Gardening with chemicals: Name your poison

Published: May 22, 2011

To the uninitiated, my garden is a mess: the mixed bed of herbs and flowers is overflowing with self-seeded plants growing at random amongst un-pruned roses and the parsley and Queen Anne’s lace have spilled beyond any discernible boundary.

Blue and white flowered borage, rocket and garlic chives have popped up all over the potato bed. Lettuce, larkspur, feverfew and masses of wild daisies flourish in between emerging pumpkin and courgette seedlings. There are sunflowers in the comfrey, sweet William’s with the beans, Nigella in the asparagus, Ratibida in the thyme, aniseed in the sweet peas, parsnips in the strawberry bed. As if this wasn’t enough, the orchard encroaches on the garden: apple, apricot, plum, persimmon, cherry, lemon, fig, orange, quince, almond, pomegranate, sloe, strawberry guava, damson and peach trees draped with grape vines, clematis and wisteria flourish. The mish-mash of vibrant new greens both delights and confounds.

People with preconceived notions of how a horticulturalist’s garden should be are shocked. Expecting straight lines, meticulously tended beds with neat rows of individual crops without a weed in sight, they usually frown in disdainful confusion, raise their eyebrows, look down their noses and, after I have tried — usually unsuccessfully — to explain what it is all about, leave in disgust to explain to their friends that “Zahrah Nasir’s garden is a hotchpotch.” They are right, of course!

This is not simply a garden: Here I have, over 15 years, thoughtfully put into practice what is known as ‘Permaculture’ to create what might be the first highly-productive, naturally-balanced garden in the country in whose chemical-free atmosphere plants and wildlife are encouraged to interact to the benefit of all concerned. As other gardeners reach for yet another chemical spray to kill off the aphids infesting their roses, for example, I contentedly watch industrious ladybirds actively ‘farming’ the very few aphids attempting to gain a foothold on the mustard mizuna that has been left to form seed for next year’s crop . Being under-planted with garlic chives, my roses are completely free from aphids.

Having an understanding of the complicated relationships between different kinds of plants — some of which protect others from pests, some which encourage others to flourish by nurturing them with necessary minerals, some which attract pollinators which, after feasting on the nectar, happily move onto a less enticing plant growing right next to them — is one of the basics of this practice. Successful organic permaculture is all about working with nature rather than against it as so many gardeners and agriculturalists do. It is also about creating harmony and micro-climates, health and happiness for the myriad life forms in which soil microbes are just as important as visiting or resident birds and which all contribute to bountiful crops of a climatically suitable type.

The incredibly productive gardens of Goa in India have long been renowned in horticultural circles for the miraculous crops achieved with the fertile soil being widely acclaimed as the reason. But this is not true. The majority of small farmers and growers in Goa, knowingly or unknowingly, have practiced organic permaculture for centuries: the required knowledge and understanding being passed down from one generation to the next with inter-planting, under-planting and vertical gardening practices being the rule rather than the exception and the ‘no dig’ principle dominating the scene. Farmers in other parts of India, particularly during the years of the ‘Green Revolution’, switched over to a heavy reliance on mono-cropping, using chemical interventions that poisoned the land and the crops. Now, they are paying the price for this switch. While India does appear to have learnt some lessons from that devastating experience we, quite stupidly, have not.

The Punjab Agricultural Research Board, for instance, has just given approval for an expenditure of Rs 136 million on 10 projects in the agriculture and livestock sector. These projects worrying include an allocation of Rs 12.988 million for the ‘Enhancement of cost-effective mutton production through genetically enhanced prolificacy management’; Rs 15.199 million for ‘Improvement of Lentil Germplasm for high seed yield and disease resistance’; and Rs 23.233 million for ‘Development of Transgenic cotton with multiple genes resistant to control Cotton Leaf Curl Virus’. These projects will, in time, come with a very high price tag as far as the long-term  sustainability of the natural environment is concerned and will achieve little towards making the country self-sufficient.

Reliance on chemical interventions — including genetic engineering — is rapidly rendering the land sterile. This sterility is currently being fought with the applications of even more toxic chemicals in the form of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. Now this is going to be lethally combined with the introduction of genetically engineered crops and livestock which are capable of surviving on the contaminated, chemical impregnated land that has been created over the years, and which has allowed chemical-producing companies and voracious multinationals to dominate the scene.If this trend continues unchecked, it will result in an increase in global poverty and hunger as production shrinks and prices rise. All this should be enough to make the benefits of natural farming — this includes the practice of permaculture — clear.

Permaculture is not applicable only to small areas of land such as my garden. It is just as viable on a large-scale farm. Initially more labour intensive than mechanised chemical farming (this should help with our high unemployment rate!), natural farming, in which neither mono-cropping nor chemical intervention has a role, is being given serious consideration in many parts of the ‘developed’ world. People have become aware of the potential dangers of ignoring mankind’s negative impact on the planet and are actively engaged in seeking solutions and — it has to be said — salvation. The flipside of the ‘developed’ world’s move towards natural sustainability is that manufacturers of toxic chemicals, genetic engineers and powerful multinationals are turning to residents of the incorrectly labeled ‘un-developed’ world as gullible markets for expensive and destructive products that are no longer in demand elsewhere. The ‘developed’ world has, it appears, learnt that unnatural interventions in nature do not pay off over the long term and now expect the ‘un-developed’ world to foot the bill whilst poisoning and bankrupting us in the process.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine May 22nd, 2011.

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