Why gardening is thriving in a convenience age

It seems all the world is either grumbling or gaga over gardening.

The boom in homegrown food is being hailed in some quarters as the panacea for all that ails modern society. With a new book on the topic, First Lady Michelle Obama is almost as famous for her White House gardening as she is for her leader-of-the-first-world husband.  Even my own less-than-green university is considering an ambitious campus-wide community gardening effort. From other quarters, however, the growing trend is being dismissed as merely the latest luxury of the nouveau landed class.

 As for me and my house, we strive for the middle way.

Gardening is my heritage, going at least as far back as my great grandmother. But only in recent years has my own lifestyle grown amenable to its rigors. We began with an abundant supply of fertilizer - horses. Then I turned my spade on flower gardening and found that perennials and antique roses are fairly forgiving of benign neglect. But the considerable time and care needed to maintain a vegetable garden - soil preparation, well-timed planting schedules, weeding, planning and execution of critter-prevention, more weeding - seemed impossible in a household run according to two school calendars.


Then the parents moved onto the homestead and a familial garden seemed manageable. So we cleared enough land for a small orchard and two raised beds, added rich horse “dirt,” sat down with the seed catalogs and checkbook and put my mother’s green thumb to work.  

Now, along with the simple pleasures of eating fresh produce plucked from the backyard, we enjoy taking just-picked beet greens - her favorite - to my 97-year-old grandmother in the nursing home and closing the loop of our little eco-system by offering up garden scraps to the hens that, in return, provide eggs so rich they taste like steak.

Yet, understandably, some see the backyard gardening and locavore movement as a mere flash-in-the-pan. It’s certainly true that, barring any apocalypse, we in this country aren’t exactly likely to go back to tilling the ground with hand tools and eating only what is grown within the distance of horse-powered transportation. And for the record, if there’s ever a call for volunteers to return to washing clothes in the creek and knitting socks by hand, you’ll find me running in the opposite direction.

Yet, I can choose - as we all can - to rein in, if only slightly, the mega monster of consumerism and be a bit more in tune with the rhythms and textures of God’s good earth:  taking staycations instead of trips to Disneyland, eating humane meat, doing without a clothes dryer and dishwasher and instead line drying and hand washing, for example. And growing a few fruits and vegetables.

Maybe it’s not the gardening movement that’s the trend, but rather the late modern mindset of convenience at any cost. After all, within the entire range of human civilization, those who have subsisted on canned and microwaveable food are the vast minority. Perhaps the gardening trend is a strong signal that we have reached the end of a short-lived, bigger-faster-newer-and-improved era. While our man-made products and technologies will ever be outdated as soon as the next great thing comes along, in God’s creation we will always find, as Gerard Manley Hopkins observes in his sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” “nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshest deep down things.”

What Do You Think?

  • Do you garden? Why?
  • Is the trend of home vegetable gardens good stewardship or an indulgence?
  • Is there a spiritual cost to convenience?


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This reminds me of a passage from Wilhelm Röpke’s “The Social Crisis of Our Time”:

I think I never realized more clearly how concepts are opposed to each other regarding this problem than when, some years ago, I had a discussion with a leading official of the International Labor Office. I was asked to attend a meeting dealing with the problems of the agricultural laborer, a subject which was then being newly included in the program of the Office, and I made the following points in my conversation with this official: “Your Office is an expression of one of the worst diseases of our society, the name of which is ‘proletariat.’ You think that you can effectively combat this disease with higher wages, shorter working hours and as comprehensive a social insurance system as possible, and you consider it your task to extend the top results achieved by such a policy in one place to as many other production branches and countries as possible. At the moment you are dealing with agriculture. I do not want to say anything against your efforts, but is it not really time that you conceived your task to be greater, and investigated the question whether forms of agriculture could not be found and developed which would not permit the disease to which your Office owes its existence, i.e., the proletariat, to arise in the first place? And should it not quite generally be your final and highest goal to make yourself superfluous by promoting de-proletarization instead of continuing to move in the old rut? How about taking a greater interest than heretofore in peasant family farms, the support of artisans and small traders, the technical and organizational possibilities of loosening up large-scale enterprises, the diminution of the average size of factories, workers, settlements and similar projects?” “Why, you are a Catholic, are you?,” he replied, to which I gave the obvious answer that one did not have to be a Catholic in order to see things this way. At the same time I recalled that dogmatic old-time liberal to whom a friend of mine in Rotterdam was proudly showing a number of workers, allotments and who on seeing these happy people spending their free evenings in their gardens could think of nothing better than the cool remark that this was an irrational form of vegetable production. He could not get it into his head that it was a very rational form of “happiness production,” which surely is what matters most. The main issue is that our social reformer as well as the old-fashioned liberal both really belong to the same world, a world which to us today seems very passé. Both are completely blind to the vital and imponderable values, and in spite of their controversies they have this in common that they are unable to think in other terms than in those of money cost and profit.

Thanks for highlighting the communal aspect of gardening, Karen, with the story about bringing home-grown beet greens to your grandmother. I’m conflicted about the investment of time/money gardening requires, even as my family started our own vegetable garden this year. Then just last night we all spent time gathered together in wonder at the monarch caterpillars that had settled in on our dill, and your piece reminded me that we’re not just doing this for the veggies, but for moments like that.

Good points here.I would venture to guess gardeners get the Biblical analogies better than the rest of us.

I wonder if the home gardening trend isn’t part of a larger trend away from reliance on technology and corporate infrastructures. Independent publishing and distribution of books, blogs, film and music; more unplugged acoustic music, micro-businesses, and recycling items via Craigslist are just a few trends that seem like push back.

Do you garden? Why?  No, I can’t grow squat!

Is the trend of home vegetable gardens good stewardship or an indulgence?
It all depends on the heart of the person. 

Is there a spiritual cost to convenience?
There can be, but like most other things, it depends on how you treat the convenience.  If I had to till the fields to feed myself, I doubt that I’d be able to invest as much time at church as I do now.

This is a wonderful passage, one I was not familiar with. Thank you for drawing my attention to it.

I definitely think, as with all things, “the cost should be counted” in undertaking gardening. However, some things need to be counted that aren’t quite calculable, as you point out, Josh.

I hope so! Great examples of this larger movement toward better stewardship.

Agreed on all points. Extra points for using the word “squat.”

I know what you mean about roses, Karen, They are about the only thing I am confident of keeping alive. I can trim a 6 foot tall rose bush down to within 6 inches from the ground, and soon it will be back up and flourishing again. That’s just how they grow around here. I kill everything else.

The idea that the microwave population is a smidgen of a minority in human history can be coupled with the fact that microwavers are also a minority of people on the planet as we speak. Remember those sci-fi stories that posited pills for food? Who ever thought that was a good idea? But I think functionally we have arrived there with microwave packaged meals. The future is now? Yikes!


Good point about the microwavable meals, Tim. With “progress” always comes some loss. Marshall McLuhan had a lot to say about that.

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