Ruminations on Gardening and Fabric

After living in apartments most of my adult life, last year my family moved into a house with a pretty average plot of land attached. While the frontyard was fully landscaped, the backyard had been mostly ignored.

The backyard was like an open canvas and I was picking up a brush for the first time. I didn't know what to do with it. I spent a lot of time, day after day, staring at the dirt and dry grass that lay like straw on the ground. Sometime I would pull up a handful of dirt just to experience it. Warm, stiff dirt.

One section of the yard was gravel. I despised the gravel. It was hot and sharp. Below the gravel, I would learn, was landscaping fabric, and below that, compacted dirt. Nothing could grow there.

I paid a lot of attention, learning about the different fertile sections of my yard. A pile of old wood had been left to rot in one part. The dirt around it was hard, baked and dead. But under the wood it was light and airy, and moist.

A neighbor's overgrown crepe myrtle hangs over one section of our yard. Below that the ground was light and soft as well. Leaf droppings had seemingly accumulated for years, especially along the fense. There was a rich, green grass growing here, easily pulled out by hand since the top 6 inches or so was just leaf layer.

I just started planting things. I would go to home depot and find anything that interested me and try it out. We created a little container garden out of drawers from Ikea that we no longer needed. We grew broccoli, eggplant, kale and dill in there. They all did quite well, although I wouldn't recommend doing this. The wood was probably treated with chemicals that you wouldn't want in your food.

I planted my first tree, a pomegranite. Then three more: fig, lemon, mango. I build a couple of raised beds and filled them with tomatoes, kale, chard, radishes, beets, arugula.

Then I learned about native plants and contemplated ripping it all out and starting all over.

For much of the cooler months, I worked out of my garage. I would open the door and experience the cool breeze, listen to the sounds of leaves rustling, passing birds wondering by, squawking at each other. Too often, I found myself walking away from my work to pull some weeds or plant some recent purchase. All the while I'd be thinking about my little plot of land and what it means to own it.

Birds would pass through, feast on seeds or grub from my garden and fly off. A squirrel would pass through, or a feral cat. All having complete disregard for my deed.

The reality is, you can't own land the same way you can own a computer or a car or some other trinket. It might technically be yours, but it lives in the world. It has a context.

If you plant a bunch of foreign plants in your yard, you push out the native species and you destroy the homes of thousands of birds and insects. A typical home removes at least a thousand square feet from the ecosystem, 1/8 of the land it sits on. Additionally, we tend to fill the rest of the space with lawn and plant species that offer little habitation or sustenance to the local wildlife. These plants use up precious resources, requiring irrigation and sometimes fertilizer and pesticides.

For a while I got stuck on the issue of idea of permaculture versus native gardening. I decided that debate was a distraction. Both have their advantages, and my ideal garden, the one I am building toward, mixes the two as seamlessly as possible. In my viewpoint, permaculture doesn't fit into a native garden, but native gardening can definitely fit into a permaculture system. You just have to accept that some of the food being created isn't going to humans.

All of that thinking about context spilled out into the other things I was doing in my life. With the background problem of the world's declining resources and increasing demands, particularly on the ways we are depleting the Earth we inhabit. Eventually, I reached a point where I had to make this my life's work. I was working more than 80 hours a week, and I felt that time should be spent working on the larger problem of natural resources.

Around the dinner table, Puja and I kicked around a lot ideas, but it was textiles that really got our attention. Puja has been blockprinting for fun for a long time and we realized this could be not only a way to get our message out, but to also put into practice our ideas on sustainability.

When I researched hemp, I learned about what an ideal permaculture plant it is. Cannabis grown for hemp requires little or no irrigation, no pesticides and no herbicides. It is naturally pest and weed-resistant. It is not a heavy feeder, so year after year, cannabis can be grown on the same plot of land. You don't have to do crop rotation.

Compare this to cotton. Cotton consumes a lot of water. A single t-shirt takes 713 gallons of water. In the US it can only be grown in a few Southern states with near-tropical weather. It is also extremely dependent on fertilizer and pesticides. Cotton production is responsible for 6% of the world's pesticides and 16% of all insecticides. Put all of that together and it is by far the worst crop grown in the world.

Worse than that, I think a lot about how quickly the clothes I buy fall apart. That is less a problem with cotton, and more to do with modern manufacturing standards. But hemp won't do that. Hemp stalks form very long fibers, 2-3 times as long as linen fibers. These fibers are hollow, porous, and very strong.

Since hemp is a natural fiber, it is also biodegradable. If you dry a load of laundry with clothes that are all natural (like 100% hemp, cotton, linen or wool), you can add the lint to your compost bin. But if you mix in plastics, like nylon or polyester you'd be contaminating your compost with microplastics. This is also a major way we contaminate our water supply with microplastics, every time we wash polyester fabric.

The main downside of hemp is that it can't currently be grown as cheap as it ought to be. Hemp comes from the plant cannabis sativa, the same species as the drug, marijuana. However, it doesn't contain the psychoactive ingredient, THC except in trace quantities that are not enough to get high off of. During the 20th century, it got caught up int eh politics of the drug war. As a result, the machinery to infrastructure for processing it efficiently does not exist on a large scale in most of hte world. The economies of scale haven't yet caught up to the industry.

Junu Jungle is not a hemp company, but Puja and I founded Junu Jungle with a goal of supporting the growth of the hemp industry in the United States. We believe in the future of the fabric and see it as a way to fight climate change and plastic pollution.

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