Growing Healthy

Posted by on 05/14/10 in Creativity, Ethics, Nature, Philanthropy, Stewardship

For the past twenty-five years, Denver Urban Gardens (www.dug.org) has been planting healthy produce and much more in some of the roughest corners of our community. On May 20th, DUG (as it is affectionately and aptly known) will celebrate both this anniversary and the start of its 100th community garden in yet another neighborhood that has made a commitment to good nutrition, proper stewardship, economic development, and voluntary connection with neighbors and friends, new and old.

Whether rural or urban, a healthy garden becomes a place in which wonderful things happen. Its very presence validates life, affirms our creative potential. It is inherently un-cynical, anti-apathetic, and non-complacent. Just by planting a garden and tending it, an individual, family, or community makes an active statement of their faith, however one might define that word.

Many years ago, well-known sustainable gardener, Eliot Coleman, taught us an invaluable lesson. Eliot pointed out that to properly steward a diverse, dynamic agricultural ecosystem with minimal reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides (the leverage of the farm and garden), one not only needed to work harder, but more importantly one needed to work smarter. Large amounts of chemical could help create plants that looked healthy, but those plants actually may not be healthy.

Why should that matter? Well, it turns out that truly healthy plants better resist molds, insects, rot, and the other dangers that lurk about the soil. With a little bit of human help, a strong plant can use its natural defenses to help minimize damage caused by active and passive predators. Plants have been protecting themselves since long before we walked the earth and seemed to have done reasonably well without our petroleum based interventions.

When a farmer-gardener relies excessively on artificial means of support and protection, they tend to focus less on the inherent health of the plants themselves. They may be prone to over-concentrating their efforts on a few or even one crop rather than diversifying their plantings thoughtfully. They may continue to propagate weaker specimens because they sense no incentive to do otherwise.

Ultimately, however, weak plants become easy targets for beetles, aphids, and fungus, for they cannot fight them off as well as their healthier kin. Because of this, weak plants require ever increasing means of artificial support. Weak soil is much more easily populated by weeds that steal nutrients, water and sunlight from the very plants that one hopes to grow. A vicious cycle is born in which an agricultural ecosystem becomes ever less sustainable, its plant life ever poorer in quality, and its reliance on outside artificial assistance ever higher.

A farmer-gardener can reverse this cycle by focusing on nurturing healthy plants through proper care of the soil, appropriate crop diversification and rotation, and thoughtful alignment of plant selection and environment. In this situation, a different cycle is born, one in which the agricultural ecosystem becomes increasingly more sustainable and more productive in the long-term.

Many of us work in environments that share at least some of the qualities found in healthy gardens. Healthy schools, hospitals, small businesses, government agencies, faith communities and families are often those that have developed the means to strengthen their members (employees, customers, clients, owners, partners, parishioners, etc.) with the least possible reliance on artificial motivation (fear, bribery, peer pressure, etc.).

Last week, we called for new metaphors for how our society approaches the world of financial services. It may seem odd to some that we would address banking, investments, and insurance in the context of sustainable farming and community gardens, yet we do not think that it should be so unusual. While there is always a place for firm regulation and effective regulators, we firmly believe that there will be meaningful improvement in the quality of financial care and in the systemic strength of our society’s financial model only when we as a society and as an industry nurture, encourage, and reward that which is most healthy.

We look forward to the day when it is normal for a financial service company to be genuinely—and primarily—focused on strengthening the fiscal health of its customers, and to the day when it is typical for customers and investors to reward financial firms that exemplify good stewardship.

The storms of spring are a confounding reminder of the risks inherent in gardening; yet, those very storms prepare the soil and bring the water necessary for growth. It’s a good time to reflect on just what it is that we are growing today and what we hope to cultivate for the future.