KP Gardens

An Episode in Local Garden History from the Everlasting Age of Aquarius

Everything old is new again, especially if it's organic


Who said we have no sense of history around here?

I mean, we love to retell the old stories of anarchists, contraception pioneers, free love, and — gasp — nude bathing in Home Colony during its brief turn-of-the-century heyday.

Seventy years later, we Baby Boomers were nodding mellow heads to Canned Heat. “I’m gonna leave the city, got to get away. All this fussin’ and fightin’, man, you know I sure can’t stay.”

About that time, the Key Peninsula was becoming a destination for Flower Children getting away from all the heavy fussin’ and fightin’ in the city.

The same natural vibe that brought weirdos to the old utopian communities in Home and Burley attracted another generation of non-conformists. Beautiful people moved out to live in family beach cabins, leaky geodesic domes, tree houses, converted school buses — even sailboats. Old floors in love shacks collapsed under human pretzels in flagrante delicto and the nearly two tons of their waterbeds.

Newcomers brought stereo systems to play Joni Mitchell. “We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

They also brought a new way of vegetable gardening. And I don’t just mean the marijuana plants.

The gardens of The Age of Aquarius were based on a yin-yang notion: yes to compost and manure; no to pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

Nowadays, there’s nothing unfamiliar about this approach. We call it “organic gardening.”

Of course, old timers on the KP had always practiced a version of organic gardening, but without any of the kooky ideas.

Chemical fertilizers were still uncommon then. They were expensive and marketed to agribusiness, not gardeners. Anyone who wanted to raise enough food to feed a hungry family already used compost piles and spread whatever manure fertilizer was at hand.

It just worked, and gardeners had known this for millennia.

What was new in the organic gardens planted in the ’60s and ’70s was not so much in the soil as in the gardeners’ recently enlightened heads. The anti-establishment attitude that gave us pearls of wisdom like “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” came bundled with skepticism about scientific expertise.

The organic gardening movement’s roots were deep in the same loam of magical thinking that nourished weeds like Pyramid Power and healing crystals. The esoteric spiritualist Rudolf Steiner and anti-vaxxer J.I. Rodale were two of organic gardening’s most important evangelists, and both spent lifetimes fighting scientists’ scorn for their crackpot ideas about soil health and plant productivity. The fact that they were criticized by USDA experts was a recommendation that elevated them to the status of sages.

One biodynamic gardening manual put it this way: “The average gardener, when he goes into the field in the morning, is not going with a concept of life but with a concept of death. He goes out to get rid of things. The only way he can do it is to try to kill things. Now there is a perfectly good reason why he is this way. It is because science has taught him these things.”

Readers connected the dots. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, weed control sprays, and pesticides were developed by chemists in labs at DuPont and Dow Chemical where DDT, Agent Orange and napalm were manufactured. Science is a bummer, man.

The allergic reaction to science and industrial production methods is everywhere in the most influential source for the with-it crowd of the day, “The Whole Earth Catalog.”

The short-lived WEC featured three of Rodale’s books on the topic and its magazine, “Organic Gardening & Farming,” each with glowing recommendations.

Novelist Gurney Norman’s blurb is quintessential.

“In the month that I have had my copy of Rodale’s ‘How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method,’ I have browsed it and referred to it for so many reasons, out of so many different moods, that I can’t decide if its resting place on the shelf should be among my other how-to books or somewhere between my poetry and books on oriental religion.”

Somewhere between poetry and religion … now that’s where organic gardening was on the counterculture’s map 55 years ago.

Norman’s old friend from back at the University of Kentucky, the poet Wendell Berry, also contributed to the OEC.

His essay in the 1969 edition, “Think Small,” is a landmark document in the history of the American ecology movement. Young organic gardeners of the Key Peninsula were converts in the choir for this sermon: “A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure.”

Over the years in this KP Gardens feature, local organic gardeners have offered many practical tips, from composting to complimentary plantings.

But these gardens didn’t sprout unplanted.

As we enjoy the fall bounty of our organic gardens this month, we might pause for a moment to smile at the memory of the young hippies and back-to-the-landers who once consulted the I Ching before planting beans, buried dandelion petals in cow horns under the zucchini, and played flutes to the tomatoes. They composted and blended natural fertilizers too, all without adding toxins to the land and water we share.

The “Whole Earth Catalog” is forgotten along with the love beads, dashikis and sandals. You still see a few dreamcatchers, tie-dyed shirts and Birkenstocks.

Joni Mitchell is on a comeback tour, and the Earth still isn’t whole.

But at least we have some tried-and-tested gardening ideas for what to do about it.

Thanks, all you surviving snow-capped hippies. You were stardust and golden. Those organic gardens you got back to were not cultivated in vain.