as long as they don’t want to trade places. I’ve already shared my brassicas with the local grasshopper community, but there’s plenty of tomatoes and cucumbers.


Judo gardening is a learning process. Next year, I’ll add fortifications of floating row cover to deter the grasshoppers. Even if my gentle method of pest management isn’t perfect, nowadays I can count on a big midsummer hail storm to wipe the slate clean and give me a fresh start with cool-season crops.


There’s another alleged Chinese proverb about this: “If you wish to be happy for a day, get drunk. But if you wish to be happy forever, plant a garden.” The first option is tempting when the plagues of hail and locusts descend. But for enduring happiness, there’s nothing like coming in from a hot, battered summer garden, going down to the cool basement, and recapturing the giddy optimism of spring by starting seeds for a whole new garden in the fall.

John Hershey (vegetablehusbandry@gmail.com) gardens in Littleton. Find him on Instagram @ vegetable_husbandry

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