Virtual Horticulture Revisited

Recently I was interviewed about “American gardening”.  I recalled my thoughts at “Virtual Horticulture“.  However, the reporter pressed me about major trends and fashions.  What’s the hottest plant?  Trendiest perennial?  Most popular vegetable?

I tried, to no avail, to tell him that gardening is utterly decentralized—so much that it’s impossible to make generalizations, choose favorites or pick winners.  Never has America been one entity; it will always be a “crazy quilt”, as long as there are vast, almost endless stretches of earth with folks popping up here and there and weather blowing across it.  The earth spins, Mr. Reporter.

But he wasn’t buying, and he was wrong.  The tiny horticultural shards scattered across the landscape remind me of two other social activities:  education and medicine.  And even they aren’t as fragmented or “micro-variable”, as I like to call it.

Education is thoroughly site-specific, from your mother’s knee to the local high school, where kids graduate about the time they become legal adults.  The “localism” of family as well as civic and religious social life creates a sort of entropy that, while resisted by the young, is nonetheless profound.  We are steeped in our youth by the town and countryside of our birth.  This is why schools are under local control—the owners, managers and public.  Family is just the first among the equal sovereignties of “place”, especially after puberty.  So what does this have to do with medicine (much less gardening)?

Almost everything, unless you are on an extended sabbatical in a foreign land, in which case you better get to know the local doctor.  No one really practices long-distance medicine.  They have flying doctors in Alaska and Australia, and there’s the occasional news report about a “virtual” operation. But they’re the rare exceptions that prove the rule. A patient has to be seen by the eyes and touched by the hands.  “Localism” is a euphemism for “immediate surroundings”.  You don’t create it so much as manifest it. If you live in Chicago, Illinois, there you are.  If you live in Madison, Wisconsin, very different story.  Imagine if you live in Mobile, Alabama? Or Chula Vista, California?

So it is with gardening.  Horticulture (“gardening with a college degree”, as a friend once quipped) equals diversity.  And its root is protected—even sacred—space:  a little of what’s right amidst a lot of what’s wrong.  There are only four common or universal elements in the garden:  air, water, light and soil.  Notice the general variations to be found in each of them.  No wonder, then, that the range of complex variation in vascular plants alone is incredible.

I sighed as I answered one question after another from a faraway non-gardening reporter about “national trends”.  This is why we need local agriculture extension agents, I said to myself.  And keep them local.  No Feds, please, not in our gardens.

The reporter nagged me a bit more, so I tried my “Maine gardener versus Arizona gardener” routine.  Eureka!  He got it. Nothing comparable to our geographic diversity exists in a single nation except perhaps in India and China.  However, I’m not sure how their regional parts exactly interrelate.  I know one thing—they don’t have National Public Radio.

My view of American horticulture is that it doesn’t really exist.  View the USA the way you view China and India—there’s not “one” of them either.  As Joel Garreau said about 30 years ago, there are “Nine Nations of North America“.  When we decide or commit to “owning” our local and regional gardening identities, rather than aping the Royal Horticultural Society, we shall become “American”.

But there’s another universal in gardening I forgot—the gardener.  The love of plants qualifies as a fifth element.  On that both the Down-easter and Desert Rat gardeners can agree.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 4th, 2009 at 3:12 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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18 Responses to “Virtual Horticulture Revisited”

  1. Martha said:

    Well said and true to my experience, too.

  2. George said:

    Thanks, Martha.

  3. So smart, and so true. And, for what it’s worth, entirely patriotic. I always enjoy your posts — very fresh, provocative and non-recycled cultural and horticultural perspectives.

  4. George said:

    Thank you, I.B.

  5. Marianne Jackson said:

    PS to Camp Obama Post, but related to recent HERONSWOOD Deer Resistant varieties.

    With the projected April arrival of the White House rescue puppy, can you recommend the best non-toxic-to-pets perrenials and annuals to plant?

    Thank you!

  6. George said:

    Catnip, Catmint and Dog Grass. Happy gardening, Marianne

  7. Carolyn Hannan said:

    How true!

  8. George said:

    Thank you!

  9. Lisa Colburn said:

    How true it is that the gardener is the fifth universal element in the garden. And yes, we are as variable as the air, water, light and soil. No two gardeners are alike as can be seen by their creations.

  10. George said:

    Dear Lisa – Compare outdoors to indoors, just as an exercise. Cuts and pot plants are easy to breed compared to garden plants—the zone is always “dry indoor room temperature”. I’ll be giving a speech April 3 and 4 at Fordhook about this and other subjects. Thanks, Lisa.

  11. Elaine said:

    They always seem to ask you the wrong questions on
    NPR in your view, don’t they?

  12. George said:

    Dear Elaine – It wasn’t an NPR reporter. I mentioned NPR only because neither China nor India could ever have a “national radio”—too many languages! Thanks.

  13. Steve McNew said:

    The localism piece is interesting – as are our efforts to bring other places to where we are now, as in trying to start blueberries in another state and soil, if not climate… We also tend to cross bounds of time. I still keep raising red four o’ clocks, distant descendents of the ones in my great grandmother’s dooryard, from when she was a child in the 1860s; the story is passed down of her telling later children of her having heard the cannon on Grant’s gunboats, as he left Cairo Ill., to move on Forts Henry and Donelson, in early 1862. We joke that the plants bloom on pre-daylight saving, Central time.

  14. George said:

    Dear Steve – Thank you for what is perhaps the most interesting post of the year so far. Absolutely wonderful! Please post again.

  15. Kiersten said:

    Dear George,

    I always do enjoy your musings from another world (I spend the majority of my days in an office near Wash DC, light years away from your bucolic site in Doylestown).

    Something about this posting was particularly appealing. I think you managed to get all universal on us – striking common chords within many of us regarding what it is to “be local” – while simultaneously critiquing the urge towards imposed universality.

    Lovely! 😉


  16. George said:

    Dear Kiersten – You win most perceptive post of the year. Thanks. (Do you write a blog? You should…)

  17. Anne Johnson said:

    Amen! This horticulturist gardens on 3/4 of an acre in Birmingham, AL and my front yard is a direct opposite of my back yard – flood plain vs. foothills – the front being 2 weeks behind the back! Quite a diversity!

  18. George said:

    Dear Anne – Lovely Alabama—what a wonderful state. Isn’t it so that one position in a yard can differ so much from another? Thanks very much.

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