Thinking (Seriously) about Gardening

January 24th, 2010

by Tom Fischer

A few weeks ago, I received an unsolicited manuscript from a fellow named Ethan Cramer, along with a cover letter asking if Timber Press would be interested in publishing his work. It’s difficult to reduce its many themes to a single sentence, but it wouldn’t be misleading to call it a systematic attempt to construct a theory of horticulture. Though unfailingly lucid, it was not, as you might guess, light reading. But I found thoughtful, provoking, and unexpectedly cheering–here was someone determined to treat gardening as a serious subject and determined to work out why gardening matters so profoundly in the lives of individuals and the life of our society and culture. And so it was with extreme regret that I had to tell Ethan that I didn’t think we could sell enough copies of the book to cover the costs of editing, producing, and promoting it. In a world of  Lady Gaga and Jersey Shore, theory is a tough sell.

Fortunately, the story has a happy ending: Ethan has launched a website called Garden Thought, and has already posted several chapters of his book on it. As he puts it,

I believe that we should think about gardening in an organized way; I believe that we don’t; I believe that horticulture suffers enormously because of this lack of scholarship; and I believe that the world would be a better place if gardeners could talk about what they do.

Consider how people practice and think about music, from children learning to play the violin to universities offering advanced degrees. Gardening is just as rich and complicated a practice, and it should have as many layers.

If you’re prepared to admit that gardening can indeed have an intellectual component, and are willing to make your gray matter work a bit, you’ll find an excursion into Garden Thought to be well worth while. I promise it won’t hurt.

7 Responses

  1. Jim Fox says:

    Paul Bonine’s comments are right on. I would add that I find the gardening world rigidly organized (rather than fragmented) in a hierarchical way, coming as it does from Western gardening traditions – in particular England’s. Chinese and Japanese gardens/gardening are just as highly organized, but we in the West generally tend to take less from them then we do from the still very class/caste conscious English, which is still seen in the U.S., rather out-datedly, as the source of all horticultural wisdom.

    The trouble, it seems to me, is that the public and many writers and many designers, et el, see nearly all gardening as a populist “hobby,” thus falling into the realm of “everyone must be praised for doing it.” True criticism is not allowed (in the true sense of the word: i.e. a close examination of goals and principals, their failures or successes). Fair enough, unless the amateur gardener opens his or her garden to the public, even more so if admissions are charged, no matter how charitable the cause. The public exposure or the exchange of money to view a work always allows for critical commentary.

    Anyone who gardens privately, not opening the garden to the public but just to family and friends, much as an amateur painter who never exhibits, should not expect to be criticized, but simply politely encouraged or left alone.

    Alas, we gardeners and many designers seem to view criticism as an outright assault upon all things horticulturally holy, instead of an honest and educated attempt for evaluation, understanding, improvement, and growth. Witness the RHS’s past attempt to treat gardening as an art (which it is) and to have critics evaluate gardens open to the public and charging admission fees regardless of amateur or professional standards. The response to the first critique was vitriolic and near hysterical. The RHS quickly squelched any further attempts unfortunately. The public “liked” the garden critiqued (East Ruston Old Vicarage) and would not stand for “their” garden to be treated less then well by anyone.

    On another point, when the discussion moves to designers, we enter another realm of hierarchy or a caste system. There are two camps of professional, money exchagning designers: “Garden” or “Landscape,” the latter snobbishly – and rather presumptuously – anointing itself the superior of the two. Nonsense. In my humble opinion, it is experience and results which the defining factors of quality in both camps. If an individual in either is good and influential then he or she is important and an equal to the other. Since both make money from their work then their work is fully open to critical observation, discussion, and analysis. The designer doesn’t have to agree which any criticisms, but does have the right to expect honest cirtiques. That is the pact one enters into with society when one charges money for one’s work.

    Until we all treat gardening as an art (horticulture is the craft), and make the distinction between amateur and professional – again, the latter being when public visitation is invited or money changes hands for visitation or creating the work – we do a great disservice to gardening – which, in my mind, is the greatest of the “living” arts, second only to raising a well adjusted child.

    Thus I look forward to Mr. Cramer’s writings, in hopes it will, like the writers, designers, gardeners, and horticulturalists behind VISTA in the UK are trying to do – finally give proper recognition and evaluation to this great art, be it practiced in a humble or grand manner, which we rather simply call gardening.

  2. Hi Tom,
    Glad you’re blogging. I checked out the Garden Thought link. I have to admit it’s heavier reading than what I normally do on the fly. I’ll have to open it up again tonight when I’m sequestered in my studio so I can read and ponder.

  3. Tom says:

    Sara–fire away! Or shoot me an e-mail:

  4. Sara says:

    I agree. I’ll go check out his site. Tom, are you going to have a “Ask Tom” section…because I have some questions for you:)!

  5. Paul Bonine says:

    by the way, I happen to like Jersey Shore, its inane and mind numbing.

  6. Paul Bonine says:

    Mr. Cramer is correct. However, the world of gardening is fragmented into a caste system and the lowliest aspects are far from taken seriously by the masses. I would hope, and it may happen, that schools will begin to teach gardening as seriously as they do any other discipline. There are many layers and they all deserve respect.

  7. Riz Reyes says:

    Hmm…he has some interesting thoughts and a few points both recreational and professional gardeners would agree and/or disagree with.

    Thanks for the link. I believe our line of work has many MANY layers. It’s just changing people’s mindset about gardening and gardeners to see these levels and know where they can fit in.

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