Many people have a difficult time understanding the differences between horticulture and agriculture. This may occur because some agricultural strategies cross over into horticultural strategies. Linguistically the term agriculture comes from the combination of the Latin words agri (field) and cultura (cultivation). Horticulture comes from the combination of the Latin words hortus (garden) and cultura. Cultivating a field vs. cultivating a garden. We can see the implications of agriculture’s mono-cropping primary succession plant obsession in its very origin. We can also see the implications of horticulture’s diversity of plants and smaller-scale style through its origins.
The real determining factor involves the results of how the strategy affects the land; does it create more biodiversity or less? Does it strengthen the biological community or weaken it? It seems like a good idea to create a list of horticultural and agricultural strategies and reveal how and why you can use them to create more life, or misuse them to create less.
Agriculture uses strategies of cultivation such as transplanting, seeding, tilling, burning, pruning, fertilizing, selective harvesting, crop-rotation, etc. But the main difference between agriculture and horticulture involves agriculture’s focus on using these tools to create one habitat; the meadow or “field.” Horticulture uses the same strategies of cultivation to promote ecological succession and diversity of landscapes. Let’s go through and find out for ourselves.
Catastrophe; Burning Vs. Tilling
When I hear the word “tilling,” the classic image of a farmer and his plow pop into my head. I can see the deep trenches it has cut into the land in pretty rows. I can smell the sweetness of the upturned earth. Tilling works as an artificial catastrophe. Burning also works as a catastrophe but frequent, small-scale burns return nutrients to the soil without killing roots of desired species, eliminates succession and prevents large-scale fires from occurring.
Soil Aeration; Sticks Vs. Steel
Gophers and moles dig holes and aerate the soil. Even foragers use digging sticks for forage roots, tubers and rhizomes. This breaks up the earth making it easier for the roots to grow as well as aerates the soil. The plow on the other hand, goes too deep and destroys the mycorrhizal network of fungi that distributes nutrients to plants. It also aerates the soil, but it goes too deep and causing the soil to dry too much, which leads to soil loss and erosion.
Irrigation; Sticks Vs. Stone
Beavers build small scale dams with sticks that create flood plains, wetlands and marshes that provide habitat for aquatic life. Humans too have replicated this on a small scale. Civilization builds insanely large dams of stone that destroy the rivers life by draining too much water and drying it out.
Any squirrel will tell you; if you want to ensure that you have more to eat year after year, plant a few more seeds than you’ll dig up to eat during the winter.
Transplanting looks the same as seeding to me. Do you consider a seed a plant? What about seeds that germinate into plants and than grow through rhizome? Some willow trees can loose a branch, only to have that branch drift down stream and grow into a whole new plant! Wait, would you consider it new if it came from a pre-existing tree? Do they share the same soul? Have I gone too deep for a chapter about horticulture and agriculture?
Fertilizing; Poop vs. Petrol
Shit. We all do it. Poop turns into fertilizer. Controlled burns also work as fertilizer by quickly breaking down dead wood and making their nutrients bio-available. Agriculturalists just import nutrients from other areas, and in the case of oil, from under the ground!
Foragers and horticulturalists also used burning to keep down insect populations. Civilization uses toxic chemicals that poison not only bugs, but the ground, the water, the birds, and our own bodies.
Pruning & Coppicing;
Beaver pruning stimulates willows, cottonwood and aspen to regrow bushier the next spring. Black bears break branches. Hunter-gatherers prune trees too, to encourage larder yields and materials for making tools like baskets.
Horticulturalists don’t use this technique. It exists uniquely to agriculturalists. Probably the larger symptom of control and domestication. No weeds in my field!
Selective Harvesting; Strength Vs. Weakness
Every animal uses this technique. Wolves thin out the sick and week deer. Sometimes you take the weak so the strong survive. Sometimes you eat the strong so your poop will fertilize the seed. Selective harvesting shows us that systems evolve to work in cooperation; if we look closely we can see the outcome of our decisions. Domestication also works as a form of selective harvesting, only rather than strengthen the plant or animal it weakens it. I go more into this aspect in Domestication Vs. Rewilding.
Aside from building strength through selective harvesting, seasonal rotation of lands and food sources, and even yearly rotations allows an area to restore itself from the temporary impacts of the harvest.
Many people also make the assumption that people who practice horticulture long enough eventually begin to practice agriculture. I’d like to suggest the perceived continuum from foraging to agriculture does not exist. I’d like to suggest that a continuum between foragers and horticultural peoples exists, but agriculture appears as a completely different beast. It goes against the fundamental restorative principles that shape the continuum between foraging and horticulture. Therefore, although it uses mostly intensified horticultural practices, it disregards the most basic ecological principles.
Foragers, Hunter-gatherers and Horticulturalists used (and still in some places use today) the methods above to build soil, create varying habitats of succession, creating more ecotones and increasing biodiversity. Agriculture does not do that at all. If a continuum existed, we would see a decrease in biodiversity in each new phase of the continuum. Because we don’t see this, we can guess that agriculture sits outside of that subsistence continuum as a completely different beast all-together.
I would like to note that many people use the term agriculture too loosely. Terms like “sustainable agriculture,” make no sense linguistically and from the word’s origin. We need to remember to differentiate between agriculture (the field/mono-crop) and horticulture (the garden of forest succession) if we want to see how to live sustainably.
The next difficult part obviously involves how to translate this knowledge to practical use. The question remains; how can we change our subsistence strategies from agriculturaling-supermarkets to horticulturing/hunting/gathering villages? How can we go from stupid-civilized-urban-dweller to rewilding-horticultural-hunter-gatherer-hot-shot?