Where Have All The Flowers Gone?

2009 has been one extraordinary year in the history of American gardening.

As if on cue, a panoply of developing trends all pointed towards the garden, opening the gates to the most dramatic resurgence in American gardening since the Great Depression. First and foremost, the current economic slump has proven an effective recruiting tool for new gardeners, who reap extraordinary savings by growing their own fruits and vegetables.

The cornucopia of new gardeners has gravitated to the garden for a range of reasons. One contingent started gardening due to well-founded concerns about food safety. The locavore movement, with its emphasis on acquiring locally grown produce, has inspired many, who now harvest their own food right in their local backyard.

Hear that? The chorus of oohs and ahs is the sound of gardening’s epicures, foodies besotted with the taste of ten-minute old broccoli, European tomatoes and exotic herbs from the garden.

The thundering herd of gardeners over there? Why, those are the Baby Boomers, nearing retirement, their brood of children having flown the nest, who have discovered a creative and rewarding form of recreation. The wide-eyed group over there, in plaid shirts and overalls? They are the seekers, looking for something they have been unable to find on the internet, a wide-screen TV or their iPhone: authenticity. In the garden they connect to their planet, the seasons and themselves.

The trend towards healthier lifestyles has engendered a veritable gardening army: they’ve landed in the Great American Garden because they want to fortify their well-tuned bodies with the freshest, most nutritious food they can find. And when the President and First Lady decided to create a vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House, tens of thousands of new gardeners burst into bloom. Hail to the Chief Gardener!

Gardening is, by its nature, a serene corner of the cultural landscape. Other than the occasional cacophony of crows squawking for our fresh sweet corn, we don’t get much excitement around here. We gardeners comprise one of the quieter interest groups in the land, our murmured bromides all but drowned out by garrulous trout fishermen and vociferous birdwatchers. Gardeners reckon life not in minutes, hours or days, but seasons.

Yet, bewilderingly, one key ingredient is missing from this great new flowering of the American garden: flowers. While sales of vegetables, herbs and fruit seeds have surpassed the wildest hopes of the country’s nurseries, there has been a commensurate drop-off in the sales of flower seeds and plants. In these belt-tightening days, it appears America’s gardeners seem to regard flowers as somehow superfluous, a luxury to dispense with in tough times.

In flower gardening, your rewards are reckoned, not in salads, soups and souflés, vitamins, antioxidants or fiber. The pleasures derived from flower gardening speak not to the body but to the human spirit.

When dining at restaurants, and there is a bud vase or a small bouquet of fresh flowers on the table, I often perform a feat of legerdemain for my dining companions. With a dramatic sweep of my arm, I snatch the flower vase and conceal it under the table. “Now,” I ask, in my best magician voice, “see anything different?”

It never fails: my companions instantly recognize something significant is now missing from the table – and it’s not just a vase with a lily or two. It’s as if a divine light switch has shut off, and the table, aglow and alive just moments ago, now looks dead, drained of beauty and warmth. Once the vase is back on the table, the flowers’ magic is back at work, lighting up the table, and dancing in the eyes of my companions, whose relief is unmistakable.

The effect of my floral disappearing act is no fluke. Science is just now beginning to apprehend the effects of flowers on our lives and surroundings.

A recent Rutgers study set out to explore the impact of cultivated flowers on human emotions. Flowers, when presented to women, unfailingly evoke the Duchenne smile: the term of art for the spontaneous teeth-baring grin of delight and gratitude. Flowers, researchers discovered, exercise an instant impact on happiness, with lasting effects of boosting mood, enjoyment and life satisfaction, diminishing depression and anxiety. Flowers make the home more welcoming and create positive emotional feelings in visitors. People who buy more flowers are happier. In this anxious, uncertain time, flowers are no luxury, but a blissful necessity.

My grandfather prospered during the Great Depression by growing sweet peas and violets. Not only were they popular, they were essential to combating depression. The late 1920s and early 1930s saw also similar streaks of popularity in cosmetics, movies and inexpensive mass entertainment, such as the hugely popular Century Of Progress back in my hometown of Chicago.

But there’s more: the flowers you grow in your garden have significant advantages over purchased flowers, which are days old, and often exposed to carbon monoxide and other pollutants, in their cultivation and shipping.

Your flower garden is not only harmonious, colorful and fragrant, it will also enhance the value of your home. Ask any realtor. Plus, the flowers you gather will have a radiance and freshness money can’t buy – and at a fraction of what they would cost at retail.

The tribe of new American gardeners who have opted out of flowers are missing much of the garden’s magic, beauty, harmony, color and fragrance. Right now, they can plant fall flowers, as well as bulbs to bloom next spring. I hope they will conduct their own experiment with flowers in the garden and the home. Their glittering Duchene smiles will be all the proof I need that the experiment has proven a success.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, September 2nd, 2009 at 7:55 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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20 Responses to “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”

  1. Anne said:

    I have been gardening with flowers for 13 years– and pots on the fire escape before that. This year I added raised beds (urban-dweller with lead) for vegetables. We now have beautiful plum tomatoes (no blight here, thank goodness!) masses of chard and basil, beans and peppers to come. I cannot believe how fun this is, and how different. Not better than the now-mature mass of perennials and shrubs- just different. I’m having a great time– but rather than just me, with the vegetables, my husband and daughters have joined in as well.

  2. whippet said:

    Considering that many gardeners have limited space, time, and other resources, we may have to choose either flowers or veggies. I’ve stuck with mostly flowers. Protecting vegetables from multitudinous rodents and deer in my rural garden has been impossible for years. My well water gets pretty gritty by midsummer, and has to serve my home as well as my yard. So I harvest my veggies from the natural food store, and put my own flowers on the table.

  3. Mary Lou said:

    This has been a magnificent gardening year. I am in Dearborn Michigan and have gardened for many years. I don’t remember a year like this. How lucky we are.

  4. Linda Potter said:

    Maybe remind people about mixing patches of flowers in with those fruits and vegetables, maybe starting with simple marigolds, as well as sunflowers, morning glories and sweet peas from seed? Also the value of flowers, especially natives, as food for the insects and birds who in exchange pollinate the fruit and vegetable plants.

  5. Deborah said:

    How very true–I have just gotten settled in to a new part of the country, and I am just learning which flowers I can grow here–but have only a small start in my yard. I OHHH and AHHH over each of them, so happy am I to see them in my yard…while cut flowers might be an expense many homes would pass up in tight times, a package of seeds is a worthwhile investment for the rewards… we all need the joy flowers bring..
    thanks for your great thoughts.

  6. margie said:

    Couldn’t agree with you more. Well written.

  7. Gene Wolbert said:

    Thank you Mr. Ball for your blogs. Have been reading for about a year now. Enjoy . Was able to get out for the harvest festival at doylestown.
    That day was hot but enjoyable. Sculpture pieces in field were very good.Hope to have a lot more visits. Again thank you.

  8. Susan said:

    George, you are so right about the value of flowers – but during my lifetime at least (50 + years), this country has never valued flowers the way the Europeans do. My husband and I traveled to Holland this past spring, and oh, the flower markets! Stocked to overflowing with gorgeous, eye-popping flowers that we generally never see here, because our unimaginative florists buy the same old, tired, cast-iron flowers that will last a week in the cooler. How sad. And you’re equally right when you talk about how they make a house into a home. I volunteer as a floral designer at an historic home near here, and when visitors see us placing an arrangement somewhere in the mansion, they never fail to compliment us, and tell us that it really makes it seem as if the family still lives there! Maybe someday, we’ll start to value cut flowers as the Europeans do, and let them beautify our lives.

  9. kathy said:

    I agree with all…. Being a Master Gardener since 1986, and ahead of the Free Spirit Horse Therapy gardens, I ordered two decoritive grasses from you for there and have been enjoying your newsletters imensely.
    I have 2 acres of flower gardens myself and have tried veg. the past two years. This present year I have added 17 large chickens and delicious eggs. We purchased an antique 10 x 16 chicken coop on the craigs list and had it moved from a city an hour away. The mover placed it in the middle of our wild flower garden and we put up a high fence around it. Little did I realize they would completely denude all flowers leaving a empty dirt field. It is all surrounded by edges of the wild flower field on the outside of the fence. We have an expensive weeping pine in the middle along with a baby gingo tree and a sprig of a pear tree, which we decided not to dig out of the pen. Receiving truckloads of leaves in the fall gave me the opportunity to dump piles of it in the bare pen and let them chickens scratch it into dust. Now I have a compost dirt you would die for. I rake it out and again fill in the leaves along with many weeds and waist from the veg garden The gardens are beginning to bennifit as I use it for mulch. wow what i found out from my new adventure! I not only find myself hanging around the outside of the fence watching this delightful crowd of new feather friends work for my garden but the fantastic eggs just melt in my mouth with vitemens and eye pleasing perfection! I do believe my flowers not only bounce from the wind but dance with their roots for all the good stuff they find in their midst. So do encourage others to try adding chickens to their purchase next spring it sure has livened my retirement up somewhat…..
    Again… love your newsletter and appreciate your healthy nice sized plants we purchased.
    Kathy Sabel, Fond du Lac, Wis.

  10. Crowangel said:

    Hey there George–
    Thanks so much for this lovely, eloquent essay.
    I couldn’t agree with you more! I guess I’m one of the ‘flannel shirt and overall’ generation, but I caught the gardening bug ten years ago, after a thoroughly depressing return to work when my son headed off to pre-school. At the time, I was more interested in food, but my gardening zeal soon pulled me straight outta my soul-sucking cubicle job. Thank Hera, Daphne, and Pomona! I gave my 2-weeks notice and sent out an email to everyone I knew to ‘please hire me to do your dirty work!’ I haven’t seen the inside of a cube since. One landscape design degree and countless thousands of hard labor hours later, I am the proud commander-in-chief of my own little landscape-and-fine-maintenance business here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.
    I stake my family’s financial well-being on exactly the ideas you espoused in this post: namely, that everyone is happier when surrounded by live, natural beauty. I spend a great deal of time and energy educating my clients about the importance of fragrance, color, pollinators, and good wholesome compost, and it really pays off.
    I was worried at the beginning of the year, thinking that many of my confirmed clients would back out of their projects, but I couldn’t have been more wrong! 2009 has turned out to be my best year ever, and my clients have told me again and again that they were so glad that they spent their money on my services. After all, many couldn’t afford to go on a vacation this year, but all were quite happy, at home in their own little slice of paradise.
    So, I guess what I’m saying is, thanks for noticing and writing about the profound impact ALL gardening has on the well-being of so many! I really appreciate it!

  11. John H. said:

    I am so glad someone has noticed this. I too have seen many gardens around me with lots of vegetables, but little on no flowers. I just started a new garden this year with a mix of vegetables (rubhurb/lettuce/onions/parsnips and brussel sprouts plus a few samplings of others), but I went all out on the flowers! The garden had been glorious, lively rockets of phlox and hollyhock, 4 o’clocks that look like shrubs (a little heavy on the fertilizer!) plus dashing zinnias, goblins, asters, nastrisums, dasies, hibiscus and many more. It makes one feel alive to look at them and it is heaven some mornings to linger out amongst the flowers in the morning with a cup of tea and admire them before heading to work.

  12. Darlene said:


  13. pat pinkerton said:

    I could not agree more ! My yard is a mass of blooming color provided from the perennials and annuals I have planted there. Once a back yard with grass, it now has taken on a personality of it’s own (and mine too, I suppose). Each yeasr I add several inches of flowers and thus, less to mow. It provides me with hours of ‘yard stuff to do’ and is a wonderful stress relief from my job as a hospice social worker. P.S. I have some vegetables in containers as well

  14. M.McGrath said:

    Veggies and fruits feed the body. Flowers, with their beauty and fragrance, feed the soul.

    There is a very practical reason to plant a variety of flowers. They attract pollinating and parasitic insects which will keep the vegetables and fruits productive and relatively free from insect pests.

  15. Coleen Toone said:

    This article spoke to my soul. I garden for a living- and not vegetables, either. Flowers. Flowers are what I do. I deal with thousands and thousands of flowers during a years time. Flowers feed the soul. They are truly that light you talk about. Plants have spirits, souls if you will, and when you add the magic of flowers and color, there is no end to the delight. The world needs to recognize the joy and the peace that can be found in a simple flower. Multiply it by each bloom and what have you??? I leave that for you to decide.

    Thank you for your words.

  16. andrea flowerista said:

    what about the fact that flowers attract pollinators needed to pollinate all those vegetable flowers??!!! as well as attracting beneficial insects which fest on all those nasty,pesty insects (aphids especially)!! just one more reason to grow flowers!! more and more flowers….

  17. mary munizza said:

    I do very little vegatable gardening. I have several tomatoe plants, a couple of pepper plants, basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary and thyme. However, I have so many flowers, mostly bulbs, perennials,flowering shrubs, flowering bushes and of course annuals. Birds and butterflies gather around.
    My garden adds beauty and serenity to my life. In the garden, life’s problems disappear while I’m there. As I enjoy the beauty of my flower garden I feel close to God.

  18. Holly said:

    You sum it up, well, at least you do for me. I never plant a garden without the purchase of marigolds, mexican bonnets and I could retire on the morning glory and sweet pea seeds bought and planted over the years. It has never been an effort to have something flowering in my home every day of the year-and believe me I would notice if something was in bloom! thank you for your point of view.

  19. Mary said:

    The beauty of this specific writing is that the flowers are still here…they have not “gone”, fortunately for us. And, as you have explained, they, like our Creator, are always there waiting for us…to give us just what we need…if we will only notice them…

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