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A friend from the old Soviet Union warned me that anything that becomes too large is a problem. I recalled his words recently when I gave some thought to the state of American gardening. Fewer young folks care, and I think I know why. It’s just too complicated by rules. 

I would have never become a gardener if I was young today. My long and florid learning curve included a raft of mistakes that taught me more from failure that I’d ever realize in school. Back then the open world of gardening had no boundaries, but today it’s become a mine field. Rules coming from dozens of special interests now govern how we think about our gardens, how we talk about them and what we put into them. That’s too much to absorb when a novice has no idea yet how plants really behave. It’s also complicated for old hands who are seeing the art of gardening disintegrate into barriers and limits and preconceived ideas that will not stand the test of time.

Global or backyard. The biggest problem today is the novice is thinking about global gardening instead of backyard gardening. Facebook is full of big ideas that don’t help us per se, and in fact these ideas overwhelm smaller, simpler and more productive methods used before 21st century technology. If tech disappeared tomorrow, those methods are still just as viable today if you remove all the slogans, assumptions and warnings to people just starting to understand and grow plants. Narrow your thinking to connect with the universe in your own backyard activity unique to you and your gardening desires, not fixating on some massive global problem caused by population.

All organic or death. I first met this in horticulture school back in the ’70s when we eschewed chemicals in vegetable gardens but not so much elsewhere. Since that time the organic rules have grown stricter, the GMO issue complicates seed breeding and whether or not a seed must be produced by organically grown parents. In the past, organic was not the source of seed, but how we plant, raise and harvest them for clean food. Today the problem has grown exponentially making it difficult for a novice to distinguish the difference between genetic modification and hybridization. Plant breeding has been demonized so much that even hybrids are now being denigrated as unsuitable. How is a novice to learn all these buzz words and politically correct code phrases and genetics when all they need to know is how-to-grow a seed into a healthy and productive plant?

Exotic plant rules. A whole cadre of horticulture people believe we should not grow or sell any exotic plants in favor of an all-native plant approach. An exotic is any plant not native to the US or your state, or your region. The idea is to identify invasive exotics and eliminate them, but when they grow better here due to our mild weather than the natives, they make perfect starter plants for newbies. Pros know that most native plants can be finicky and we are not keen on coaxing them to become established, so limiting plants to local species really cuts down on options and success.

With the coming of a new year and another growing season, let’s pause to give some thought to making rules. Perhaps we are trying to force global consciousness on an intensely local situation. It is intimidating others with apocalyptic fears reflected in media gardening consciousness, but that’s not the root of this primal act going back to the end of hunter-gatherer period. Perhaps we need to return to a primal sense of gardening, the love of flora and the basic knowledge that underlies it all. But when you skip all this and focus only on “saving” a whole planet, all you are cultivating is fear, not self reliance. Unless you teach the hungry man to fish, all you’ve done is put off the inevitable.

Maureen Gilmer has written over 20 books and hundreds of articles on California gardening, plants and the environment. Her upcoming book, “Living With Wildfire,” is a consumer’s guide to better understand and prepare for these growing natural disasters. Contact her at: mogilmer@gmail.com, (760) 363-1144, P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256

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