gardening with petroleum

November 12. A few days ago I had a chance to meditate for hours on the subject of my conflicted relationship with our petroleum-centered way of life – while driving a tractor for the first time. Neighbor Martha (of Harvest Moon Farms lavender) offered to show me how to operate her Kubota, and she chugged it over to the giant pile of finished compost on Lin’s driveway. A 30-second lesson and I was on my own, using the tractor’s front scoop to carry three wheelbarrow-loads at a time out to the far hoop house. At first I was horrified at the diesel smell and the engine roar, but once I added hearing-protector muffs to my outfit I began to enjoy maneuvering the thing. A few hours later I’d moved more compost than I could ever have managed in a week via shovel and wheelbarrow.

Now that I’m in my sixtieth year – and it’s been forty years since I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis – I find I need to be more careful about overdoing physical labor. An hour of any one repetitive action – shoveling, raking, weeding – and that’s it. More, and the pain that follows is not the good ache of tired muscles but something more lingering that feels like damage. So I was thrilled to reach the end of the afternoon pain-free and with ten cubic yards of beautiful compost delivered to various garden spots, ready to spread on raised beds.

That’s more compost than we can create here in a year from the farm’s own materials. It was made fifty miles away, using gasoline-powered tools – chipper and backhoe – and transported here in a diesel dumptruck. I think about that as I drive the tractor, about how we’re using industrial-scale petroleum inputs to create the infrastructure – raised beds, greenhouses, deer-fenced areas – for what we intend ultimately to be a people-powered food-producing locally sustainable garden enterprise. Much of the forty cubic yards of compost purchased this year goes to filling new raised beds. Meanwhile we’re making more of our own compost each year, and banking that whenever we stop adding new planting areas we’ll be able to maintain fertility with cover crops and our own compost. The end of oil-dependent inputs is in sight. Whether we’ll be able to maintain all this just with our own diminishing physical capacities is another story. I’m hoping to attract a few young gardeners before long.

No photo of me and the tractor – you’ll have to imagine it.