Every year, I end up getting to a point in the season where I just can’t hold back - I write a post called Green Thumb. I’m breaking the tradition in light of the more discursive tone I’ve been using lately - but the spirit of this post is in much the same vein.
When man first crafted a blade, he used it for two things - killing animals and digging in the earth. There is something primal in both acts, and as civilization marched onward, most of its members lost touch with what it feels like to do either. I’ll save a discussion of the former practice for another time - this is all about the digging thing.
Throughout history, man has been fascinated with gardens. They are at the locus of various creation myths as well as the setting for certain afterlives - in Christianity, for example, “Paradise” refers both to the Garden of Eden and to Heaven. Elaborate gardens have for millenia represented the ultimate in architectural achievement, from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the gardens at Versailles and throughout Europe. Gardens always have been, and will always be, so much more than merely a sunny plot for sowing seeds.
Gardens represent man’s dominion over nature, but also more - a “garden paradise” is the synergy between man’s efforts and nature’s bounty. There’s a whole philosphy to gardening that goes way deeper than the simple acts of tilling and pruning. Planting something connects us to the earth in a direct, uniquely physical way. Tending to crops, herbs, or flowers tests our patience, our focus, and our commitment. Harvesting the fruits of our labor (or just enjoying a nice patio) gives us an immediate and lasting sense of satisfaction.
I guess you could say that gardening is “therapeutic,” but to me it’s so much more. A man’s garden is a microcosm of the state of nature. Man works to tame the wild, serves as steward over it, defends it against beasts (in my case, squirrels), and reaps the rewards. Even when the anthropologists say that we were a bunch of “hunter-gatherers,” they also acknowledge that agriculture didn’t start with rice paddies and diversion of the Nile - it started by “gathering” and planting seeds instead of just their fruit. And I have a sneaky suspicion the elder wives in those ancient tribes would dig up some petunias and put them in front of the huts each spring - it’s our nature.
Gardening therefore represents in a very real way the continuation of a long history of agriculture. As civilization wrapped itself in mantles of community, small gardens gave way to large fields and monocropping. The romans had enclosure, and medieval Europe had open fields, but the general consensus was that bigger is better. So even with the consolidation of ownership, driven by social factors in post-feudal Europe and by technological improvements post-WWII, agriculture as an industry employed more persons than any other industry until only recently (having been taken over by the “services” industry… thank you, Chipotle).
Keeping a garden is a throw-back to the Way Things Were - over the last 10,000 years, growing things has become infused in of human nature. Now that the so-called Green Revolution has put fresh food within reach of hundreds of millions of Americans (barring the occasional food desert), we don’t have to plant in order to eat; we can plant things just for the fun of it.
I do both. I don’t have any land to speak of (although I planted some hostas out front), I really just have a bunch of clay pots on my deck. But I grow tomatos, dill, basil, oregano, thyme, chives, mint, onion, ichiban eggplant, bell pepper, dianthus, cleomis, petunias, snap-dragons, vinca, and hoya. I have a few hanging baskets and, yes, a Topsy-Turvey. I have a few maple trees taken from a tree at my parents house, which was taken from a tree at my grandpa’s farm. We do things like that in Kansas. And I have a big spikey plant that I don’t know the name of, and bring inside during the winter. And my houseplants… don’t even get me started on my houseplants. They have names.
When I’m growing food-things, like tomatos and eggplants, I try to eat them. That’s the whole point. But everything else is for just for fun. Someday I might be able to feed myself, but self-sustenance isn’t exactly feasible with the space that I have available. I grow things because I enjoy it.
I’m not the only one. Across America, people are taking a serious interest in gardening. In a way, this interest always been there, but it’s been largely reserved for those people who had the time and money to frequent greenhouses and play around in the yard. When the economy took a nose-dive a couple years ago, it just so happened to overlap with an Internet-fueled cultural interest in “organic” and “whole” foods, access to heirloom seeds, and communities of interested amateurs willing to give their green thumbs a workout. For the first time in what I imagine to be at least 100 years, hardware stores ran out of seeds. People started gardening again.
This is the everyman’s Garden Revolution. The trend toward home-gardening and fresh - I mean, really fresh produce - is no longer the province of egalitarian new-age hippies and the pretentious “organic-only” foodies. It’s an honest-to-goodness appreciation of something made by the labor of one’s own hands.
It’s not the first time. Since at least 1917, Kansas City has recognized the value of putting vacant lots to use in urban agriculture. Following the First World War, Kansas City undertook a study concluding that there was enough open acreage within the city to become completely self-sufficient in growing produce for the city’s population. In the early 90s, the EPA introduced the term “brownfield,” used to refer to abandoned or disused industrial properties. It took 75 years for the nation to catch up to cities like Kansas City and Des Moines, to pay attention to abandoned sites like brownfields, many of which have now been cleaned up and converted for urban agriculture or community-supported agriculture. But the nation did catch up, and urban agriculture (often called community-supported agriculture when referring to cooperative farming on vacant lots), is totally in right now.
But Kansas City’s longstanding policy of allowing vacant lots to be farmed by city-folk is under attack. A recent article in the Kansas City Star notes that there is a “war” between the competing values of “having a nice tree-lined street with well-manicured lawns” and “I’d like to grow my own food, please.” The lawnies are convinced that Kansas City’s self-sufficiency is going to give way to cornfield-lined city streets as the Internet, the droopy economy, and a general interest in urban horticulture combine forces to destroy America. The foodies counter with predictable Libertarian gusto that they can do whatever the hell they’d like with their front yards, thank you very much.
The debate has been settled, at least for now - the Kansas City Council has introduced an ordinance that allows homeowners to sell excess bounty grown in their yards, a move designed to promote home gardening. I mean, who wants to plant tomatos - which tend to go all Audrey-the-maneating-plant in this climate - if it’s against the law to sell the extra? And although the centuries-old cultural staple of having a nice front yard is unlikely to be subsumed by an invasion of Third-Reich-inspired hoe-wielding zombie gardeners, the Council’s proposed ordinance attempts to satisfy the lawnies by prohibiting “row crops” like corn and soybeans from being planted in residential front yards within city limits.
It all makes sense to me. As I recently explained to a friend, who thought the ordinance was ridiculous, and who might just happen to fall into that “Libertarian gusto” category,
Easy, Lady Liberty.
My only thought is that they’re selling produce, not used clothes and nick-knacks like a garage sale. So the two implications are (a) the sale of food, which local/city governments have been “regulating” since the olden-timey days (i have no citation so don’t call me out on that!) and (b) once you start selling your home-grown wares it becomes more of a “business” than a hobby, and most cities have zoning ordinances that prohibit businesses in residential areas.
So it’s kind of a grey area in the absence of any positive legislation. This ordinance just solidifies the longstanding social policy of allowing urban gardening (micro-farming) in KC - it’s actually been cool to watch the yearly news stories in July and watch these vacant-lot gardens get bigger (and better) every year.
The point is, Ag is in vogue, and it’s a good thing for our bodies and for our communities!
As for my own “garden,” I’m left with a small shady patch better for hostas than anything else, and a few large pots on my deck that serve as a feasting-grounds for ninja/pirate/terrorist squirrels. But there’s the fun in the digging, and the sowing, and all that. And for my part, I’m left a little happier for having grown some things that I can eat, or some pretty things to brighten my deck, and for leaving the world (and my thumb) a little greener.