Question: what is the most popular hobby in America today? Answer: Gardening. Gardeners outnumber participants in amateur athletics.
Gardening gives off beauty and aroma. Gardening provides edibles worth over $15 billion annually in vegetables and fruits. Gardening provides exercise for those who cannot or will not exercise in other ways. Gardening is a communion with nature and with Earth’s soil in an increasingly urbanized and pavementized society.
Gardening has ecclesiastical roots. From the Book of Genesis: “And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden and there he put the man he had formed.” Gardening has historical roots in our country going back to the earliest colonials from England, France and Spain. Public Gardens were integral to William Penn’s plan for Philadelphia in 1682 and the layouts of Boston, Savannah, St. Petersburg and Williamsburg.
In 1811 Thomas Jefferson wrote that “no occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden… But though an old man, I am but a young gardener.”
There are active traditions in our country that bind the society together, give meaning to life and enjoyment to neighbors. They receive very little attention by the mass media because, perhaps, they are working or, more likely, because they do NOT represent violence, sex, addiction, or celebrities in trouble.
For garden lovers, there are many garden magazines, newsletters, catalogues, equipment, applications and, of course, the estimable Garden Club of America. Its members include garden clubs in the city, town and country embodying tranquil, genteel exertion of the human spirit and its aesthetic and utilitarian impulses. Is there a hobby so adaptable to space, so congenial to the demands of its practitioners, so predictably rewarding of one’s diligence and expectations?
Whether private backyard gardens, public gardens, greenhouse gardens or exotic gardensà we need to get our youngsters away from their addiction to television and video and computer screens hour after hour and introduce them to gardening and their own diverse senses. We need to stimulate communities all over our land to start arboretums, not just as oases of beauty and tranquility, but as living teachers of plant life and conservation.
It is fortunate that we have the public gardens that were in place before omnivorous parking lots took over.
During our contemporary struggles to define ecology as a way of life, not just a subject of study, the Garden Clubs could aspire to a larger role. In some places this has been happening, especially in the striving to dechemicalize both gardens and lawns and introduce some old knowledge and new techniques to prevent the need for such reckless toxic applications. But much more can be done. And who has greater local credibility than Garden Clubs?
Commercialized, processed fruits and vegetables trucked for hundreds of thousands of miles before being slotted in supermarkets awaiting your purchase have made us forget what fresh tomatoes pears, squash, carrots, beans, oranges and kale taste like. Our very taste buds have been conditioned for the food industry’s manipulation. Youngsters today actually turn away from natural soups or salads; their tongues belong to McDonald’s and the sugar and fat pumps of the “fast food” industry.
There are bright signs appearing. According to landscape architect Catherine Mahan, “preservation of the environment is now considered by many to be the single most important factor in garden design.” Such gardens are known as “xeriscape gardens” which can be, in her words, “abundant and lush or simple and spare. In either case the plant materials are selected for their capacity to adapt naturally to the specific site, their low water requirements, and their ability to thrive without chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The use of mulches and compost are encouraged, and turf areas are reduced or eliminated,” she adds.
Now if we can design the highly automated, much touted productivity of our modern economy so that it does not squeeze every ounce of daylight time from harried commuting families, people would have more time with their children to experience the joys and nurturing embrace of gardening and more visits to our public gardens. Such gems, for example, as Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., and the glorious Cypress Gardens by Charleston, South Carolina, await you.
For the curiously interested, potential gardener, log onto www.gcamerica.org or write for information to The Garden Club of America, 14 East 60th Street, New York, NY 10022.