A proverb for modern life

From learning-by-doing on the farm of Östängs Gård in Sweden, to transferring its philosophy back home to a small community garden in Brooklyn, Benjamin Dolson writes about house plants, Permaculture, and new life. — Excerpt from Volume One of Ditto Magazine. 

Years ago, my wife and I started a tradition of naming our house plants. Early on, Emily pioneered a reliable strategy of finding hints on the plant’s nursery tag, which were often in Latin. Thus, our Fittonia albivenis plant became, simply, Fittonia. Fittonia is a thirsty tropical plant with pink markings on her spade-shaped leaves. Occasionally, she will produce a slender yellow flower that she proudly arches toward the bedroom window.

Aside from the Latin, we try not to complicate our plant names. Our English Ivy plant is named Ivy; our Aloe Vera plant is Vera. Next to Vera, by our kitchen window, Vicar Basil (a basil plant, of course) sits in an old tea tin. Vicar Basil replaced the fondly-remembered Saint Basil, whose tall spindly shoots and sparse foliage suggested religious frugality. Vicar Basil is more generous. Recently, we made a large bowl of bruschetta with his provisions. On the other side of Vera are three very small succulents that came in matching ceramic planters. Siblings, we decided. Hector, Jorge, and Julio look out the kitchen window and keep each other company.

Our apartment in Brooklyn sits atop a sturdy Brownstone where sunlight pours in from the northeast and the southwest bathing our plants in photons. Not all of our plants appreciate such generous light. Once, we nearly killed Elvis, our Hawaiian grass plant whose arching shoots form a quiff worthy of the crooner’s name. In the direct light of a southern window, Elvis withered and browned over a workweek. Horrified at our error, we moved Elvis to a safer interior position where, after a couple of nervous weeks, he experienced a full recovery.

Gabriel, our oldest plant, is a resilient and light-loving Exotic Angel plant that hangs high in the corner of our bedroom window, looking after us as we sleep.

With thirtysomething plants now, we no longer name new plants. It’s just too much. One sympathizes with Adam and Eve’s much larger task. We’ve also introduced a small ginger housecat to the ecosystem of our apartment. Plants are wonderful but they don’t call for more than water and the occasional sprinkle of new soil. The small housecat needs more. Aside from the litter scooping and the kibble, he needs you.

Caring for this little community of life has become central to our household culture. Each morning, Emily makes the rounds with a brass watering can, pruning and making mental notes about the state of each plant. The small housecat trots along, observing everything like an anxious supervisor. We chat about the plants over dinner and text each other when new ideas strike during the day. Do you think succulents like hanging pots? I’m worried that Elvis isn’t draining well. What’s with the fruit flies hovering around Vicar Basil? What is the difference between a fruit fly and a gnat? Do you think Vera might have root rot?

We are known as plant people among our friends. More than that, we’ve come to care deeply about plant life and the natural world beyond our apartment walls. We understand this as an extension of our concern for human life. On this topic, our ethic goes something like: life is life is life is life. The planet we share does not discriminate. Why should we?

We are devoted to the causes of climate change, the food system, and global human health. When the dimensions of such weighty challenges overwhelm us or a headline causes us distress, we find ourselves at a plant shop rustling through foliage. A proverb for modern life emerges: When in despair, buy a plant, give it a name, and care for it.

A proverb for modern life emerges: When in despair, buy a plant, give it a name, and care for it.

Even our vacations have begun to reflect these interests. Last summer we traveled to Sweden to work on a farm for a couple of weeks. The trip was planned just weeks before we boarded our flight due to an unforeseen and welcome break between jobs. Though we had done the work of purchasing flights and finding a farm to work on, the trip felt like it was taking us along, like we were setting down our boat in a river and trusting the current to guide us to the place we wished to be but had never been before.

Gothenburg is Sweden’s second largest city. It is a beautiful and quiet city with colorful trolleys and parks so large that in an American city they would be described as forests. We spent a weekend in Gothenburg and then boarded a train to Alingsås, about an hour northeast. Looking out the train window, we were amazed at how quickly the landscape became an agricultural patchwork of golden and green fields edged by forests of birch and pine.

From Alingsås, a forty-minute bus ride delivered us to a roadside bus stop – nothing more than a bench with a small awning. As soon as we stepped off the bus, an aqua blue minivan pulled up and its driver, a lean man in his early fifties, introduced himself.

Jonas and his wife, Yilva, own and operate Östängs Gård, an historic thirty-four-hectare farm surrounded by deep forest. In addition to a large vegetable garden and a greenhouse, the farm contains a forest garden where berries, nut and fruit trees, and medicinal plants are grown. There are about twenty chickens, a rotating cast of roosters, two beehives, two pigs, two barn cats, and several dozen sheep.

Our first morning at Östängs Gård brought heavy labor, though the task itself was straightforward. We were to load a wheelbarrow with wood, push it up a narrow plank to the woodshed, and dump the wood into a pile. Yilva and Jonas would then stack the wood in neat piles until they reached the ceiling. There are not many reasons to use a wheelbarrow in Brooklyn, but we managed with only a few spills.

In the wood piles, we discovered wasps in papery squatter homes nestled between the logs. The wasps were mercifully docile in the cool morning climate. At first, we considered ourselves lucky that the wasps were so slow to react as we disrupted their morning, but we learned that this fortune was planned.

Yilva and Jonas are both former teachers who approach farming as a lesson to be taught rather than a series of tasks that need doing (though, to be clear, the tasks still need doing). The syllabus from which these lessons were taught was a holistic approach to farming called Permaculture.

Permaculture values careful planning and thoughtful design over modern shortcuts that rely on complicated machinery and fossil fuels. Whenever possible, a Permaculture farmer manages the farm to mimic nature and reduces the number of inputs required to make the farm productive. Permaculture also assumes that the best farming solutions not only improve yield on the farm but also reduce the environmental footprint of operating the farm. These are not mutually exclusive goals. To state the obvious, Permaculture is a culture that occurs in the setting of a farm and its surrounding land and community. It is not merely a strategy for growing food. It is a set of ethics and values expressed through farming processes.

It is not merely a strategy for growing food. It is a set of ethics and values expressed through farming processes.

Being a Permaculture farmer means submitting oneself to a persistent testing of hypotheses. The Permaculture method ignores the shortcuts offered by fossil fuels, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizer, forcing the farmer to rely on natural remedies for counteracting anything undesirable occurring in the natural world, from pests to weeds to higher temperatures due to climate change. In this sense, the Permaculture farmer is like a pre-Modern physician grasping for whatever nature supplies, testing it, and making field notes about the results. It’s a cerebral challenge as much as it is physical. Everything is considered.

Our days always began with the most physically tasking work, like moving firewood or sinking fence posts, when the sun was lowest in the sky and the amateur farmers would have the most energy. As the day went on our work became more stationary. We spent many late mornings in the vegetable garden weeding, harvesting, and removing pests, like caterpillars and moths, by hand. Some of our afternoons were spent on laptops and flipping through gardening books. Emily, a talented graphic designer, designed a map of the forest garden. I assisted her by finding the English, Swedish, and Latin names for every plant. Östängs Gård has become an important teaching farm for students of Permaculture. Yilva and Jonas welcome visitors from all over the world and needed a common resource for navigating the forest garden’s winding, obscured trails.

The forest garden stretches uphill from the rest of the farm and is bookended by a reservoir on its upper boundary and an overflow pond on its lower. A gentle stream connects the two bodies of water. With this proximity to water the garden is often cooler than its surrounding environment. A variety of berries line the upper boundary: blackberries (Björnbär, arctostaphylos), raspberries (hallon, rubus idaeus), and sour cherries (surkorsbär, prunus cerasus). There are several pear trees (päronträd, piri) and different varieties of kiwi (kiwi, kiwi). Mint (mynta, mentham) seems to grow wherever it chooses, as does the comfrey (vallört, symphytum officinale). Some of the plants are medicinal, like the patch of poppy (vallmo, papaver) plants near the garden’s entrance... 


Read the full article in Volume One of Ditto >

Photos by Brittany Buongiorno