I belong to several gardening groups on Facebook. On these pages, certain kinds of questions are asked on a regular basis. These questions are mostly variations on “what is this bug and should I kill it?”
Many who take the journey into the world of gardening do so with lovely pictures of gloriously abundant gardens dancing in their imaginations. In these airbrushed spreads, nary a blade of grass is out of place, not a chewed leaf or aphid infestation. There are no squirrels munching the tomatoes, no cabbage moths feasting on the kale, no wasp nests under the shed eaves. And this, these gardeners (both new and seasoned) think, is the way it’s supposed to be. Glossy perfection all the way.
But the notion that it is possible to achieve perfection in a garden is a lie.
A garden is an arena of competing interests.
There is the aforementioned gardener’s interest.
There are microorganisms that populate the soil to the tune of up to several hundred million tiny critters that would fit in an area smaller than a teaspoon. They provide the plants the means to create their own food — an essential function. Their work is carried out in the dark, largely invisible.
There are the birds that provide insect control, prevent disease outbreaks in human populations by preying on parasites, and — assisted by multitudes of chipmunks, mice, rats, voles, and numerous other creatures — build forests by dispersing seeds far and wide. These forests capture carbon and produce oxygen that is literally the lifeblood of the entire planet.
There are the insects that provide pollination services, and thus maintain a vital link between humans and nature by ensuring the availability of food. And these include many more species than bees. The common housefly, for instance, normally regarded as a nuisance, is an important pollinator for crops such as mango and avocado.
There are lizards, voracious predators of ants, flies, spiders, beetles, crickets, snails, slugs, and even (for the larger varieties) the occasional small mouse. And one species of lizard — the Western fence lizard — neutralizes the Lyme disease bacterium carried by ticks, thus protecting humans from contracting the disease.
And let’s not forget the weeds. Weeds are defined as unwanted plants. They may not be desirable in your garden, but in the lawn, they are a different story entirely. Chickweed, henbit, purslane, plantain, dandelion, sorrel and clover mixed in with your boring-ass Bermuda grass provide a friendly habitat for butterflies and other pollinators, meaning that they will lay eggs there, ensuring a butterfly population for subsequent years. These plants, in providing food and shelter for beneficial insects, keep down the numbers of “bad” bugs and reduce the need for pesticides.
And if that’s not enough, they provide essential erosion control in these drier and hotter times, preventing the loss of precious topsoil that would otherwise blow away or be washed away by flooding or hurricanes.
Relentlessly nuking weeds out of existence in the pursuit of monocropped, single-species vistas of emerald green lawn is anathema to the survival of the insect, bird and mammal life that provide all of those important environmental services.
All of this ( and many more scenarios that I haven’t touched on) is what we sacrifice when we pursue a vision of perfection in the garden. When we reach for the Raid can at the first sign of undesirable insects, pummel our lawns and crops with Roundup, or sprinkle chemical fertilizers into our vegetable beds, we put all of those vital food web participants at risk. The result is a world with fewer pollinators, fewer tiny workers to perform all of those vital jobs that we take for granted. There is not enough money in the world to pay for the services provided by all the members of the food web, free of charge, all year long, everywhere, in all weathers and under all conditions.
Gardening is like voting.
Like a garden, a democracy includes many different kinds of participants.
Factory workers. Artists. EMT’s. Government employees. Bankers. Truckers. Landscapers. Preschool teachers. Construction workers. CEO’s. Highway maintenance workers. Short-order cooks. Auto mechanics. Farm laborers. Sanitation workers. Bus drivers. Nursing home staff. Baristas. Mail carriers. Clergy. Home health aides.
And legions more, at every income level, every level of job security and insecurity.
Each doing their part to build, maintain, administer, and coordinate the complex engine of modern society.
Most of them we don’t notice, or even think about. But their work makes it possible for that engine to continue chugging forward.
You think the work of a preschool teacher doesn’t affect you because you don’t have small children? Well, the home health aide who cares for your grandmother may have kids. If so , she won’t be able to show up to her job if the preschool closes down because its government funding went away in a round of budget cuts.
You don’t take the bus? The barista at your favorite coffee shop might, and if the bus driver is distracted because his insurance doesn’t cover treatment for his recent cancer diagnosis, that coffee server may be a victim of a bus crash.
Don’t know anyone who works on a farm? Doesn’t matter. Every bite of food you eat is provided courtesy of farm laborers, 50% to 75% of whom are undocumented and whose work we are seldom aware of. But if the supply chain is disrupted because a few hundred workers have been deported — or come down with COVID — and tomatoes are rotting in the fields instead of filing the bins in the grocery store produce section, you better believe you’d notice that.
We depend on each other intimately in ways that we seldom stop to consider. People who are nameless and faceless to us, yet enrich us and make our way of living, and in many ways even our ability to live, possible.
Architects. Security guards. School principals. X-ray technicians. Writers. Landscapers. Dancers. Sanitation workers. Veterinarians. Journalists.
Postal workers. Bankers. Non-profit organization directors. Steel workers. Loggers. Interior decorators. Members of the military. Gig workers. Dog trainers.
And on and on.
What if we thought about our vote like a gardener who thinks about their impact on the ecosystem?
What if we chose our candidates with an eye to which ones will provide the most good to the most people?
What if we decided, rather than being “all about me” voters or gardeners, that we will instead look to what’s best for our society or garden as a collective?
When you kill the insects that you don’t think you need or want, it can result in fewer pollinators the following year, putting your bean or pepper or okra crop at risk. Or maybe it will send toxic runoff to your neighbor’s garden — that neighbor who brings you a bag of pears from their heirloom tree or armloads of zucchini every summer.
Voting on the basis of narrowly defined issues can have devastating consequences for people in our community, most of whom we may never meet, but who are essential to keeping us clothed, fed, and housed, our children educated and cared for, our friends, family, neighbors and coworkers healthy and safe.
Those microorganisms working in the dark — fixing nitrogen, helping plants take up nutrients, providing raw material for antibiotic medicines — are invisible, yet our lives would be vastly impoverished without them. Meaning no beer. No sourdough bread. No cheese, ketchup, or sauerkraut. And a whole category of pharmaceuticals put in short supply, victims of broad spectrum herbicides and a poisonous soup of agricultural chemicals.
Those low-wage workers toiling in obscurity, also invisible, but without whose social, logistical and technical efforts, the engine of our modern society would falter and implode.
Can we set a new standard in selecting our leaders — one based in care, compassion and big-picture thinking about what’s best for the health of our society and everyone in it?
I’d like to believe we can.
A candidate or policy is only as useful as their desire, intention and ability to help build a better society.
A plant or organism is only as useful as its contribution to ecological balance.
The American experiment — and its citizens — could stand to take a cue from the natural world.
Maybe, in a garden as well as in a democracy, we need to toss the notion of perfection in the compost pile and focus instead on creating a space where competing interests are balanced by a focus on the common good, creating a country where everyone has the chance to thrive.
That just might be the most perfect outcome of all.