Central Virginia Organic Gardener

"And 'tis my faith that every flower enjoys the air it breathes." - William Wordsworth, 1798

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Philosophical Musing? Or Not!

Maybe it is the recent thaws, the signs of warming or the advancing of spring, or the influence on my student's project on horticulture therapy, but I have been in a more philosophical mood lately. I have been thinking about the question "what do gardens mean?" What are the many meanings of gardens to people?

This is not a new question, nor am I the first to ask it. When I think of it, I can divide the meaning of gardens in three categories (or metaphors):

The garden as drudgery: as a culture we have a dominant philosophy, an ideology even, that "labor saving" is a good goal- doing less work is having more. As with all beliefs, I guess there is a germ of truth in this: in the past, outdoor labor was literally "back breaking." People wore out early from intense levels of labor they had to do to survive. Many people today (OK this is anecdotal) seem to view outdoor work as undesirable labor, work to be avoided or assigned to teenagers as a chore (cycling the hatred to the next generation?). And when the labor is repeated (and seemingly pointless) mowing, weed-wacking and trimming, I believe they have a point. I don't include lawn care in my notion of gardening and neither should others who say they "hate gardening." Lawn care is pointless drudgery, and lawns are costly in time, water and chemicals. That's why we have whittled our lawn (actually a collection of mowable, green weeds) down each and every year we have lived here. I would guess that people who view gardens in this way (drudgery) are fully able to appreciate botanical beauty, a walk in the woods, joy at the sight of that first crocus. So maybe a different definition of gardening is needed here? [Side note: is this notion of outdoor work as drudgery related to being overweight? And another side note: we want to have "labor-saving" life options, just so we can pay that gym membership and go to the gym???]

The garden as a near-holy, mystical setting in which to commune with nature: OK, I love gardening to get to that state of "flow" and this has a Zen-like quality. A garden does represent labor, but if it is a labor of love, then that is no work at all. But think about it, gardens are a highly artificial, man-made contrivance (even if you have a "native plant" garden). Human beings decide what to put where. We bring plants from all around the world (sometimes with bad consequences) to stick in our created places. I guess this does not make then less mystical, but it does somewhat counter the the idea of "garden as nature." Sure, there is nature in the garden, but a garden is not all "nature."

The utilitarian garden: I have been reading about Colonial gardens in the US. Aside from the few show gardens of the rich, every home, if it had dirt, had a garden to grow food, medicines, dyestuffs, material for weaving and other utilitarian purposes. No mysticism here (for the most part), just practical needs being met. Sometimes these gardens did produce something pretty (calendula or "pot marigold" flowers), but that was not their first purpose. The purpose was to grow things you could not buy, to feed your family or to save money. There is a movement in this country to take back the front and back yards from the dominance of green lawn to a place to grow food, herbs and flowers- to delight the senses as well as feed the body (counter to all those restrictive homeowner association rules!)(for more, see the book "Food Not Lawns" or google "edible landscaping")

I will ponder this more...I am sure there are more meanings and metaphors for the garden to find....till then... Happy gardening!


Anonymous said...

Hey Judy,
You forgot Garden as Status--for the thousands of vanity gardeners whose passion to grow the biggest tomato, find the flashiest bulb, carve the most intricate arbor out of the wyteria vines, etc.
We see it all the time in NJ.

Judy Thomas said...

Good one!