Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ornamental, Vegetable, Mineral

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.

20 comments:

Livia said...

People garden for different reasons. Grow what you like, grow what makes you happy, and don't feel guilty.

Suzanne said...

Beautiful post.

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Lovely post. And feeding the soul is SO important... not everyone acknowledges that hunger.

That said, allow me to play Devil's Advocate for a minute:

Would it not benefit those same creatures if you walked out your back door and harvested a few organically grown tomatoes each day... instead of having the local grocery store truck in an extra pound or two of them every week because they know you buy them? (And thus having them subjected to additional pollution from trucks, pesticides, etc.)

This is not to argue with your decision. (I applaud what you're doing--you should know that by now!) Just saying that you can provide for the world around you in many different ways... :)

Benjamin Vogt said...

Livia--True enough! I couldn't agree more. The subject has just ben on my mind this spring. (can I grow mary jane?)
Suzanne--Godiva headed your way.
Kim--As soon as I wrote this post I thought about what you said, but decided the post was long enough. You are right, of course, but I still feel soul-less in a veg garden. And the loss one has to go through with them, from animals and insects and birds.... I can't stand losing a liatris, so I'd go to pieces if my food vanished.

Elephant's Eye said...

Ornamental veg garden? French potager? The English one Frances and Gail have just posted about. The one we saw at the Eden project.

No bees and flying crayfish on the basil flowers? Or robins and thrushes plowing thru the mulch on the off-chance? Room for some veg, and if the leaves get eaten, well that's wildlife gardening for you! (And I posted about ants farming on the basil)

Christopher C. NC said...

Benjamin there are a couple of things you are not seeing here. One, you yourself are a creature of this planet who deserves sustenance as much as the bees and grasshoppers, aphids and birds. Two you seem to be under a misconception that a vegetable garden does not provide ample sustenance to the above mentioned creatures.

Design and the perception of beauty in the vegetable garden is another matter. I am surrounded by wild. The neat weedless rows, plants grouped by type, the oasis of order gives me great satisfaction and a deep connection for me as just another creature, of being one with the land. That feeling of being one with nature in the vegetable garden is almost more satisfying than the actual fresh food we eat.

You don't have to grow vegetables though if you get more satisfaction from ornamentals and wildlife gardening. There's nothing wrong with that.

wiseacre said...

I hate to tell ya but your growing a vegetable garden for the soul.

James Golden said...

We engage with the garden on many different levels and in many different ways that give to life something that does not otherwise exist. Much more than a hobby (let's get rid of that demeaning, oh-so-limiting moniker), gardening is all the things you write about, and all the things your commentors write about, and much, much more. Life, space, time, plants, land, water, air, sun, sky, rocks, hand in dirt, spade, pruning shears ... take it where you will. I'm thinking of Walt Whitman in one of his more expansive moods.

Christopher C. NC said...

Sorry if I offended you.

Benjamin Vogt said...

EE--Well, off to your blog then! This ant farming business is new and wonderful for me.
WA--And turning into a vegetable.
C--You didn't, not at all. IF you mean did I delete your post (or the one James wrote) I did not--I have no idea where they went! I wish they were here, because the dialogue is exactly what I hoped for. Maybe I can find them in my email and repost....

Benjamin Vogt said...

Christopher C. NC missing comment--"Benjamin there are a couple of things you are not seeing here. One, you yourself are a creature of this planet who deserves sustenance as much as the bees and grasshoppers, aphids and birds. Two you seem to be under a misconception that a vegetable garden does not provide ample sustenance to the above mentioned creatures.

Design and the perception of beauty in the vegetable garden is another matter. I am surrounded by wild. The neat weedless rows, plants grouped by type, the oasis of order gives me great satisfaction and a deep connection for me as just another creature, of being one with the land. That feeling of being one with nature in the vegetable garden is almost more satisfying than the actual fresh food we eat.

You don't have to grow vegetables though if you get more satisfaction from ornamentals and wildlife gardening. There's nothing wrong with that."

Benjamin Vogt said...

James Golden missing comment--"We engage with the garden on many different levels and in many different ways that give to life something that does not otherwise exist. Much more than a hobby (let's get rid of that demeaning, oh-so-limiting moniker), gardening is all the things you write about, and all the things your commentors write about, and much, much more. Life, space, time, plants, land, water, air, sun, sky, rocks, hand in dirt, spade, pruning shears ... take it where you will. I'm thinking of Walt Whitman in one of his more expansive moods."

Benjamin Vogt said...

CNC--Ok, here I go then, a proper response. I'm with you until you say "neat weedless rows." Sure, one person's beauty is another person's ugly, but the neat weedless rows remind me a lot of what America is: boxes and rectangles, subjugated landscape, alienated and destroyed cultures, and efficiency and immediacy. Some of these can be good things (the latter two for feeding the world), but the history of Jeffersonian grids sticks in my mind like a metaphorical thorn. Maybe that is my problem with neat rows, and it's my hang up. So, both of us are one with nature in our gardens, I just can't grasp the possibility of it happening on as many levels as in an ornamental / for the birds garden.

Benjamin Vogt said...

James--Yes yes yes! I hate the word "hobby" as well. What can we call the act? It's not my profession or raison d'etre, so what is it? It's not a diversion, only slightly less derisive that a hobby. I'm inclined to say art, but that seems too far, too much. Someone nail this down for me. I'm not a writer. :)

Benjamin Vogt said...

Christopher--Ok, I deserve sustenance as much as the other creatures on the planet, of course. But all I see if my / our putting ourselves first at the expense of other creatures, and so for me, an ornamental garden--a plains native one at that--is a moral and ethical imperative. Guilt ridden, perhaps. Look at the monarch butterfly whose numbers are nosediving because of soybeans with built in pesticides, and the eradication of milkweed by mass spraying and suburban sprawl. When will it end? We don't have to ontain ourselves completely, but we do have to learn to integrate. No reason a new subdivision of houses can't have minimal lawn and patches of rain gardens, milkweed, litaris, grasses, and create at least an island chain ecosystem. Am I going on? Yep. Yep. Yep.

Anonymous said...

Benjamin, I think I stand with wiseacre - he's summed it up perfectly!
Golly, you do know how to push those buttons, and get each reader jumping into the conversation. Heavens, the last time you did this, I had to turn off my computer and leave the room!

Keep pushing those buttons!

Elephant's Eye said...

Gardening is an avocation - something we do for love, not money?

Have you read Noelle's current post, with houses in the Arizona desert set in native plants?

Benjamin Vogt said...

Anon--I aim to please. Don't turn off your computer, they hardly ever come back on in the right way again.
EE--avocation, sounds like evocation, I like that.

Christopher C. NC said...

I thought the missing comment was odd and did consider I may be apologizing to soon.

You need to move to Asheville. The topography makes the grid and rigid lines impossible. In the summer you can't see the cities for the trees. There are three universities and three community colleges in the area. One of them Warren Wilson college is either number one or in the top three of green/ecologically minded universities in the US. It is very liberal and has a renowned writing program.

Corner Gardener Sue said...

I've enjoyed catching up on your posts. I need to go to sleep after one more comment.

When I was a girl, neighbors on each side of me had gardens, as did my paternal grandparents. I always thought it cool to grow both food plants and flowers, and knew when I grew up, I would garden.

The landlord of our second apartment, which was 938 S. 12, a small lot, let me garden. I gardened on the north side of a lilac hedge, and in the area that is now a parking strip. Herbs and vegetables were my priorities, but I also grew flowers. I have continued to mix flowers and veggies together, and have come to give more and more priority to growing flowers. I don't have room for many bushes.

I had originally planned on planting some tomatoes and peppers in the front yard for rotation purposes, but don't tell my husband. I ended up filling the spaces with flowers, though.

I'm not sure what my point is, other than to me, gardening would be incomplete if I couldn't grow food as well as blooms. As far as straight rows go, I am not so good at that. Oh, and the rabbits think it's all for them. The outdoors is their space, after all. They eat so much lettuce, peas, and such, that I don't normally see much damage on the flowers, but they have been quite destructive this year.

You have a beautiful place. I think some nice looking raised beds would look pretty planted with lettuce and such, but if you have no desire to grow food, then it really doesn't matter.