Search This Blog

Friday, March 15, 2013

My Home Landscape

       At various points of my service I have discussed gardening in a variety of different contexts. One of the big objectives of Environmental Conservation Volunteers as well as the Paraguayan Ministry of Education are school garden projects. In the past, I have written about my experience in creating a school garden that turned into a rather impressive cornucopia of vegetables. However, I also mentioned that said school garden was counter intuitively planted and managed by patents of the students rather than the students themselves for a variety of reasons that I will not dive into in this entry. Nevertheless, I would strongly encourage you to check out previous postings if you are interesting in hearing my grips about it. Gardening, specifically horticulture, was something that I had been exposed to at different points in my up bringing, but it was never a cornerstone of my family’s efforts in maintaining the landscape of our home. The reason I felt particularly inspired to write about this topic stems my recent acquisition of Michael Pollan’s Second Nature in which he discusses at length his personal trials and tribulations to sow an organic garden in his home in Connecticut throughout the year. The book touches on a broad assortment of topics ranging from his exposure to gardens and landscapes from his childhood, pests, weather, and the backdrop of American homes throughout the country. To date, I have yet to finish the book, but nevertheless felt compelled to relay my experiences in my Paraguayan landscape, aka my home here, to that of what my previous relationship had been in America.
       Pollan writes extensively about his Russian immigrant grandfather whose greatest passion was the pursuit of a perfect garden and home landscape. Pollan reflects on visiting his grandfather’s well kept lawn, flowering fruit trees, and immaculate garden as sort of Eden as a youth growing up in New York. His father, on the other hand, was conversely put off by the incessant maintenance of the garden/landscape of his home to the point where he would boycott cutting his own front lawn. That refusal to adhere to the unspoken agreement Americans seem to have about maintaining their home landscapes in many made ways made Pollan’s family renegades in the eyes of their neighbors. That particular section of Second Nature had me laughing reflecting on the at times titanic struggle my father had with me growing up in maintaining our lawn.
       Every week my Dad would subtlety attempt to mentioning that the lawn was looking a bit shaggy. I would always protest that I had just cut it the week before whether or not that was true or not. I would argue that beleaguered point until my allowance was threatened to be withheld if I did acquiesce and do it. I would bitch and moan unremittingly as I pulled out the red push mower, the gas can, and the garbage bin that we used to dump the grass clippings in. Inevitably my father was always right when he said the lawn needed a cut. I always thought this to be true because I would constantly get our little red mower clogged with grass that I had let grow too long. I was the main caretaker of our lawn from about 12-19 after which point I headed off to college and much to my relief, my responsibilities were forever relinquished to landscaping company. I still remember very clearly my father teaching me how to prime the lawnmower, check the oil, and pull the rip cord. The feeling of getting overly frustrated if I flooded the engine, cut too close to the turf, or was unable to get those tricky hedges that lied on the edge of brick walls or tree trunks are still unpleasant memories to this day. My father in teaching me how to mow the lawn was his genius way of pawning responsibility of lawn maintenance to his ignorant son who initially was so thrilled that he was allowed to operate a cool looking machine like a lawn mower that he had no idea that my weekends every spring, summer, and fall would inevitably be partially occupied with cutting the grass. I will always remember him meandering down the small path inlaid with rocks to step on underneath the huge maple tree in our front lawn, hands behind his back with a smug grin on his face admiring my work, but not shying away from mentioning a spot I missed or whether or not there was too much excess clippings on the ground. Easily some of the fiercest arguments that I ever got into with my Pop were over that stupid lawn. I never cared what other people in the neighborhood thought about it. All I knew was somehow every weekend throughout the summer I was sweating buckets cutting a lawn that I progressively grew to hate with passing summer. I never understood why it was important to maintain that lawn I as meticulously as my parents wanted. Even today, to a large extent, I still don’t quite get it especially after living in Paraguay.                       
     Most Paraguayans, if they have grass, cut it with there electric plug in motors with long extension cord or giant weed whackers no more than 3-4 times a year. Granted grass here isn’t treated with chemicals to maintain a pristine green throughout the summer months, but all the same the work that is done around the house is more focused on sweeping up leaves from trees and the various manures from farm animals that roam around. Keeping my lawn in a presentable state is further limited by the fact that the only lawn care maintenance object that I can afford is a long machete, which in turn leaves me incessantly toiling with a huge array of weeds that grow back faster than I can cut them down. The frustrating thing is that my lawn had been well maintained by a series of cows that my neighbors would tie up in my yard. This was a good deal for me because not only did not have go through the arduous process of cutting my whole lawn with a machete, but the cows would also provide manure that I could use in my compost for my garden. However, starting in November I noticed that the cows were no longer pulling their weight with lawn maintenance. I believe was the result of higher amounts of rain that have sustained a semi-continuous frequency since. That as a result has led to my lawn to appear more as an abandoned lot than one in which a person lives. The problem is that so often are land plots, houses, or fields up and abandoned from people moving, selling their land, or whatever the reason, the areas in my immediate vicinity are equally unattractive or worse. With that lack of a higher standard to aspire to I am content with a much less acceptable looking lawn. Paraguayans, also, demonstrate displeasure in things in much less direct methods than I feel people would back home. I don’t have neighbors insulting my lawn to my face, writing me a note signed by some home owners association, nor are there real estate agents trying sell land in the area that’s costs is driven down by my unsightly lawn. That being said it still think I have gotten to a point where I have flirted with the edge acceptable appearance for too long, and likely will give into my own self-perpetuated guilt and just cut it.
       Pollan goes to great lengths to describe the American fascination with lawns as a defining characteristic of the American home. In Paraguay the lawn, while important to maintain if you have it, is not the first thing people will associate with a nice looking house. From my summation I would have to say that flowering fruit, shading, and ornamental trees exemplify how “hermosa”, beautiful, a home is. Additionally, how well maintained ones garden or field is seems to provide the fodder for criticisms of ones status within the community. In a similar way Americans value the lawn and flowery landscape that it surrounds, Paraguayans value something similar in how nice their rows of corn or manioc look. If your crops aren’t in a straight line, well protected from animals, or contains too many weeds in-between the plants it is likely you might get a snide remark from your neighbor. The same applies with gardens. One must dig their seed bed in perfect rectangle, plant the seeds in perfectly spaced distances, and perfectly layer compost such that everything appears uniform. Regardless of whether or not that manner will yield the best looking vegetables a term volunteer’s coin as the “lindo factor”, pretty factor, and trumps most alternative methods of increasing yields. If it cannot be incorporated in a nice organized manner I am not interested in the unspoken reality many people face when working with plants. Going to the extreme of planting tomatoes and parsley all helter skelter in the same seed bed, while mutually beneficial to the plants, does not appear lindo and therefore makes it difficult to justify when working in a school or family garden. This was the case when I attempted to plant lettuce, Swiss chard, and onions at the school garden. While the kids didn’t do the best job planting properly, it was obvious that things would grow, but the three seeds beds we planted quickly got reorganized by the parents to make things look slightly nicer. This cultural appreciation for plant organization shouldn’t of surprised me because we do that sort of stuff with own homes in America.  
       My mother had always spent a great amount of time tending to the many flower beds we had throughout our front and back yards. I remember every spring being called out to the car to unload gargantuan bags of mulch and fertilizer to yet again begin with the planting of a wide cadre of impatiences, tulips, and marigolds for some reason stand out, but there were also perennials that despite my best efforts to destroy with a plastic sword managed to come up every year. Similarly to my experience with the lawn, at first I thought planting flowers and plants was fun. I liked making a brown patch of dirt transform into a array of brilliant colors that flowed tougher to create a totally unique landscape that was only limited by what could you could imagine, or what plants you happened to have. My family has always dabbled in vegetables, but aside from the occasional tomato plant or two that would often succumb to deer’s or other pests, the mark of yards were the somewhat well manicured lawn, enormous hundreds of years old trees, and the flowers my mother planted.
       So needless to say when I learned about the importance of promoting gardening in Paraguay I was very excited to try my own hands at growing things from seeds, but as most novice horticulturalists are bound to find out things are not as easy as they seem. I always that the dichotomy of what I am supposed to be able to help teach Paraguayans, particularly gardening, are often times things they themselves know how to do a lot better from years of experience. The American wondering up to the 40-year-old farmer trying to ask them in broken language about their garden doesn’t exactly instill confidence in your ability to improve their current method of growing things. In most cases, that skepticism is not unfounded. In my case, I spent the first 4 months from the time I moved into my house trying to build and plant a garden. In order to do so I had to build some kind of rudimentary fence out of bamboo that ended up taking several months due to the fact that my only free source of bamboo was about a kilometer from where I lived. As I would walk past numerous households with an arm full of bamboo often times in toe with a friend, people would stop and stare. It wasn’t so much that I was carrying the bamboo I think it was more curiosity as to what I was going to with it. Again people more often than not are surprised when I try to make suggestions about gardening. Me not having a garden was further evidence that I did not in fact know what I was talking about. By the time I had finally constructed the fence and installed a door using old flip flops as hinges was I able to begin my meager attempts to plant stuff.
       In my mind, I envisioned not ever needing to go to the store to get vegetables, and therefore bought seeds for carrots, onions, lettuce, Swiss chard, tomatoes, peppers, and parsley. I was also lucky enough to get broccoli to transplant from the excess plants the school had. At the end of 4 months of toiling around I ended up with meager looking lettuce, broccoli, Swiss chard, and few pathetic looking tomatoes. I could point to numerous reasons for my failures, but at the end of the day the blame stops at me alone. I didn’t do a good enough job limiting sun exposure, consistently watering when I had to leave for whatever reason, or preventing animals from breaking down my fence to much on my paltry results. My timing was also off, and by the time I actually got tomatoes to grow someone entered my garden in the middle of the night to steal the 11 measly looking fruits that I had worked so hard to obtain. I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, but what I didn’t know was how uneasy it was going to be. So for this year I am determined to improve upon last years learning experience and achieve better results. Will those results be adequate to prove my value in the community I live in? My answer to that is probably not, but even if it was I am resigned to the fact that by the time I get my garden up to snuff it will be close to the end of my service that will lead me back to another landscapes in another pocket of the world to start all over again.

No comments:

Post a Comment