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Weekly newspaper columnists most often opine on people and society. Michael Laws, in his weekly Sunday Star Times column, has a particular trenchant for admonishing people with fewer resources than himself.

This Sunday, Laws advocated gardening to the poor in “Want to eat well? Simply grow your own food” (Sunday Star Times January 6th). Seldom do weekly columnists tread into ecological territory and, being an amateur but enthusiastic gardener myself, I read with interest.

It is not the first time the poor have been chastised for not gardening. Every so often a politician or self-righteous ‘green-thumb’ will also imbibe in this ecological solution to being impoverished. But is the criticism for not gardening fair, and is gardening a viable solution to being poor?

Gardening is an ecological problem made more challenging by its interaction with human behaviour and economics. Mr Law’s central tenants are that gardening is easy and that it results in a net economic gain to the household. He is dreaming.

The Fertile Cresent – the largest area on the planet with both rich alluvial soils and a Mediterreanean climate – ideal conditions for gardening.

Gardening was a late advance in human societies because it is difficult and constrained by opportunity – the fortuitous coincidence of multiple favourable circumstances at once. Growing plants for food occurred first along the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers and eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea called, appropriately, the Fertile Crescent. The Fertile Cresent was the largest area on the planet with the coincidence of rich alluvial soils and a climate of mild, wet winters and long summers [1]. It is much harder and more costly to garden in most other places on the planet.

The first plants domesticated – wheat, barley and peas – weren’t cropped until just over 10,000 years ago, although our species has been smart enough for gardening for a lot longer than that. We domesticated animals earlier – training wolves to dogs over 13,000 years ago in western Russia and central Europe – and have harnessed fire, made tools, and communicated with language for much, much longer still [2].

Gardening also developed very slowly. Hunter-gatherer societies did not become agriculturalists overnight. They made a gradual transformation to sedentary communities that grew their food because attaining the experience and knowledge to garden well took several millennia. Gardening is not an easy thing to do – even for brainiacs.

My daughter picking raspberries under the cabbage tree – nothing else would grow there.

Although our society has solved many of the problems which faced the first gardeners, several of the original challenges remain. A coincidence of five conditions of our ecology must still occur for gardening to be easy and economically viable in the modern world (and while I list these challenges let me boast pictorially about my ‘world famous to my daughter’ zucchinis, raspberries and beans – illustrated – many more failures not illustrated). You must:

1. have a site to garden and certain tenure and security of your site,

I had wonderful zucchinis last year. Looks like a good crop this year too. My first year’s crop failed – seeds rotted in the ground.

2. start-up resources (funds, equipment, materials, time) available to invest and sufficient to succeed,

3. have soil and micro-climate at the site suitable for growth,

4. be in a place that is unlikely to suffer extreme ecological events (weather or pests) capable of destroying your crop, and

Beans, glorious beans. Broad ones finishing, and Scarlet Runners just beginning. Broad beans were my first success – robust to clay soils. Scarlet runners are perrenial lovelys, but my first season of these failed.

5. already be garden-wise.

If you invest in a garden but any of these conditions is not met, and a net economic return is your measure of success because you are poor, then you will fail and become poorer still. This is why those that garden well are garden proud. Gardening well is a magnificent achievement of socio-ecological intuition and science.

Is Michael Laws naïve? To some extent. But I also suspect him of giving the poor another hiding – he is a feral columnist. This time he has chosen to thrash them with an ecological stick – a false solution and he is wrong to do so. In future posts I will embellish on these five conditions to explain why our ecology makes gardening for food largely a luxury of the middle classes.

 

Bibliography

1 Diamond, J. (1999) Guns, Germs, and Steel. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

2 Clutton-Brock, J. (2012) Animals as Domesticates. Michigan State University Press.