Welcome to the Year of the Dog

Tonight, at the stroke of midnight, begins the Chinese New Year. It’s the only national holiday celebrated around the world—across Asia, in Paris, London, San Francisco, New York—even Butte, Montana, which prides itself on having the loudest festivities anywhere.

Welcome to the Year of the Dog! So long, Year of the Rooster! Going by the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, we’re embarking on the year 4716: synchronize your watches.

In the Year of the Dog, according to the Chinese zodiac, our destinies will be guided by canine traits. The Chinese regard dogs as auspicious creatures, so the next twelve months should bring prosperity, peace, and greater equality. People born in the Year of the Dog are believed to be honest, loyal, ethical, and a trifle wary.

Chinese New Year, or the Spring Festival, is the sine qua non of Chinese life and culture. Dazzling on its surface, astonishing in its depth, the Festival weaves a tapestry of Chinese life, commingling family, community, religion, ancestry, supernatural beliefs, traditional symbolism and ritual.

Underlying the ceremony are fervent invocations to luck, good fortune, and prosperity—and concerted efforts to keep bad luck and evil spirits at bay (the firecrackers and dancing dragons help).

The Spring Festival began as a moveable feast, its date changing yearly, falling on the second new moon after the winter solstice, like a quickening of Spring. Chinese New Year provided an introductory fanfare to the beginning of the country’s five-season agricultural calendar.

In the not too distant past, the lunar calendar allowed unlettered farmers, with a glance moonward, to know the best times to plow ?elds, sow seed, and nourish crops. New Year’s was the only day of the year when China’s early farmers took time out to celebrate. The Spring Festival is, in a sense, the original garden party.

China’s storied agricultural tradition provides the basis for not only the lunar calendar and its festivals, but also Chinese culture itself.  In the Confucian hierarchy of four social strata, farmers ranked second only to aristocratic scholars, based on character, contribution to society, and, more tangibly, the taxes they paid.

Americans lack a holiday that connects family, community, ancestral heritage, and traditions.  Some of us look for our roots through family trees or DNA tests, hoping for a link to aristocracy or renown; many more of us feel the need to anchor ourselves to our society and our past. There’s a way we can: gardening.

American like Chinese roots are in the garden. Most of us descend from farmer ancestors somewhere in the world. Our nation’s principal founding fathers—Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison—were farmers. Their Constitution is imbued with respect for self-sufficiency, foresight, prudence, and a wariness about the unpredictability of nature—all traits of a successful farmer.

The garden is, in anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s phrase, the pattern that connects. We are joined to the earth, sun and moon, forging a bond with 14,000 years of agricultural heritage. Want to grow prosperous and enjoy good fortune? Garden—and bring along your auspicious dog.

Happy Chinese New Year. May the Year of the Dog be with you.

A version of this article appeared in the Napa Valley Register, The Desert Sun and The Morning Call on February, 15, 2018.

Mission: Mistletoe

Christmas season in the Northern Hemisphere coincides with the winter solstice, bringing the darkest of cold, gray days. Many Americans compensate for the gloom outside by setting up a cheerful holiday scene inside: the fire dances, candles flicker, gold glints, silver glimmers, holly glistens, poinsettias pose. Lording over the merry panoply is the Christmas tree, spangled with lights, ornaments, tinsel and crowned by a shimmering star.

But lately, when visiting friends for December merrymaking, I’ve noticed something missing: mistletoe. This poetic holiday adornment—a sprig of green leaves and white berries happily dangling over the door—is increasingly conspicuous by its absence, leaving many a rosy cheek unkissed. Where is the love?

Heaven knows, humankind is a fickle lot. Yet mistletoe has been valued for millennia. The plant was prized by ancient Greeks, Romans, Celts and Norsemen for its purportedly magical properties. In those bygone days, people were rightly inspired by mistletoe’s season-defying vitality in the stark, denuded winter landscape. High in the treetops, it merrily flourished, a blaze of bright foliage and gleaming berries.

Druids believed that mistletoe banished evil and promoted animal and human fertility. Ancient Greeks thought it was an aphrodisiac. Romans endowed it with healing powers. Later on, truculent Vikings associated it with peace. When enemies had a chance encounter beneath a mistletoe-laden tree, they would lay down their arms and keep a truce until the following day.

Over time, the custom evolved to suspend mistletoe over a home’s entrance, a talisman of good will. Peace now given a chance, the British upgraded the tradition to kissing under the mistletoe, believing that doing so augured marriage. Even if we moderns are sometimes suspicious of a Christmas kiss, what’s the harm in continuing to hang legendary greenery?

We moderns might also complain that mistletoe, far from being the charming emblem of legend, is a parasite. Yes, the plant thrives by siphoning fluids and vital minerals from host trees, causing them to decline and fall. Nonetheless, mistletoe is a parasite with benefits, more Robin Hood than Robber Baron. Scientists have even designated it as a keystone species, meaning one that is crucial to its ecosystem.

Mistletoe’s berries and flowers are especially attractive to birds, who not only feed on its fruits and seeds but are apt to take up residence in its dense, evergreen clumps, called “witches’ brooms.” These 2-to-3 foot whorls of stems and leaves, which dangle from tree branches, are like an Airbnb for the avian crowd. Owls especially like mistletoe, though insects and discerning small mammals find it cozy as well.

In Australia, 75% of arboreal nesting birds live in witches’ brooms1. In southwestern Oregon, 90% of the endangered owls are contented broom residents2. Rather than banishing mistletoe, conservationists are trying to preserve these crucial habitats. Indeed, mistletoe is listed as an endangered species. Tell a Northern Spotted Owl that you consider mistletoe a parasite, and it may hoot you out of town.

So raise a glass to this oft-misunderstood natural benefactor—and put the mistletoe back atop the door where it belongs.

A version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on December 21st, 2017

The People vs. Broccoli

Your Honor, I’d like to make some preliminary remarks to provide context and perspective on the case before the court. As a third generation seedsman, I have agreed to pro bono representation of Broccoli, the most maligned vegetable of all time.

I shall prove that my client is the vegetable that can do no less than save humankind. I shall demonstrate Broccoli to be the most succulent, tasty, and life-enhancing of all vegetables.

Can you eat Pea’s stringy vine, Corn’s cob, Bean’s coarse stalk, or Melon’s spiny leaf? Only Broccoli allows you to eat the entire plant: asparagus-like stalks, savory green leaves and delicately sweet, nutty flavored flower buds. My client represents nothing less than the pinnacle of vegetable sophistication.

While desirable for its taste, do not overlook Broccoli’s promotion and protection of human health. No plant possesses more antioxidants, beneficial enzyme-stimulating compounds, and metabolism-enhancing fiber, than my client. It abounds with vitamins: a cup of cooked Broccoli provides more vitamin C than an orange. That same cup supplies 10% of daily minerals. Add metabolism- and enzyme-boosting folic acid and calcium pectate and the cancer-fighting antioxidants beta carotene, carotene and sulforaphane. Broccoli nips disease in the bud.

My client possesses healthful fiber and contains substantial amounts of cell-building protein, and eye-protecting lutein. Your Honor, my client is as close to perfection as a vegetable can be. Not to eat Broccoli should be a crime.

Therefore, why is savory, succulent, creamy-textured Broccoli on trial? For being too healthy? Too tasty? Too easy to grow in all 50 states? No: my client is accused of being “too bitter”.

I offer two defenses: First, this apotheosis of subtle flavors and powerfully healthful properties needs to be grown to full ripeness.  Second, it must be transported from farms or home gardens to the kitchen quickly and then steamed, sautéed, grilled or stir-fried. Thereby I can prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that my client possesses the most sublime vegetable flavor available to the human palate.

Broccoli has been capriciously defamed and disparaged by influential figures in all walks of life, from nighttime talk shows to the Supreme Court. Nearly three decades ago, President George H.W. Bush declared that he hated my client. His remark was an unfortunate result of the commercial production of Broccoli: picked unripe—thus deficient of both flavors and healthful compounds—and shipped thousands of miles to languish weeks on produce counters.

Therefore, I ask the court to dismiss this case, and invite you, the court, the plaintiff, and The People, to lunch in my garden. Justice will be served—steamed and drizzled with melted butter and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Thank you, Your Honor.

A version of this article appeared in The Wall Street Journal on November 6, 2017

A Late Summer Night’s Dream

Labor Day is reflexively regarded as the end of summer and with it the end of the gardening season. Not so fast, my fellow Americans! Summer will be with us for a few weeks yet, until the autumnal equinox on Friday, September 22.

But the best is yet to come. While we harvest our lima beans, eggplants and tomatoes now, we should consider the three months ahead of us as a “second summer”.

A far-reaching element of American Exceptionalism is our country’s singular diversity of terrain, climates, and seasonal transitions. Until the mid-nineteenth century, American farmers and home gardeners took European agriculture—especially that of the United Kingdom—as their model, only to be annually disappointed by the erratic performance of their imported seeds.

While American culture and politics mirror European origins, our agriculture does not. Reckoned in temperature, precipitation, sunlight, and day length, the only areas in the U.S. remotely resembling Western Europe are the northern-most stretch of Down East Maine (minus the winter), and the Seattle area, from Tacoma up to Bellingham.

We tend to think nature, and the garden, operate according to a Northern European time clock: the growing season punching in come June, and punching out three months later, on Labor Day. This is far from the case. Because of our nation’s Southern Mediterranean and North African-like latitudes, most US gardeners can reap a second, three-month long garden season.

When fall arrives, we typically reach for our sweaters, if not our overcoats. But, in fact, for vast swathes of the country, we should reach for our sunhats and hoes.  Fall is prime gardening time.

Most of the country—some 80 to 85%—offers six months of peak outdoor gardening. In September, October, and November, the average temperatures in our 30 largest cities are conducive to growing virtually every vegetable, except perhaps tomatoes and eggplants after mid-October.

In cooler northern climes, the garden-friendly “second summer” average temperatures range from a high of 59 degrees in New York to 53 degrees in Chicago and Seattle. Heading southward, the temperatures get positively balmy, averaging 60 degrees or above, from Houston’s 71 degrees to Louisville’s average of 60. Of course, it gets still warmer (and wetter) in places like Miami and New Orleans. And it gets plenty warm in the Southwest and all the way to Northern California.

“Fall” is too glum and fateful a term to encompass the fertile splendor of the season—the garden is in full swing. Lasting until the first deep frost, this complete garden season runs until mid-October in the northern states (and even late October if you’re on the water, like Boston), into late November in the mid-South, and as late as mid-December in the Deep South, South Central and Southwest.

The garden’s autumnal reboot brings forth bountiful harvests of delectable vegetables. In the North, enjoy lettuce, spinach, kale, cabbage, turnips, Brussels sprouts. In the South, gardeners can grow anything they like.

In the spirit of Labor Day, the garden offers a salutary hybrid of work and leisure. And, to get bottom line-ish about it, no other investment will reap you dividends even close to what gardening offers, tangible gains you can sink your teeth into. Hedge-fund managers, take note: a modestly-sized garden can deliver a return on investment up to 25,000%, reckoned by what comparable produce will cost at your local grocer.

Remember that the garden is not only mankind’s original business—it is the ideal workplace. You are the boss, setting your own hours, claiming full ownership. You work in a thriving creative environment in a picturesque setting. The commute: minimal. Consider it a “second summer vacation”.

A version of this article appeared in the Reading Eagle on August 30, 2017

Gaia is Good

Recently, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking announced that we should colonize the moon and Mars as soon as possible.  He predicts humankind is destroying the Earth, including itself, and that even if we survived, Mother Earth runs out of milk, figuratively speaking, by 2117.  He insists we must exit the planet before then.

Hawking’s grim, “end of times” prediction sounds more rhetorical than theoretical.  Because of his fame, the public might take it as literal.  As an international seedsman, I take it as wrong.

Allow me to suggest a classic “rosy scenario”—but one that is absolutely achievable.  Mother Earth has a maximum carrying capacity of 35.5 billion people—up from today’s population of 7.5 billion—at 1,500 calories per person, per day.  At this rate full capacity would be achieved in about 105 years.  Our population continues to increase; we ranch, farm and fish everywhere we can; everyone in the world is well-fed.

Specifically, assume that the world’s population doubles every 40 years and that, worldwide, a healthy daily caloric intake averages 1,500.  Calculate all animals, fish, plants, grains, wild game, algae and human breast milk.  Assume that all of Earth’s arable as well as grazing land will be developed fully by the year 2123.  Finally, assume that, facing up to its obesity epidemic, the industrialized world reduces its intake of empty calories and sugar.  An optimistic prediction, indeed, but doable.

While you might conclude from my “rose-colored glasses” counter prediction that Hawking’s doomsday scenario continues to be correct, you would have to deny that humans are creative, resourceful and innovative.  You’d be wrong.  Factor the rate of human technological progress into my scenario, and we could survive on Earth for millions of years.

For example, approximately 10,000 years ago, we invented a highly engineered food—bread.  Regarding bread’s main ingredient, Nobelist plant breeder Norman Borlaug saved 245 million lives through breeding a shorter and more productive wheat plant—just one plant and one person fed almost a quarter billion people.

Furthermore, it is universally accepted that malnutrition is caused by poverty, and poverty by social conflict, instability, and war.  No freedom—no free markets.  Also, food distribution depends on road quality.  No paved roads, no distribution.  Such mundane realities may not occur to a gifted theoretical physicist.  But by sticking to them, mankind keeps civilization flourishing.

Unlike Mr. Hawking, I can speak only about farmers.  His dire warnings of catastrophic global warming, air pollution and asteroid collisions elude me.  I base my observations not on disaster, but on the power of what the ancient Greeks called Gaia.  She is more fecund than all the world’s inhabitants combined.

Add Gaia’s air, water, sunlight and genes to our ability to till the soil, harvest the seas, and tend the herds and flocks.  The results are miracles.  The trick is to be selective, and to worship—that is, to follow—Gaia, as did Borlaug, and both Gregor Mendel, who discovered genetics, and Charles Darwin, author of the theory of evolution, before him.

I accept Hawking’s vast knowledge of outer space, and hope he explains soon how to colonize the moon and Mars.  Who will go?  First the starving, with hospital staffs in tow?  Then those in Holland, China, Bangladesh and other low-lying places?  In what order?  But what about the absence of water, oxygen, vapor pressure?

Shall humanity mutate, move to Mars and breathe carbon dioxide?  Grow metallic skin to avoid boiling to death?  Or wear gasmasks and protective suits?  Or maybe we shall live underground?

Perhaps Hawking will show us how to “terraform”, a science-fiction movie process of creating new atmospheres on other planets.  I would like to suggest that it is easier to diet, as it was to curtail tobacco use a generation ago.  Better to breed animals and plants and pave more roads.

Hawking is wrong not about Mother Earth, but about ourselves.  To paraphrase Alexander Pope, we are Hawking’s proper study.  Let us examine what keeps us from creating both optimal horticultural and agricultural production and excellent transportation to all of the world’s markets.

We shorten our lives by killing, maiming and starving each other.  Stop that and we shall live on Earth forever.

A version of this article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on July 23, 2017

GardenCare

As we head toward the longest day, light fills the sky, allowing us to see greater horizons than that of our garden alone. Rejuvenation and reform are in the air.

Specifically, Congress would do well to model health care on the principles of horticulture. Other than catastrophes, infectious agents or diseases caused by genes, sicknesses are due to poor diet and too little exercise. Humans need air, sunlight, water, fresh food and movement.

As ever, gardening provides for precisely these forms of health. When relatives were ailing, the Greeks and Romans often carried them out to surrounding farms, where they would recover by working in gardens, sleeping in fresh air and eating vegetables and herbs.

Home-grown vegetables possess up to 300% more nutrients than store-bought ones. Herbs provide extra tastes more beneficially than salt or sugar.  Vitamin D is best gotten from sunlight, while the ions found in fresh air contribute to mood elevation. Inhaling and touching the microbes in garden soil relieves stress (though you need to remove your gardening gloves).

Speaking of inhalation, breathing is the beginning of not only life, but also prayer as well as mindfulness throughout Asia. Similarly, early Western society located the mind’s center in the heart rather than the brain. Tending the garden is a cardiovascular workout.

Research proves that gardeners live longer. In Sweden, scientists discovered that gardeners avoid strokes and heart attacks, thereby living an average of 14 years longer than non-gardeners.

Indeed, a regular schedule of the Tai Chi-like movements required to tend a garden for a week equals a day at the gym. Gardening feels good.

Tastes good too. Consumption requires motivation—nothing beats flavor. Fully-ripened vegetables produce optimum flavonoids only in home gardens. Store-bought broccoli fouls the nose and palate because the flowering heads exude repellant gas when picked green and stored by wholesalers and supermarkets for several weeks. It doesn’t want to be eaten, which is why unripe broccoli is commonly avoided. Too bad: broccoli possesses extraordinarily high concentrations of cancer-fighting antioxidant compounds.

However, in poetic irony, fresh-picked, fully-ripened broccoli’s nutty sweetness is beguiling—creamy with a heady flavor that stands alone, and combines marvelously with melted butter, ground pepper or lemon, or a bit of all three. Note to President George H. W. Bush.

After children acquire the habit of eating vegetables, they carry this salutary diet well into adulthood. The greatest influence in motivating kids to eat vegetables? Research shows that children’s participation in growing vegetables skyrockets their consumption of them.

Vegetables cure the sick, particularly the elderly. Diabetics now comprise almost 10% of the U.S. population. Lima beans, sweet potatoes and Swiss chard contain all the potassium needed by Type 2 diabetics of any age to relieve their symptoms and even contribute to remission.

Consider mental illness. Studies at Rutgers University prove that flower bouquets, pots and garden beds alleviate depression. Costly drugs are less effective and—by a long shot—more expensive. Some researchers believe flowers and humans co-evolved; we base our sense of beauty and ideas of form on the colors and shapes of flowering plants.

Legislators need to reimagine health care policy. Sensible caloric intake—in both quantity and quality—and regular outdoor exercise should be at the root of this deliberation. Horticulture holistically prevents and cures illness, while maintaining health.

The path to the garden lies before Congress.

A version of this article appeared in the May 25, 2017 edition of The Desert Sun

Save The White House Kitchen Garden

Surrounding President Trump are more Slavic people or their descendants than ever before in our history.  Two of his three wives, including his current, four of his five children, two daughters-in-law and a son-in-law are Slavic.  Moreover, Mr. Trump has pan-Slavic parents-in-law.

Almost his entire kin hail directly or indirectly from northern, eastern, western or southern Slavic nations.  However, none is Russo-Slavic.  Russian President Vladimir Putin should not have any illusion of breaking through to provide his perspective—all the chairs are taken, thank you.

At the family’s center, next to Trump, is the member most linguistically gifted.  Melania Trump speaks Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, German, French, Italian and English.  Such skills require a lot of listening as well as talking, and she seems, especially, to excel at the former.

Please, Melania, listen to my request.  You would help the nation greatly by expanding the White House Kitchen Garden which Michelle Obama permanently established last fall with help from The Burpee Foundation.  Better still, you would emphasize the great Slavic-style vegetables in American gardening and cuisine.  In fact, the sophisticated and diverse Slavic cuisine depends greatly on vegetables; those vegetables tend to be earthy—not sweet.

People think Slavic food is heavy and creamy (only on holidays), often fried (much less than American) and centered on meat (“ne”, it’s vegetable-based).

Central and Eastern Europe’s most popular vegetables include cabbage, beet, potato, carrot, onion, pumpkin and cucumber.  In the Slavic South and West, eggplant, tomato, string bean, pepper and celery move up the ranking.  Of all these, only the potato and tomato stand out as popular American vegetables.

Furthermore, throughout Slavic countries, fresh cooking rules.  Restaurants are still “special occasion only”; fast food is for urbanites, children and transients.  Gardening is hugely popular.

Mrs. Trump was raised in Sevnica, a small town in Slovenia where age-old traditions persist, especially vegetable gardening.  At the center of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it absorbed influences from North, South, East and West for a thousand years.  Such multicultural traditions have never entered the White House, much less its grounds.

We should look forward to string bean, cucumber and pea fences; patches of edible pumpkins, potatoes, beets, onions, parsnips; herbs such as sorrel, condiments such as horseradish.  Whereas the Obamas’ garden was sweet and spicy, the Trumps’ garden will be pungent and earthy.

Melania, please help Americans return to our roots and other ground-hugging vegetables such as cabbage, kohlrabi and endive.  Let us now welcome the startling zip of freshly dug radish, the depth and dimension of the savory cauliflower.

You have, in the new White House Kitchen Garden, the space and, in the next four years, the time.  Veteran and would-be gardeners will thank you.

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2017 edition of The Chicago Tribune

 

The Best 100 Days

Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously approached his first 100 days as president in 1933 to attack the demons of the Great Depression: unemployment, poverty, healthcare, and reviving industry and agriculture.  All new presidents since have had a 100 day gauntlet to confront and address the many ills that face them.

Having run more than five 100-day gauntlets since announcing his bid in June, 2015, president-elect Trump has had practice facing demons.  However, he hasn’t met the D.C. gladiator corps, sharpening their swords and deep-stretching for Day One.

That’s the bad news.  The good news is Mr. Trump has his own garden to tend.  Ironically, it has been left to him, as well as to the entire nation, by First Lady Michelle Obama in the form of the newly-established White House Kitchen Garden, her greatest achievement while occupying “The People’s House”.

President-elect Trump would do well to cultivate not only the 2,000 square foot garden, but also a taste for all things vegetable.  PEOTUS is moving into not only a house with its own kitchen garden, but also a climate that has a sweet mildness unique in the country.  In nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, even at a higher elevation, Thomas Jefferson grew a year-round bounty of various herbs, fruits and vegetables.  Since then, American presidents from Monroe to Kennedy conjured forth gardens, arboreta, fountains and even greenhouses—the latter of which have disappeared.

On his first day in office, Saturday, January 21st, President Trump can sow seeds of peas, kale, lettuce, mustard greens, kohlrabi, cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts, as well as beets, carrots, chard, radishes and spinach.  Also, he can plant bulbs for green onions and “seed potatoes”.  He’ll be eating all of the afore-mentioned within 75 days.  Indeed, the D.C. climate is so mild that the White House Kitchen Garden can yield three end-to-end crops of arugula in the first 100 days; if he sows every two weeks, he’ll have to open a farm stand on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In full disclosure, The Burpee Foundation is the sole donor of funds to maintain the White House Kitchen Garden for the next seventeen years, serving the palates of three to five new presidents.

Like all 1960s youth, I grew up attracted to fast food, even though its grease took some getting used to.  When one is mobile, fast food is handy.  At age 70, Trump can be as mobile as he likes, but he is courting illness by eating regularly at Colonel Sanders, or in the many kitchens at his buildings.

Changing to a plant-based diet brings you out of the darkness and into the sunlight.  With a large vegetable garden steps from your bedroom window, you can easily improve your health.  It takes about three weeks for average palates to adjust from “taco bowls” to fresh vegetables.  Once you have tasted just-harvested and steamed broccoli with drawn butter and ground pepper, you never go back to junk food.  After a month, you cannot even chew fried chicken or any other high-fat, high-sodium fast food.

For instance, president-elect Trump, and many others, may not know this but the turnip is a fantastically delicious and nutritious vegetable.  Peeled and eaten with a bit of salt, few vegetables can compete.  I rank kohlrabi second for high flavor, nutrition and low calories.  Eat it like an apple to enjoy its delightful taste.  Third place goes to the heavenly watermelon radish, so called because of its rose-pink colored flesh. It is one of God’s great gifts to the world, as is the rest of the Brassica, or cabbage, family.  Like the others, sown in late January, the petite globe-shaped variation of the Japanese daikon will be ready mid-March.  Quartered, drizzled with olive oil, dashed with salt and pepper, wrapped in aluminum foil, and baked for an hour or so, it is a uniquely savory dish.

With his newly-dug fingerling potatoes and a bit of melted butter, and his ever-present surplus arugula, steamed and sautéed with a touch of garlic, our born-again healthy chief executive will be ready to conquer his 101st day and many thereafter.

A version of this article appeared in the January 7, 2017 edition of The Washington Post

 

Swamp Things

Pundits and commentators in New York City and Washington, D.C. think that when president-elect Trump declares he will “drain the swamp”, he’s either expressing racism (Ray Lenz of the Southern Poverty Law Center) or wasting time since “it just rains and then there’s another swamp” (John Podhoretz of Commentary magazine).

If these are examples of respected political and cultural opinion, our nation’s I.Q. has dropped into a sinkhole.

Rather, PEOTUS is using a time-honored metaphor to describe a way to acquire civilization’s most essential need: tillable land with friable soil.  Without it, settlements are condemned to eek out food from local subsistence patches.  Say goodbye to agriculture and a sound rural economy.  Goodbye to towns and cities.

Once swamps were everywhere in the U.S., left by the recession of the glaciers.  Huge swamps covered everything, including areas now occupied by cities and towns, especially those near rivers, lakes and oceans.  Most of the Midwest was shallow swampland.

Let us take Mr. Trump literally.  By draining swamps, we uncover land soaked for thousands of years by deposits of minerals and organic debris.  We open it to sun and air, creating some of the world’s richest farmland.

Khrushchev admired my native Midwestern soil, likening it to his own Soviet Russian soil.  Because both continents were covered in glaciers for millions of years, the land is still trying to work out where to put all the melted water.  Meanwhile, the greatest soil fertility in recorded history is enjoyed by both countries.  This is not the subject of trite dismissals from the chattering class.  Indeed, a more powerful, life-giving injunction is hard to find than, “Drain the Swamp!”

The other problem with swamps is death.  We get “miasma” from the Latin word for the misty, vaporous stenches that waft often from swampland.  Our ancestors thought this air pollution caused many fatal diseases.  They were only half-right; it was the mosquitoes that thrive in standing water—and swamps have that aplenty—that were killing everyone by the diseases they spread—malaria and yellow fever to name two.

Walter Reade, for whom the famous military hospital is named, contracted malaria playing along the Potomac.  Similarly, boys and girls—north, south, east and west—caught it.  Nothing “racist” about it.  Mr. Trump’s metaphor, thus, has a long history of filling his listener’s nostrils with ominous meaning.

Literal swamps, such as D.C. once famously was, are drained by digging deep trenches through them.  These are graded outward and downward from the swamp’s wettest areas.  Once that is done, “tiles”—large sections of pipe—are laid to comprise one long pipe.  They are called “tiles” because they are made of the same type of cement used originally to make paving tiles.  Today plastic pipe is used, but the name, “tiling”, stuck.

D.C.’s many quaint channels still direct water from the congested areas into the rivers.  Drive through the countryside anywhere in the U.S. and see ditches along the side of the road next to farmers’ corn, soybean or vegetable fields.

Done correctly, swamp draining is permanent, as in D.C. and farms and gardens throughout the nation.  Buildings stop sinking.  The dry land changes the types of plants that grow—no more roots being drowned in water.  No rain fills the swamps up again, as Podhoretz incorrectly opined.

“Planning is everything”, said a great former general, President Eisenhower.  If president-elect Trump wishes to correct our country’s many ills, as well as dispel the “miasma” and similar misperceptions afoot, he needs, more than anything else, a strategic plan.  What to drain and how to do it?  What needs are most essential, which solutions most virtuous?  Every farmer and gardener, facing a swampy property, knows that without a good strategic plan, you are, in a word, sunk.

A version of this article appeared in the December 26th, 2016 edition of The Wall Street Journal

E Pluribus Garden

E Pluribus Garden

Today, the Fourth of July, you, me, and our 323,995,528 fellow Americans unite to honor and celebrate our nation’s 240th birthday. We bask in a happy blend of patriotism, love-thy-neighbor friendliness, and pre-electronic fun.

Founding Father and future president John Adams anticipated the character of our jubilant annual observance: “It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Three Cheers for Democracy!

The Declaration of Independence, signed on this day in 1776, gives us plenty to cheer about. Described by Thomas Jefferson as “an expression of the American mind,” this exceptional decree is the fertile soil in which our democracy has taken root, and continues to grow and flourish.

Boldly proclaiming the new country’s independence from Britain, the Declaration expresses a revolutionary vision for a new kind of society, one in which all are equal, and sovereignty belongs not to a monarch or a privileged few, but to we the people, you and me. We rule.

I imagine the expression on King George’s face when he read, “We hold these truths to be self-evident. That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

To His Majesty, these principles were neither 1) truths, nor 2) self-evident. The “consent of the governed” was not to his taste. His view? “A traitor is everyone who does not agree with me.” The upstart colonies disagreed with him.

The Declaration’s ideas are credited to our nation’s Founding Fathers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison.

Each of these brilliant men regarded himself as first of all a gardener, only secondly a politician. Amply demonstrated in Andrea Wulf’s book, “The Founding Gardeners,” the Founding Fathers’ vision of democracy was shaped by their shared passion for gardening. Thomas Paine, whose ideas so inspired them, described himself as a “gardener of ideas.”

When contemplating the upcoming election, follow the example of the Founding Fathers: think like a gardener. As you contemplate the candidates, look for a gardener. Do their views and proposed policies reflect the way of the gardener? How do their gardens grow?

Gardeners are not cited in voter demographics, yet there are over 75 million in this country, outnumbering either political party. Carrying on the work of the Founding Fathers, they merit our attention.

We are, after all, a nation of gardens. Here capitalists, socialists, libertarians, conservatives, and liberals find common ground. If made a political party—let’s call it the Garden Party—its horticultural ethos offers a welcome antidote to politics as usual.

As the election approaches, bear in mind these defining qualities of an effective gardener that the Founding Fathers epitomized. The Garden of Democracy they planted has flourished for 240 years—we should emulate them.

Down to earth
By necessity, gardeners are pragmatic, relying on the facts on the ground, rather than ideology or belief.

Planning
Gardeners are first and foremost strategists. A skillful gardener is a good planner. I have rarely seen a beautiful or productive garden that was not thought out well in advance.

Expediency
Decisiveness is second nature to a gardener. Gardeners know when to drop everything else and tend to the problem at hand. Thyme is of the essence.

Adaptable
Flexibility is the essence of diplomacy, and indispensable to a successful, experienced gardener. Since its founding, our country has consistently, if gradually, recognized and attempted to correct, flaws and imbalances. Our country’s leader needs to learn from the findings—the failures as well as the successes—from the Democratic experiment.

Resourceful
In the garden, we often lack the tools we need, forcing us to improvise. Our leaders are frequently called upon to do things beyond their presumed capacities, and the best ones show that they had them all along.

Humble
Humility has the same Latin root as humus, meaning the “earth which is beneath us.” In the garden, the arrogance of ignorance will reap you a poor harvest.  As Founding Gardener James Madison wrote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”  For gardeners, presidents, and we the voters, this truth is self-evident.

My fellow Americans, This land is your land. Vote accordingly.

A version of this article appeared in the July 4, 2016 edition of the Omaha World Herald