Slow Knowledge in the Garden

12887While I was researching for my Masters in Agriculture, one of the articles I read was entitled “Slow Knowledge” by David Orr. The article describes the dismantling of an agricultural system of the Balinese by a World Bank project using Western technology intended to improve productivity. The new system ignored millennia of ecological knowledge held by the society’s elders, so in hindsight it is no surprise that the new methods did not work well in that society. This example is used to drawn comparisons between the homogenized knowledge being applied rapidly in today’s world without consideration of all that has been learned before.

Applying the concept to horticulture, we can see signs of this homogenization and the cultural value placed on ‘fast knowledge.’ Homeowners today do not think twice about applying ready-made fertilizers to ornamental beds although scientific studies have shown that most plants only require about 2% nitrogen in the soil to be healthy. This level of nitrogen is typically available in most soils that have a profile that is about 10-15 percent organic material. For most urban areas, development has scraped off the nutrient rich top soil, so new homeowners are left with nutrient poor dirt in their yards. Read on for guidance on when and for how long to remedy this situation.

The old, proven practices of applying manures and composts (either incorporated or as top dressing) have fallen by the wayside in favor of quick and easy. While concerned citizens are working for legislative remedies for high nutrient loads in urban waters, scientists are conducting studies to determine how much nutrients are contributed to soils by various types of fertilizers and measuring how much remains in the plant material so that they can determine how much of what is applied is leached into the soil. One Washington State University study indicates that plants use most of the applied nutrients when the manure or compost is incorporated into the soil. Hmmm…. Isn’t this the basis of agricultural practices since humans established communities and started farming?

All the cleverness of human ingenuity to create products and services to make our lives simpler has ignored the principles of ‘slow knowledge.’ Wisdom gained over time has more value than “careless application of knowledge [that] can destroy the conditions that permit knowledge of any kind to flourish.” Orr contends that too much irrelevant knowledge has been used as a basis to justify fast action, usually technology based, instead of compassion, good judgment, and using slow knowledge to avoid problems in the first place.

As a lover of living systems and an avid gardener, I contemplate my actions in the garden from the perspective of slow knowledge. Plants can only utilize nutrients when the soil and air temperature are within certain ranges, and there are sufficient levels of soil microbes and moisture in the soil, and the nutrient itself is in the chemical form the plant can use directly. In practical terms, this means that when I plant new trees and shrubs, I incorporate organic compost to the soil backfill, perhaps add some mychorrizal powder (if an area of depleted of top soil), add one half cup of organic fertilizer (5-4-4), then water lightly. New plantings are watered only when the soil is dry at a depth of 1-2 inches. By the second season, all that I have planted is healthy and can withstand summer dry spells. My orchard still produces more than enough fruit for the family using this approach. The many conifer seedlings that I’ve transplanted don’t receive this care because they have not been grown in the coddled conditions of a nursery. These transplants are just moved in mid-winter to early-spring and watered by rain. The oldest of these transplants are now twenty foot trees (in 10 years).

Applying slow knowledge by all the world’s gardeners may help to not only remediate some of the problems we have created, perhaps our actions can also avoid problems as well. Slow knowledge applied with comprehension of the many possible and likely consequences is wisdom. Like gardens, wisdom takes time to grow.

Orr, David R. (June 1996) Slow Knowledge, Conservation Biology, Vol 10, No 3, pp 699-702.