Mark Frank’s five steps to successfully doing nothing — in your garden or any other part of your life.
I discovered “do-nothing” farming in my reading of Masanobu Fukuoka, author of One Straw Revolution and one of the pioneers of natural farming and permaculture. After farming for six years with his words in my heart, I have found that Fukuoka’s “do nothing” does not mean an absence of action. Rather, it is an active and committed practice of mu—emptiness, negation.
Here are four of the lessons I have learned as a “do-nothing” farmer. These can be applied to any agricultural project, whatever the size, from a tiny veranda garden to a large farm with many acres. In fact, with some adaptation, they can be applied to many of our activities in life.
Lesson 1: Spend Time with Your Plants
My farming day starts before dawn with zazen meditation. While counting my breaths, I put myself out there with the new seedlings, hovering over the beds, fertilizing them with my presence.
I begin the outside part of my day by slowly and deliberately walking through the fields and beds. I make note of something new every time: a fresh bit of growth, an insect that has just returned for the season, a place where a varmint has nibbled, the first setting on of fruit. In the evening, I walk again and note more changes, for the early garden and the late garden are very different things. These endless changes are the steps of our dance through the wild world.
Lesson 2: Build the Soil from the Top Down
I build my farm’s soil from the top down, as nature does. I layer on sea minerals, animal manure, and rice hulls, followed by a heavy mulching of straw. A few months later, I turn the straw and repeat. When you’re working from the top down, a certain patience is built in. The microbes below do their work over time, and the process cannot be hurried or completely controlled, only assisted.
Building soil this way invites introspection and meditation. It is the scenic route, the long detour, but the reward is living soil that you can thrust your hand into if you wish—tender, fertile, lush plots full of life. In do-nothing farming, the soil is your host. It’s better to find a place among the assembled guests rather than take a leading position. This giving up allows you to see things much more clearly.
Lesson 3: Create a Space that Fosters Life, and Welcome All Life to It
In my gardening, I strive to create a space that welcomes and fosters all life. As a result, all life assembles there, whether “helpful” or “harmful” to my harvest. Field mice will come to snack on the young greens and turnip tops. A groundhog may make a home for her family right in the middle of the pumpkin patch. Insects you have never seen before will make weekly debuts throughout the warm months. This is a testament not to failure but to success, for the well-populated organic farm is a triumph.
We may garden with the goal of harvesting perfect heads of broccoli, using all manners of pesticides at the slightest sign of danger. But in the practice of nothingness, accepting what broccoli comes is the most honest way I know to interact with the land. After all, insect damage is a mark that the vegetable is also a living thing, a part of the whole biological world. We can learn more from partly eaten broccoli than from perfect heads.
Watching the cycle of life and its testimony to life’s transience is one of the greatest lessons of the fields. I have learned to watch for and cherish the vegetables, vines, and trees that want to be here. Fukuoka writes, “Do not ask what to grow here, but what grows here.” Listen to the seasons, smell them, feel them on your skin, and watch what each one brings.
Lesson 4: Lose the “-er”
I try to farm without the “-er” in farmer, to garden without the “-er” in gardener. What this means is to practice horticulture without putting yourself in the center of everything. Take note of how much farming happens when you’re not there and don’t overestimate your importance to the project. The best place to farm is outside yourself.
I strive to farm with a sense of presence rather than dominance. Many of our gardening tools and concepts are based on some variation of dominance: weed and pest control, the tiller and spade breaking the “uncooperative” soil.
The 100-foot row ahead can seem endless. But I keep my hands moving, one weed at a time, and each moment is a success.
My own farming passed through various iterations of the dominance model until I realized that abandoning myself was perhaps the best approach. Since then I have farmed without being a farmer. Be a presence on the farm for the time being only. Farm as if you were already gone.
One way to lose yourself is to farm in silence, without machines, listening to the soil. Farming with machines limits your experience to that single-frequency hum, blocking out the real signs of life.
Another way to lose yourself is to keep your hands moving from the beginning of the day to the end. Small tasks are just as important as large ones. The goal is not to be blindly busy, but to let the action of the hand take over from the control of the mind. Time your work so it fills a day completely without overflowing. Learn the rhythm of every task on your farm and follow it like a back beat in a jazz ensemble.
Action should be considered, but once considered, pursued purely. When I am weeding a new bed, the 100-foot row ahead can seem endless. But I keep my hands moving, one weed at a time, and each moment is a success. Similar to Thich Nhat Hanh’s “washing the dishes just to wash the dishes,” I weed only to weed.
Do-nothing farming is the practice of watching and observing, of waiting and removing yourself from the equation. The germination, the growth, the harvest—I have no hand in these. In the end, learning to do nothing has been my greatest challenge and most valuable lesson.