Lately, as my perennial garden fills in, I've been thinking about vegetables. Someday, I'd like to have a vegetable garden, but right now the ornamentals keep me plenty busy--especially when the grasshoppers and, as is the case now, black aphids attack.
One of the debates between ornamental and vegetable gardeners is one of moral / ethical beliefs and values--along with financial, of course, but I'm putting aside the latter for the moment. I feel an imperative to garden not for my physical self, not for my own physical sustenance, but for that of the thousands of other creatures and organisms who I share this plot of land with--whose land I invaded. This isn't a statement of guilt, but one of mutual benefit and acculturation. A gardener must become a self-cultivated and integral part of the landscape, and I just don't see vegetable gardening as such.
There is much lacking in vegetable gardening for me. Yes, one might very well be able to create a vegetable garden that appears ornamental, or mix veg and perennials together, but I find that blurred line uncomfortable. Am I elitist? How can a utilitarian vegetable garden, with its necessary rows and divisions of plants, ever be ornamental? How can one have vegetables among ornamentals and not lose them? I've lost many perennials already this spring due to the lush, thick, steroid-like growth of a third year garden.
The way I see it, ornamental gardens are metaphors for our roles on the planet--as stewards, as mediaries, as middle men or women. When I walk into an ornamental garden there is a tranfiguration of what my senses are accustomed to. I am transformed and transplanted. There is a spiritual and psychological shift that is deep and echoes long after I leave the garden. There is also a sense of providing for insects, birds, amphibians--a satisfaction that is not like having just bought the newest television or cell phone, but a sort of humbling peace that places me in the middle of creation. All of my senses, desires, hopes, and fears are immediately balanced in an ornamental garden to the point where I can live through and beyond them. Not once have I felt this in the rows of vegetables.
I might sing a different tune if I did not have a grocery store down the street, or two pennies to rub together. But for me the issue is that to have a garden, to work in a garden, is to attain sustenance on multiple levels at once in a way no other hobby or profession can allow. I am providing for myself as much as I am providing for the world around me, and this is the balance I often feel and that drives my sense of myself as I go out beyond the garden. In the morning bumblebees and butterflies dive from allium to amsonia to salvia. In the evening the baby rabbit scampers from the cover of geranium to monarda. A robin plunges its head into the fountain. Brown thrashers pull up mulch and mourning doves sleep in pairs behind the spiraea. I hunger for nothing else.