One Punk’s Guide to Gardening originally ran in Razorcake #99 (August/September, 2017).
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Today is President’s Day. I don’t have to go to work. If I wanted, I could spend the whole day listening to the Low Culture record I just got in the mail and reading some comics that have been stacked up on my nightstand for too long. Or I could go with the calendar theme and watch JFK or Dr. Strangelove. It could be a lazy day off but I am behind schedule and need to get some dirty work done outside.
After a cup of coffee and a quick review of the headlines, I go to my local nursery to buy plants and seeds. It is mid-February in Southern California and time to start thinking about the spring and summer and what I want to plant in the garden boxes in my front and back yards. My number one priority is usually fruits and vegetables, but today I’m thinking about drought-tolerant, flowering plants. I buy some Mexican Marigolds, Allyson Heather, and Butterfly Bush. Come spring, these should be settled in and producing a colorful assortment of flowers. The flowers will attract plant-pollinating insects, while the leaves themselves will provide shade for manure-dropping and pest-gobbling birds and lizards. The more movement going on in my front yard, the better. Movement is life.
As I’m in the front yard, digging at the freshly rained-on ground, I notice the teenage girl down the street has spiky pink hair and a Germs back patch on her denim vest. Either I have never seen her before, or she went through a spiritual experience, accepted Joey Ramone into her heart, and just turned punk this weekend. I think I should bring her a copy of Razorcake later.
When I was a teenager, the same age as the pink-haired Germs fan, I wondered what it would be like to grow up punk. “What will it be like when I get old?” Milo painstakingly asked the cosmos on the Descendents’ Everything Sucks album. For the most part, I think teenage me would be happy with who I have become. Granted, I am not the guitar player for Social Distortion, but career choices and musical tastes are bound to change over time. The most important thing to me is that I like my life and the work I do. I don’t have to wear a suit or tie to work and I get to review music for the Cake. I still go to shows when I want. But if you had told the sixteen-year-old me that I would be a thirty-five-year-old gardener, or that I would consider gardening an extension of my idea of a punk ethos, I would have thought you were out of your mind. Gardening was something my grandmother did and she is far from punk. She spent her career as a nurse in a psychiatric hospital and still considers the cold and robot-like Nurse Ratched to be the true hero of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as opposed to the free-spirited and charismatic anti-establishment antihero, Randle McMurphy. My brother and I tease her about that whenever we see her. True story.
Figuring out that a seed could be placed in the ground to produce more fruit is the greatest technological advancement in the history of the world. Sadly, once humanity created agriculture it also saw the need to create fences, armies, laws, and boundary-defending civilizations. Some, like cultural critic and author Daniel Quinn, point out this is around the same time people started to talk about a debt of sin that separated humanity and the gods. The divine was no longer visible in the natural world that needed to be tamed in order to grow crops, but was living high above our heads and keeping track of our right and wrong doings.
I cannot state emphatically enough how this simple agricultural progression—for better or worse—drastically altered human history, politics, and religion. It didn’t take long for agricultural societies to become industrial countries and for industrial countries to become filled with computer-isolated, social media-fueled, trained monkeys. Even the president of the United States can’t show some restraint and get off of his fucking Twitter account. In this context, I consider it a revolutionary act to get off the computer, go outside, and plant a seed in the dirt.
I first considered the countercultural implications of growing a garden in college, at an open mic, when a friend of mine stood up to read Wendell Berry’s powerful poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” I had never been introduced to this man before but his opening words sounded like they could have been pulled from any number of dystopian punk songs in my record collection:
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
Berry described with precision the kind of life I was afraid of entering into after college, the kind of life that teenage Jon Mule would be ashamed of. The “ready-made” life of fear and caution, “shut away in a little drawer.” He goes on to describe beautifully what a meaningful life and death might look like in this world. I was hooked. Who was this “mad farmer” who wrote with the urgency of a Black Panther or hardcore singer? Wendell Berry, I came to learn, is a simple man: a Kentucky-native, teacher, writer, and farmer. He’s an octogenarian who still uses a mule and plow to work his farm. For me, his books and influence have been a few small but pivotal steps toward answering the monstrous and never-ending questions I have about how to remain human in an increasingly inhumane, capital-worshipping world. A seed was planted, you could say.
A couple years later, the same year I was introduced to Razorcake, is the year I decided to get serious about gardening. I took a Master Gardener course through the UC Davis extension program in East L.A., and found the connection—for me—between the DIY of Razorcake’s punk and the do-it-yourself of growing flowers and food in my own backyard or public community space. As a gardener, I am choosing to redefine some of the most vital connections that human beings need to make in order to live. This is base-level one on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the idea that humans cannot experience belonging or self-actualization until their most basic, physiological needs are met. My relationship to food, to my community, to the water, and to my neighbors all come into play when I engage in local gardening.
Like an anarchist choosing to redefine her relationship between law and order, or a skateboarder renegotiating the intended purpose of a set of courthouse stairs, DIY gardeners are constantly choosing how they define their surroundings and the necessary elements of life they partake.
In my late twenties, as I became a better gardener and began forming my own bands, I started to notice this crossover between my two worlds. Some of the same people hosting house shows for local and touring punk bands were also working together to support backyard agriculture, growing gardens, and occasionally raising chickens. It was reminiscent of the famous Dial House in Essex, England, where members of the legendary Crass made their home available to artists and travelers. I have repeatedly seen a connection between the people who choose DIY punk and those who want to take more control over their food through gardening. Both are choosing to shun the big, pre-packaged industries in favor of something closer to home and closer to the truth.
Specifically, I am an organic gardener. In the simplest terms, I do not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers. I could go into detail about why I feel so strongly about this, but I will spare you the scientific minutia and just include some greatest hits. Leviathan-like agricultural conglomerates and their harmful chemicals are responsible for topsoil erosion in the U.S. Studies show that most of the good, American earth that built up over millions of years is now sitting at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. As well, the decline of bee populations has been linked to the use of pesticides that, despite the picture on the bottle, don’t discriminate between an aphid and a honeybee, and thus threaten the future of an alarming number of the foods and flowers we enjoy.
The trick to being an organic gardener, step number one, is compost. In composting, an even mix of carbon and nitrogen-rich elements break down to create an organic mix that looks like dark earth and smells like the forest after the rain. The carbon-rich material (or “brown”) needed for compost can be dried leaves, wood chips, shredded newspaper, unbleached coffee filters, or brown paper bags. The nitrogen-rich (or “green”) waste is most of the uncooked scraps that come out of the kitchen. Fruits and vegetables that have gone bad in the fridge or have not been used at meals, old coffee grounds, and broken egg shells are common green wastes. Another nice additive is a sprinkling of chicken manure or, if you are a lightweight who doesn’t follow through on commitments, the leftover wine or beer that has been sitting out all night in the bottom of open cans and bottles. While you were sleeping, these have been collecting bacteria that will help break down all of the elements in the compost bin.
Other than sunlight and water, compost is undoubtedly the best thing for your garden. Any gardener worth her dirt will tell you how important this relatively simple practice is. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, old growth forests never need to be fertilized. The natural compost that makes up the forest floor provides the perfect topsoil for their extended health.
One common misconception about compost is that it stinks. This is false. If your compost stinks, there is a problem. Often this can be remedied by adding more of the brown, carbon-heavy materials. Some shredded newspaper or old corn husks should take the funk away soon enough. Another potential challenge is the attraction of rodents. I have seen raccoons, lizards, and birds eating or making a shelter out of my pile. I tend to geek out at this in my suburban corner of Los Angeles but if this is something that you would like to avoid, there are many ways to tightly seal a bin and keep those varmints out.
Ultimately, the beauty of composting is that nothing is left to waste. Everything, even trash, can be useful. It’s pretty amazing to eat an apple, toss the core into the compost bin, and then later spread the compost on the roots of the apple tree. When you experience the closed-loop cycle of this process, you realizing how fucking stupid things like plastic bags and Styrofoam—trash that will last thousands of years—actually are.
Another benefit of maintaining a “cold” compost bin, one that sits and breaks down over time, is the volunteers. These are plants that grow from the seeds of resilient kitchen scraps right out of the compost bin. At the end of October, I almost always include the crushed and smashed remnants of neighborhood pumpkins in my compost mix. And without fail, a new pumpkin plant is growing out of the pile come springtime. If there is a more hopeful sight to see than new food growing out of a pile of waste, I cannot think of it.
Let’s talk about public enemy number one: lawns. I fucking hate them. Grass at the local park is fine. Grass can be good for playing soccer. Grass is great for rolling around with a loved one on a blanket. But the front lawns that make up the majority of plants grown in the United States are utterly worthless. They provide shelter for nothing, feed nothing, and are good for next to nothing. The American hive mind always wants to package its worst ideas in the biggest and brightest of packages, like gas-guzzling SUVs or sugar-frosted breakfast cereal in cartoon-decorated boxes. Consider the neighbor awkwardly peering over his fence into the yard of people he doesn’t care to know or learn about, just to make sure their green patch of inedible shit is as wastefully watered as his own. For those of us who live in desert climates like Southern California, where water is all the more precious and limited, this over-watering of our status symbol is truly tragic.
Look no further than a video gone viral, of Orange County asshole and LAPD officer Kevin Ferguson pulling a gun on a group of children for walking across his lawn, for the kind of mania this obsession with the perfectly maintained patch of turf can create. On my more nosy days, I get annoyed seeing people in my neighborhood pouring gallons upon gallons of water onto their front lawns. (I live in Los Angeles where the realities and discussions of drought have been a mainstay for as long as I can remember.) I never see my neighbors use the lawn, so it seems as if the only purpose of their green grass is to water it. Why? For what? Civilization seems to like to create as many problems as it claims to solve in this respect.
There are a small number of people who are starting to get it, and I see more and more people in Southern California transitioning their front yards from grass to drought-tolerant, local and native landscaping. Since I started doing this, I have noticed a lot more life in my front yard. On any given day, I find lizards, doves, hummingbirds, butterflies, grasshoppers, and bees occupying the space outside my front door. I never saw any of these things in my yard when I was keeping up over-watered grass. (The only life present was the occasional neighborhood dog, stopping to shit on my lawn.) I see these living things as a sign of health. I have transformed my front yard from a dead symbol of middle-class security to a healthy micro-ecosystem. As the saying goes, gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get tomatoes. And eggplant, and arugula, and herbs, and flowers. Since I began gardening, I have been introduced to a wonderful and diverse group of activists, environmentalists, localists, hippies, punks, anarchists, Buddhists, dieticians, critics of culture, writers, documentary filmmakers, community life groups, farmers, scientists, students, beekeepers, and my own neighbors. I have met people who participated in the 2006 protests against the destruction of the community-run South Central Farm, as well as people from different countries, religions, and socio-economic classes. I recently went to the home of a Muslim woman in my community who was allowing local beekeepers to place hives in her citrus and avocado orchard. There I met a Spanish-speaking man grazing his herd of goats on the weeds that grew in between her trees.
Our shared connection to the food we eat and the process it involves led us to a meeting that might have never taken place in our regular social circles. Gardening has taken me out of the self-imposed ghetto of my own complaints and whiny helplessness and allowed me to meet a wide range of people who are actively seeking to make the earth a better place. It is a beautiful thing. Another world is possible, indeed.
No one should assume they need to own land or even live in a home with a yard in order to participate in a garden. I have gardened spaces in a wide variety of settings and under different communal conditions. The first garden space I could call my own was a small chunk of land on the property of a Lutheran church, near my apartment in Morgan Hill, Calif. The head minister there, a kind and progressive woman who I still call a friend, invited her congregants and their neighbors to grow their own food together. At the same time, a coworker of mine was helping our clients, teenage addicts, to grow vegetables on the grounds of the group home where they lived.
I have grown tomatoes and basil in buckets and planters on the balconies of apartments I have lived in. Also, there are an ever-growing number of community gardens in urban and suburban areas all over the United States. I can think of at least three homes within fifteen miles of my house where the owners have welcomed others to grow gardens on their land. One of these calls itself an “urban homestead” and also houses a small group of free range chickens.
Currently, one of the gardens I manage is at the public high school where I work. I teach students with special needs job skills and managing money as part of a work-training curriculum. There are other nearby schools where volunteers from the community work with children to get them interested in locally grown food and the process of hard work. Community-supported agriculture (or CSA) groups sometimes offer shares of food to volunteers who come and plant, water, and weed their grounds. Sometimes it takes work to research and find them, but the opportunities out there are wide and varied.
In recent years, I have noticed an increased interest in guerilla gardening. I have seen websites and independent zines dedicated to the process. In short, it is the act of gardening on land that does not belong to you. This can be done on empty dirt lots, large bare public parkways, or the tiniest patch of dirt on any urban street corner. South Central Los Angeles-based, self-professed “gangsta gardener” and community activist Ron Finley has brought light to this concept in his talks on how to combat “food deserts,” urban areas where liquor stores and fast food restaurants tend to be the overwhelming option when it comes to purchasing food. Finley talks about the notice he got from the city of Los Angeles that required him to maintain the city-owned parkway space in front of his home. Rather than fill the space in with expensive and wasteful turf, Finley turned the space into a food garden and has spent much of his time in recent years promoting the idea to others.
Guerilla gardening, along with community gardens and local food cultures, can be one piece of a global resistance toward the interest of lobbyist-backed, pesticide-spreading, corn-syrup guzzling, cancer-inducing markets, and agriculture bills that have favored war, big business, and the destruction of ecosystems on this planet. It is, in its simplest form, the very embodiment of the idea of taking back and reclaiming public land in the name of the common good. In the words of a T-shirt that Finley often wears in his online videos, guerilla gardening and local agriculture is the idea that we can “unfuck the world.”
One of my first gardening mentors used to say that she had killed more plants than I had ever planted. She gave this one-liner as an invitation to embrace being a fuckup in the process of gardening, encouraging us to not be overwhelmed by failure. Learning to accept failure is one of the early lessons that a gardener has to learn. There is always going to be a patch of weeds or gang of plant-munching slugs, or a heat wave, drought, and frost, to remind you that you are not in control.
Even as I write this piece on all the things that gardening helps me to resist, I’m reminded of all the ways I enslave myself to those things on a daily basis. I use fossil fuels to commute around Los Angeles. I forget to check the tags as to where and in what conditions my clothing was made. I choose to ignore the damage that is done in the name of quick and cheap fast food whenever I am too lazy to prepare a meal. For me, putting good work into the garden is not about achieving some integrity or perfection in life, but about learning to be a better human animal. Working in the garden reminds me of what is important—that small acts of resistance are possible and matter over time.
In Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coates’ pens a book-length letter to his young son on living in a world ruled by the violence and injustice of white supremacy, one that Coates’s work has been a meaningful voice against. In one passage, Coates tells his son, “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” I do not want to diminish the meaning of those words in their original context. They are visceral, powerful and from one specific man to his one specific son.
As a high school teacher, I read these words to my U.S. History classes any time we deal with the telling of horrific truths about the flag and country that the voice on the monitor asks us to pledge allegiance to each day. I remind my students that these stories we tell, these events we remember, happened to real people in real time, and we, somehow, are an extension of them, right or wrong, for better or for worse. That, of course, is not where the story ends. We, too, are real people living in real time and there is a lot of good work that needs to be done: there is shit to rally against, protest songs to be written, new alliances to be made. There are lawns left to kill and seeds to be planted in their place.
I have found repeatedly that the small communities I get to participate in, be they activist collectives, punk cooperatives, or groups of gardeners that remind me of my grandmother, draw me into the reality of Coates’ words. From bending down to plant a seed or pick a carrot, to making a homegrown meal with friends, gardening reminds me that the best things in life—and a hope for the future—lie in doing good work and sharing the rewards with others. The elderly woman who lives just a few doors down from the pink-haired punk knocked on my window a few months ago and asked if she could have some of the tomatoes in my front yard. I told her that as long as she left four or five for my wife and me, she could take as many as often as she wanted. That is what they are there for. After tomatoes and corn, building local community is the best byproduct of gardening.
Our country, our world, our bodies.
The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry
The One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by Masanobu Fukuoka
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
Private Lives of Garden Birds by Calvin Simonds
Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfells and Wayne Lewis
The South Central Farmers occupied fourteen acres of land in South Central Los Angeles from 1994 to 2006. The land was offered to the farmers as a chance to heal the community and clean up the mess that was left after the fiery chaos of the 1992 L.A. rebellion. The community garden was the largest of its kind in the United States. It was a true example of what could be done to bring healthy food to urban areas if resources and priorities were rearranged. In the end, business interests and dollar signs influenced then Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the L.A. City Council in a series of backroom deals. These deals were heavily contested in court by the farmers and their lawyers. The farmers lost. A team of bulldozers and cops in riot gear forcefully removed the farmers, their families, and a crowd of protesters who had been working to raise money to buy the property. Since then, a number of the original farmers have moved north of L.A. to the San Joaquin Valley, while others continue to garden smaller settings in South Central L.A. and sell their goods at local farmers markets. A fascinating and more detailed depiction of their struggle to survive is in the 2008 Oscar-nominated documentary, The Garden.
Find a garden mentor and ask lots of questions. Most gardeners love to teach and share.
Decide what you want to grow (food, flowers) and find a sunny spot with easy access to water.
Plant seedlings and plants according to the seasons in your area.
Find excuses to spend time in the garden. Get a good chair and read there, drink there, make phone calls from there. This will allow you time to notice when pests or weeds or seasons are taking their toll and you will be more likely to react.
Be patient. This takes time. Plants will die. Don’t get discouraged.
Share the work and the wealth. Invite others to plant and eat with you.
Jon Mule teaches social studies and gardening to special education students in Whittier, Calif. Sometimes he writes songs and plays them with The Bloody Westerns, who he insists are not a country band. He can be contacted at sandbergedwards [at] gmail [dot] com.
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