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The Great Debate ... A Tale of Two Pea Fences

     by Stephen Morris

(Editor's note: this is a “golden oldie,” having been published previously in Green Living several years ago. The message is just a relevant today.)


My neighbor, Sam, and I agree on politics, religion, and government. We have the same outlooks on the economy and the innate nature of the human species. We even root for the same baseball team and are card-carrying members of the Red Sox Nation. Where we part way is on pea fences.

This can be an emotion charged subject and discussions can get ugly. Turn the page if you do not have the stomach for a bare-fisted discussion of pea fences.

Sam’s pea fence is meant for the ages. Each spring he pulls out the metal fence posts and drives them into the just-thawed earth with a sledge hammer. Then he rolls out the chicken wire that has been in storage since last summer. He lays it out straight and true, and when he finally steps back to admire his work, he sees a fence that will let his peas grow skyward, straight and true.

He sees a thing of beauty. I see the prison camp at Stalag 17.

The advantages of Sam’s pea fence are (in his view) economy, aesthetics, and yield. He gets about six years out of his chicken wire and ten from his posts. I don’t know that he tracks his costs methodically, but his claim that it costs “only a few dollars a year” are probably safe. He loves the neatness of his fence, the angularity. The peas are cooperative, growing straight up at right angles to the earth. As for the yield, Sam claims that the vertical configuration maximizes the harvest of solar energy and, therefore, his harvest.quiet zone
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It’s hard to argue with his logic, but it’s also the logic that guides factory farming. Now, let’s talk about my pea fence.

My pea fence is a study in “just enough.” Unlike Sam, who installs his pea fence before he’s planted his peas, my pea fence goes in when the plants have just reached the height where they are just about to topple over. This happens around Memorial Day. My pea fence does not come from the local lumber supply or Home Depot, but is clipped from the extremities of saplings that a neighbor has allowed me to thin from his land.
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Twigs. That’s what they are. 12” to 36” inches in height, I press them into the soft soil, creating a spiderwork of wood tendrils above the peas. It doesn’t take long for the peas to catch on, especially since I plant in pods rather than rows. My reasoning is that my peas are a community, not an army like Sam’s, and they like having their roots intertwined with their brethren.

I have no idea what I’m talking about. There’s not a lot of science to this. I am largely a self-taught gardener.

My peas grow, maybe I should say sprawl, because they move out as well as up. I have to stick in remedial twigs where things seem to be breaking down. Occasionally, I have to create little superstructures out of garden twine to give an errant pea something to cling to.

When the harvest is complete, Sam’s fence stands straight and tall, ready to withstand the next earthquake. Mine is on the brink of collapse, its purpose served. The spent pea plants will go into the compost. The twigs will be employed to prop up sagging beans, and the garden twine (no dye) will find new life trussing tomatoes to their stakes.

I like using the twine from the peas for the tomatoes. I like the fact that my pea fence costs me next to nothing. I like that when the garden is mostly over, the twigs of the pea fence will find their way into the outdoor fireplace, and the flames that lick from them will roast my marshmallows. Afterwards, the ashes will go directly into the compost.

This is all lost on Sam. He thinks that I am both cheap and an idiot. I see it as an epic philosophic debate, a continuation of the Biblical question of whether or not Man has Dominion. (Pronounce these three words as if in an echo chamber.) My view is that we’re here to work with nature, not to dominate it.

It’s also an example of “systems thinking,” the process of understanding how things influence one another other within an ecosystems where various elements such as air, water, movement, plant and animals work together to survive or perish. Sam, poor fellow, is only concerned with solving the problem of sagging peas. My solution may not result in taller peas, but its total effect on the garden is more benign.

Systems thinking is not a single idea, but rather a set of practices within a framework based on the belief that component parts can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems, not in isolation.

The most commented-upon article I’ve ever written was one that described my partner Sandy’s laundry “system.” This is a complex collection of lines, pulleys, expandable racks, and cleaning materials so detailed that it even includes a shelf where she can rest her wine glass when she goes out to harvest her bounty of sun-dried clothes at the end of a sunny day. (Believe it or not, we’ve actually had people stop by the house so they could see her wine glass shelf.)

Now, that’s a perfect example of “systems thinking” in practice

When you hear people moan about the health care “system,” the federal income tax “system,” or the criminal justice “system,” what they are really caring about are systems that are too big for any individual (such as the President) or group of individuals (such as Congress or the Supreme Court) to control. They’ve become balls of bandages riddled by loopholes, corruption, and special interests. These are not systems, but bureaucratic boondoggles.

Maybe they will get inspired by some of the examples on these pages. Maybe they will learn that small is, indeed, beautiful.


3,448 neighbors have viewed this article.


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