DIRT NERD: FOR THE BIRDS

ANTIGRAVITY-APRIL-2017-Dirt-Nerd1-by-Melissa-Guion
Published  April 2017

Last month I rather unceremoniously stated that you should not grow food if you’re not going to eat it. There are plenty of reasons to grow food that extend well beyond your dinner plate or your vegetable-averse palate. I suppose the obvious and easy reason is so you can feed your friends, family, and neighbors with your bountiful harvests if hamburgers are more your thing. Any committed readers may recall my writing a couple months back about the communal bonding that the act of growing food fosters, and that this sort of community-building can only be equalled by the act of sharing a meal. My own internal and wholly subjective logic dictates that if those two acts are equals on the “bring the world together” spectrum, the intermediary between them—that is, growing and sharing your food with others—is an equally potent source of interpersonal interweaving. Throw a feast, throw a bag of greens at your neighbor’s doorstep, throw a crop of okra in a deep fryer, throw that okra in a basket for your kids, and watch your kids retch in revulsion because okra is kind of gross no matter how you cook it.

Yet and still, I will absolutely stand by my aversion to growing okra. The fact of its inextricable link to the cultural heritage of New Orleans is not enough for me to evangelize for this crop. If you do not like to eat okra, I would encourage you not to grow it because the crop is extremely irritating to the skin. And to suffer a rash by the cruel leaves of an okra plant when you have no intention of eating it is a sufferance you need not live through. If you’re going to grow something you’re not going to eat, maybe try growing mullein, whose felty leaves are as soothing to the fingers when touched as they are to the lungs when smoked. Or if you’re just into the fine figure of the okra plant, try growing Roselle hibiscus. It’s closely related and looks much the same, but its leaves—in a welcome departure from the toxic itch of okra’s regalia—are delicious steamed or fresh in salads. And its seed pods are the main component in hibiscus tea.

If you are attracting birds to your yard, you have succeeded in creating a diverse ecosystem from bottom to top that is inevitably helping life to thrive in our fair city.

We landscape our yards and keep plants in our homes in the pursuit of an aesthetic that is intertwined with a deep longing to remain connected to nature, and to nurture life. That longing may be extremely subconscious in the minds of the aggressively lawn-obsessed, but aside from the Joneses, it’s still the driving factor. Elsewise those grass fascists would be laying astroturf or pouring concrete over their yards. The human aesthetic errs towards life and our care for it, and I think life that begets life that begets life is among the most ornamentally pleasing sort of life to adorn our spaces with.

Right, but what about the ecosystem? Aren’t you helping the ecosystem when you plant a beautiful landscape? All the beneficial flowers for the pollinators and the butterflies and all the habitats for the birds in the shrubs and the trees and a shady place for the cat to hide and so on? Of course you are—an urban space filled with trees, flowers, and grass creates a habitat for all manner of creature that an empty lot filled with cracked foundation and broken glass most certainly cannot. Anything we can do to enhance the lifestyles and life cycles of the myriad creatures we share this city with is good, but why settle for good when you can do better?

A well-tended food garden, especially one that isn’t harvested regularly because the grower isn’t particularly amenable to eating vegetables, can easily be as beautiful as any collection of functionally useless flowers and shrubs. Before I go too far down this rabbithole, I’d like to point out that tons of flowers and shrubs normally relegated to the world of landscape for landscape’s sake aren’t the least bit useless. Many of them are edible, or medicinal, or otherwise handy in a human context.

As a general rule, the plants that we like to eat the most are also the plants everything else likes to eat the most, so the best way to support a thriving wildlife population, from aphid to bee to beetle to caterpillar to bird to nutria, is to grow plants that people eat. Nevermind that the wildlife you’re supporting may be an invasive species that we have been intensively trying to eradicate from our wetlands for the last 20 years. It’s life, dammit.

Monarch caterpillars live exclusively off of milkweed, a one-time native food source in North America, also a wonderful cough suppressant that’s great for easing asthma symptoms as well. I know the likelihood of a gardener using milkweed to these ends is not particularly likely (even if they are the sort of gardener who eats the food they grow), but I’m trying to drive home a point here. You can have it all: beauty, food, and function on top of function on top of function. They call it stacking functions in permaculture world.

Here are some more winning examples of enhanced beauty and thriving ecosystems through a food garden that you’re not going to eat out of:

Swallowtail caterpillars are obsessed with dill and fennel. Nevermind that these caterpillars grow into gorgeous butterflies, they also have these crazy orange slimy looking antennae that pop out of their heads when they feel threatened. It’s creepy and alien and super rad—reason enough to let the bastards live and be nourished by your herbs.

Aphids love verdant green lettuces and other leafy things. The more nutritious, over nitrogenated, and chlorophyll full the better. If the plant looks too good to eat, you can bet the aphids are eating it. Our affinities for insects do not lean towards an appreciation of the aphid, but we do love us some ladybugs. They are the mascot for all things gardening in our pastoral dialect. Of course our adoration for these cold-blooded killers is originally derived from their voracious appetite for aphids and their winning capacity to rid our lettuces of them, not from their cuteness. But we’re talking aesthetics and ecosystems here and who doesn’t want a ton of precious-as-hell ladybugs fluttering around their garden, occasionally alighting on their forearms and tickling their imaginations? I think this is reason enough to grow lettuce you have no intention of eating.

Colony collapse disorder is still ravaging bee populations to the extent that many species of bees are near extinction. If we don’t do all that we can to keep bees around, we are facing a dire future, possibly even one wherein artificially intelligent robot bees replace our lost bee population to pollinate our food supplies. Alternately, we could run out of food. So we should be planting tons of plants that bees love. And bees love vegetables. Tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, citrus trees, peas, cucumbers, strawberries and blackberries are all beloved by bees, at least as much as any given ornamental flower, and that’s just a petty few of the many vegetables with flowers that a bee would love to sip on. Truly, anecdotally, I spent years doing landscaping before I was growing food, and I see more bees by magnitudes around my pepper plant rows than I ever saw while managing flower beds.

ANTIGRAVITY-APRIL-2017-Dirt-Nerd2-by-Melissa-GuionIf for no other reason, you might as well grow a food garden for the birds. Birds love fruit and birds love all of the larger insects that love eating human-grown food: caterpillars, beetles, snails, and the like. Birds are the apex predators in our urban ecosystem, and our closest and most fascinating link to real life nature. Also, we mostly just like having them around, at least the pretty ones that can sing. If you are attracting birds to your yard, you have succeeded in creating a diverse ecosystem from bottom to top that is inevitably helping life to thrive in our fair city. I for one can think of no better reason to grow food (unless you’re going to eat it).

Questions or news about gardening? Email the Dirt Nerd at Ian@southboundgardens.com

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