I’m a big fan of experiments. This probably has a lot to do with my being too impatient to spend more than five minutes researching anything, once I’ve got it in my head that this is something that needs to be done. I love getting things done. I love sowing seeds, putting bushes in the ground, watching the stack of weeds in the compost pile grow. Of course, what this means is that sometimes I find out the next day that the seeds were sown too early and now are going to rot, not sprout. Or that the soil I put the blueberry bushes in doesn’t have the right pH, so they’ll wither away after producing only a handful of berries. Or that a few weeds in the garden would have actually improved fertility and pollination and reduced erosion. These are the logical outcomes of an impatient person’s labor. And yet, I never seem to learn my lesson. I seem determined to prove that this character flaw, if clung to long enough, will be transformed into an asset.
Maybe that’s why I love plants. Because, as petulant as some of them are, the overwhelming majority of them are really quite adaptable, and resilient. You can make a lot of “mistakes,” and they’ll happily grow anyway. In fact, you can sometimes be actively trying to prevent their growth, as in the case of weeds, and they’ll just smile and keep on stretching their limbs out to the sun.
Why are plants so forgiving? Why do they permit mistakes that you wouldn’t be allowed to make if you were baking a cake or, say, fiddling with the electrical wiring of your house? The answer, I think, is that plants, unlike cakes or copper wires, are alive. And they want to be alive. They are organisms designed (evolved) with the express purpose of staying alive and reproducing their kind. And if you give them even just a little help—say, by putting them in the dirt with a little moisture and warmth—chances are they’re going to be able to take it from there.
The incredible “aliveness” of plants is what makes experimenting with them so worthwhile. Living things are capable of surprising us. This is not to say that the copper wires in our house can’t deliver a surprise or two, handled the wrong way, but the surprises that plants deliver are so much more complex, and more often beneficial. I love the anecdote that Wendell Berry tells about a farmer who turned pigs into his cornfield in order to make some money in a year when he would otherwise have had to sell his corn at a loss. The year’s corn harvest, packaged in the form of pigs, turned out to be very profitable. And then the next year, much to the farmer’s surprise, the same field was covered in a beautiful stand of alsike clover. The farmer had never planted alsike. But it turned out that someone else had—seventeen years ago, according to the neighbors. And some of the seed had just been waiting for the perfect opportunity to grow, an opportunity that was apparently afforded by a bunch of pigs rooting around among the cornstalks.
You just never know what fine surprises nature has in store. And that, I think, is why, when the urge to try something new in the garden overtakes me, I don’t put up much resistance. Sure, maybe it will be labor lost, but if the labor was fun, then there wasn’t really a loss, was there? Especially not if you add in the valuable experience you’ve gained.
So last month I planted some pecans. I’d been thinking about buying some pecan trees from a Virginia nursery I recently found online (www.ediblelandscaping.com, if you’re interested), but the prices were a bit steep. Not too expensive if you’re somebody who’s going to research everything there is to know about pecan trees and take excruciatingly good care of them, but too expensive for someone who’s probably just going to stick them in the ground and leave them there, fingers crossed. Then I saw that the very same nursery was offering pecan seedlings, smaller (cheaper) plants from an unnamed variety. They said they’d planted some nice, fat nuts from a tree in Maryland, and these were the offspring. And I thought, “Heck, I can do that.” In fact, a friend of my dad’s had just given us a whole bag of unshelled pecans. They might even be from Maryland. Could they work?
I did a full two minutes of Google research. Someone said they’d had luck planting pecans that had begun sprouting while just lying on the ground beneath the tree. Sounded promising to me! I got out a couple of half-gallon buckets from previous shrub purchases and filled them with garden soil, mixing in a little organic fertilizer. And I planted four pecans, two in each, about three inches below the surface. I put the pointy end up, guessing that this was probably the “top.” Then I put bows on the buckets and gave them to my parents for Christmas. (This was not their only gift; don’t worry.)
Well, New Year’s came and went, and no sign of life from the pecans. I prepared myself for disappointment. This is what happens when you experiment a lot. You get used to lessons in humility. But you keep watering, just in case. And then, lo and behold, one day you remove the clear plastic lid that you stole from a to-go container to help keep in the moisture, and there…there is a little red spike of a seedling, looking more determined than you ever thought a pecan could look.
By golly, it’s going to grow.
(You can find out more about the farmer described by Wendell Berry in Berry’s essay “A Good Farmer of the Old School,” included in his collection Home Economics, published in 1987 by North Point Press. I highly recommend reading the entire book. In fact, I highly recommend reading anything by Wendell Berry that you can get your hands on.)