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Get Out of the Way

By Rick Gush, Urban Farm contributor

Friday, September 30, 2011

urban cornfield

Photo by Rick Gush

This "cornfield" in Italy is growing in a tiny space between a parking lot and a building.

The photo to the right carries a message for us urban farmers: Be humble, and every once in a while, admit that the best agricultural practice is just to get out of the way.

A common foible farmers and gardeners have is that we begin to feel omnipotent, as if everything that happens in the garden is the result of our own hard work. The reality is that it just ain’t so. We are merely infinitesimally small specks in the great parade that is nature. Sometimes we can force things and make it look like we’re getting our way; I think that’s one reason why we like to plant our crops in straight rows, just because straight rows seemingly demonstrate our power over the crops. But we are not the boss.

Shown is a pair of corn plants that decided to produce ears of corn in a most unlikely place — a crack between a brick wall and an asphalt parking lot; not exactly the well-prepared bed we assume would be the best place to grow corn plants. I doubt the plants were ever watered, fertilized or sprayed with Bacillus thuringiensis to discourage worms. The part that causes the most humility (and amusement) is that I had a number of stunted plants in my own carefully prepared and tended corn patch this year that did not grow nearly as well as these two healthy specimens.

I had a similar experience a few years back when I found a full-grown tomato plant loaded with fruit growing amidst the boulders that line the oceanfront promenade in Rapallo, Italy. There is no visible dirt there; it’s just a bunch of large boulders with bits of seaweed and trash stuck in between the rocks, where waves occasionally splash. Again, that tomato plant was doing considerably better than some of the pampered tomato plants in my own garden.

Maybe we farmers are actually more like the directors and choreographers of a musical show involving pre-school children. Sometimes the little actors will accidentally line up correctly in a row and chirp their lines correctly, but our control is not really the most important part of the program. We usually just have to step back and let things flow as they will and learn to appreciate our lack of control. The things the kids will do on their own are often more charming than all the steps we had rehearsed for them, and the plants in my garden behave in much the same manner. Similarly, we also have little control over when an animal will pay a surprise visit to our gardens. Just this week, we had another visit from a badger. It came in during the night and dug up half the lettuce bed on the top terrace. On the one hand, I am sorry to have lost the little lettuce plants that were only another week or two away from being harvested. But I am also quite excited to know that we still have an animal as exciting as a badger occasionally visiting us.

The badger is a magnificently arrogant beast, not at all afraid of us or our car, and sneers at us casually before walking calmly off into the forest. Badgers are dangerous, and when encountered, should not be approached. The best plan is, once again, just get out of the way.

Read more of Rick's Favorite Crops »

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We are only the planters of the seeds. We hope that they grow the way we want them to in our gardens, and are left guessing when they do not. Yet they will grow without our help only a few feet away as a wild plant. We are ONLY the planters of the seed.
Carl, Livermore, CA
Posted: 1/29/2012 12:34:22 PM
Rick, I have to agree with you and Bruce too. We think we own our plots of dirt with houses on them but in reality we are only care takers for a short time and then the land and the house gets passed on to the next care taker. If we are fortunate, it will be given to the next generation of family members and they will build upon our labors but usually not.

It is interesting just where plants sometimes decide to grow. The special place in my yard for plants to grow is in the gutters. When the trees get to the four inch mark, I know it's time to clean out the gutters. Have a great day enjoying the mysteries of nature.
David, Omaha, NE
Posted: 10/1/2011 7:00:41 AM
Brilliant! Again, again mankind is reminded of just how insignificant our efforts are in face of the awesome power of Nature! Just think, for all our arrogance, the plants will still win. The concrete will crumble, the asphalt will be reduced to sand and the plants will once again take over the planet.

The poet Shelley captured this well in his short, direct commentary on mankind and its influence, Ozymandias.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

The best we can do is to care for what we have, nurture what we want and remember that we are only temporary travelers here.
Bruce, Las Vegas, NV
Posted: 9/30/2011 8:07:01 AM

About the Blogger

Rick Gush

Rick Gush
Rick Gush has long been a staunch organic gardener. While a student at the University of California at Davis he worked at local tomato and sugar beet farms and continued in the agricultural and horticultural industries for many years. A career move in the 1990s led him to design computer games, but no matter how much of a techie he’s become, gardening and farming remain his principal passions.

In 2000, Rick moved to Italy, where he writes to you about his cliff garden and other experiences in Italian urban agriculture.

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