Embracing a phrase with fervor

Every now and then, buzz words or phrases come along. A current one is “low-input.”

It’s an idea of not putting much time and/or money into something, but still enjoying success. It may mean substituting chemical use for a little physical labor, though some will say “low-input” means less labor as well.

The two-word phrase is often used as an adjective in front of several gardening practices such as vegetable gardening, fruit raising, flower care or turfgrass maintenance.

Low-input is also used in front of other agricultural pursuits such as livestock farming and row crop production.

From a horticulture perspective, there is nothing wrong with “low-input.” It seems like just the sort of thing everyone would like and embrace. Who wouldn’t want more time on their hands to read a book, paint or play with kids and grandkids. And if you save money at the same time, that’s a double whammy.

However, with “low-input” comes a change in mentality, which in itself may not be a bad idea.

That change in mindset usually is dealing with perfection.

As a culture, we’ve come to embrace perfection. Right or wrong, we look for that perfect apple at the supermarket, shunning the fruit with a blemish or two.

Yet, how many remember going out to the gnarled apple tree in the pasture, pulling down a branch and grabbing a less-than-perfect apple? We remember the joke “What’s worse than finding a worm in an apple?” and eat around any damage we might find. Then we threw the core on the ground or pitched it into the nearby field.

These days we look for those tomatoes or peppers that are pure red or green. Produce has to be large and hefty so we feel we’re getting our money’s worth.

The use of chemicals and intense production practices has yielded top quality, world-envious produce. Gone are the days when we would cut the bad away and use the good.

Gone are also the days when we would realize that if it all ended up as applesauce, what was the need for the perfect fruit. Blemishes can be removed with a sharp cut of a knife without throwing the whole fruit or vegetable away.

Low-input still may produce top quality produce, but it may not. However, low-input doesn’t just apply to produce.

Years ago, many of us were happy with a lawn filled with dandelion and crabgrass. Growing up on a farm, I remember folks saying that at least the weeds were green during the summer and who could tell at 50 miles per hour, though it’s more like 70 miles an hour down the rural roads these days.

Low-input gardening takes us back to those days.

We have to accept that a few dandelions don’t spell the end of the earth. We get out the dandelion fork if we’re not happy. We fence in the yard and allow sheep to roam, though that may be difficult in some urban areas.

Low-input gardening may take some practices such as layer after layer of mulches or saving manures for fertilizer and using them instead of weedkillers or man-made fertilizer. Call it garden recycling.

You may think “Hey, I’ve been doing low-input gardening my whole life.” In many cases, you probably have. It’s possible you’re looking at a new fancy term that is nothing more than a common sense approach to gardening.

This isn’t to denigrate the phrase. Anything that can cut our dependence on man-made chemicals is bound to be good not just for our gardens but the environment.

More Information:

David Robson is Extension Specialist, Pesticide Safety for the University of Illinois. drobson@illinois.edu