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The Genius of a Place

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In Currents, Lou Springer advises your garden is the best giver of advice

“Consulting the genius of the place,” a quote from the vast intelligence of Alexander Pope, rung like a bell and still reverberates around my mind. I have been searching for this combination of words since teaching an adult education class on gardening about six years ago. One session, we would discuss understanding your garden soil; another would be on knowing the slope, sunlight, drainage of your garden. Recognizing weeds and their control, ditto bugs and so on. 

We all could have saved classroom time and chatter if I had known these words. Because consulting with the genius of a place is the best way to become a successful gardener. And to consult, first one must understand the nature of the place. Each ‘student’ should have been assigned homework on different aspects of their own garden with a final term paper describing the genius of the place and how they plan to consult with it.

Cooperating with nature, rather than imposing our will, is the only thing that works on a garden in the long run. 

“Ah,” the modern gardener could exclaim, “we are the masters of our universe,” and use the case in point of growing cotton in the Arizona desert as a proof positive of our mastery. Whereas depending on imported water is only proof of human error, hubris and ignorance of the genius of the place. The genius of Arizona could call for sun farms to replace cotton fields and almond groves.

Gardeners, who haven’t thought it through, who haven’t consulted the genius, might be tempted to use a pesticide or herbicide to solve a problem. Do not do that. Do not leave the soil in a poorer condition than before you got your hands in it. Do not believe the chemical companies; they have a product to sell.

It might take a season or two before you figure out a solution to an insect problem. Take the time to experiment and study and devise. Broccoli grows well for us, but occasionally root maggots would destroy a plant. Ashes, we figured, would be inhospitable to soft-bellied maggots so we dug ashes into the soil around the plants which seemed to help a bit. Next year we tried collars made of cardboard toilet paper rolls to hold ashes around the stem which, as you can imagine, was not too successful. Now we use 4-inch plastic pipe as short collars filled with ashes and we set out strong plants as early as possible.

Through not consulting with the genius of our garden, we created a problem. Instead, we had consulted a book, the classic how-to gardening book by Ruth Stout, “How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back.” We faithfully followed her mantra of mulch, mulch, mulch and it really worked well to keep weeds from overwhelming the vegetables. I don’t know where Ruth was gardening, but it wasn’t in Heron, Montana. It wasn’t in rich, moist soils on a north-facing slope. All of our mulch created slug med for generations of horny young slugs to overwinter, to breed and revel. At night, if you stood quietly in the garden, you could hear the slugs chewing. It was freaky; you really did not want to stand still for very long. 

Disgusted, we moved all the old straw out of the garden. We wasted a lot of beer in slug traps and money on ground-up sea shell additives. One day, my better half noticed a pile of grass clippings was smoking. And our mulch/slug problem was solved. Grass clippings get hot while fermenting, far too hot to be comfortable for slugs. Clippings can be piled thick enough to stop annual weeds. A bonus is that grass adds nutriments and humus to the soil. Within a season the garden has eaten all the cut grass and there is no winter shelter for the sad slug. 

Consulting with the genius of the place means paying respectful attention. There are other ways to understand your place, but nothing will teach you better, or more, than a garden.

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Lou Springer Lou Springer lives in Heron when not out on a river somewhere.

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gardening, Currents, mulching

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