My Failed Wild Garden and Inner Utopian


Rational ideas create hell on earth. Just ask a kulak. Or just ask the lettuce plants in my garden.

I had a great gardening idea a few years ago. I called it “wild gardening.” The idea was simple and based on U.S. foreign policy over the past 75 years.

There’s a war in every garden: good plants versus weeds. I figured I just needed to let the two battle it out, with me getting involved as little as possible. So, even though I wanted the good plants to win, I’d let them fight the weeds, with me offering minimal help, mostly behind the actual battle lines. I’d fight a proxy war.

I would let the good plants (lettuces, cilantro, basil, mustards, and kale) reach full maturation: sprouting fluffy heads of seeds, which would then float all over the garden like parachuters. I kept areas of ground uncovered to receive the vegetable seed parachuters. Meanwhile, I used a diamond hoe to slice weeds before they had much chance to fight back (before they sprouted seeds).

Eventually, I figured I’d have a lawn-like spread of good green vegetables, with the weeds choked out. No mulching. No rows. No spacing. No planting by hand. No buying new seeds every year. No need to harvest seeds every fall (because they’d be reseeding themselves and growing the following spring).

It’d be paradise on my little plot of earth. It was among the best-laid plans.

It went well at first. In early July of the first full season, I nodded sagely at the progress. Weeds nowhere; mustards and kale gone to seed and releasing parachuters. Cilantro carpeting areas of the garden. Tomato and squash volunteers thriving.

Then life intervened. I had to leave town for the better part of two weeks. The weather grew brutally hot, with humidity that made walking through stalks of matured lettuce like walking through the devil’s armpits.

Six weeks later, the war had been lost.

I won’t bore you with the details, but, in short, the enemy had routed the good guys. The lettuce paradise had become a hell of weeds. The tomato plants and squash were doing alright but wrapped in weeds. And it was weeds, not my lettuce and mustards, that were releasing parachuting seeds.

The wild gardening experiment was dead.

I think the idea could’ve worked. I still had a lot of lettuce and cilantro. I would just have to sort through the grass and weeds that would come with the harvest. I still had volunteer tomato plants, even though the weeds were killing air circulation, thereby increasing the potential for disease.

I initially told myself, “The experiment didn’t fail because it was a bad idea. The experiment failed because I wasn’t able to execute it properly due to other commitments and weather. If I just had better weather, and if I were able to keep daily vigilance over those weeds, and if . . .”

It suddenly dawned on me: the utopian wild garden didn’t work because it was a bad idea. Even worse, I was thinking like a totalitarian, using my rationality to come up with an idea that contradicted thousands of years of basic gardening practices.

In the fourth century, Diocletian’s Roman Empire faced a serious problem: lack of food. One of the reasons: farmers were abandoning their farms because economic prospects in the city were far better.

Diocletian’s solution? Serfdom. Require the farmers, and their kids, and their kids’ kids, and their kids’ kids’ kids, and so on for a millennium, to stay on specific parcels of land and farm. If a farmer abandoned the farm for something better, he would be executed.

Diocletian’s solution, combined with a lot of other reforms, worked. It saved the Empire at a time when contemporaries thought the whole thing was falling apart. He was able to retire. He spent his later years in the garden, growing cabbages, and though the Empire still struggled, it was able to survive in one form or another until its eventual fall in 1453.

The Roman Empire put an entire class of people into slavery for generations, but the government’s goal of better food production overrode the natural human trait to seek one’s economic improvement.

An idea, in other words, vetoed nature. It worked, but only through brute and inhumane force.

Nature wants to go to weeds. The battle against weeds goes back to Original Sin. My proposal to eliminate weeds altogether by installing a lawn of green vegetables simply couldn’t work.

Unless, perhaps, I increased my vigilance, patrolling the garden every day, ruthlessly taking out the weeds like the Gestapo looking for Jews. Maybe hiring neighborhood kids to patrol when I wasn’t home.

In other words, increasing the force required to suppress nature’s impulse.

It was textbook Marxism in action: Impose a system that contradicts human nature, then when it doesn’t work (because it runs contrary to human nature), increase the force required to suppress the resulting conflict between human nature and your system. As the system continues to fail and society rebels against it, increase the force and vigilance further until you get to the society that was parodied so brilliantly in The Death of Stalin.

I also realized that my idea mimicked the unconstrained vision examined by Thomas Sowell’s classic work, A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles. People tend to fall into two camps: those with a constrained vision and those with an unconstrained vision. Sowell devotes the entire book to exploring the differences, but in a nutshell the constrained vision says society is limited in what it can achieve and the unconstrained vision says it’s not.

In particular, the constrained vision works within the confines of nature, including human nature, and respects the limits imposed by nature.

The unconstrained vision doesn’t accept limits imposed by nature. It thinks nature, especially human nature, can be remade into the Communist “New Man” or Nietzschean “Super Man.”

My wild garden idea was a microcosm of the unconstrained vision. Nature loves weeds. My system would eliminate that natural love and remake gardening . . . at least in my corner of the earth. It would be all vegetables all the time, with no weeds, except perhaps a dissident weed occasionally that I could easily yank out and burn.

And finally, I realized my idea violated tradition.

The small garden plot is the traditional way of gardening for a reason: it allows the gardener to mulch, space the plants, reach the weeds. Such horticultural techniques are part of the inherited gardening tradition, which has built up over millennia.

Such techniques can be implemented with greater or lesser skill. They can be improved upon.

But they can’t be ignored. Those traditional techniques exist for a reason.

Even if gardening utopians like me don’t fully understand them and are occasionally too arrogant to respect them.

Image via Geograph


  1. But, there really isn’t one or a few ways to garden. Sure, there may be overlap between various techniques, but there is a considerable difference between permaculture and monocropping. And, both are products of the philosophies that undergird them. Both are plans or projects, both utopian in a sense. There is received wisdom, which has its merits, but there isn’t ONE received wisdom to rule them all.

    Limits are fine. Flourishing within the given constraints is goodly. But, we don’t really know the limits until, like any teenager with a talent for adolescence, we test them. Or, we just accept received wisdom as virtuous limit. We can look to wisdom and wise men we identify with, rejecting any ideas that may result in cognitive dissonance, to define those limits and call it a mature and organic philosophy.


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