The Glasshouse Ceiling

With about 10 million customers, Burpee draws data from a wide cross-section of avid gardeners: high, medium and low income; urban, suburban and rural; old and young; male and female.  The US conforms to the UK and Europe in nearly all categories.  Most gardeners are about 40 or older; just over half are women; home ownership is the single greatest factor; yard size is an obvious key variable, right up there with age. (You don’t see throngs of middle-aged people night clubbing.)  These similarities are neither controversial nor even arguable.  They’re as plain as the dirt on your shoes.

However, there is one big difference in the gardening activities between us and the UK and Europe—gender.  Take the customary associations of flowers and vegetables and reverse them. European, and especially British, men grow ornamentals in roughly the same proportion that US men grow vegetables.  Similarly, European women overwhelmingly dominate the kitchen garden and leave the flowers and shrubbery to the men.  They expect to be given flowers—not to grow them.  On the European continent, there is a bit more sharing, but only on the vegetable side.

For example, all the notable European flower breeders of the last century were men, including many amateurs, blunting the argument that institutional sexism was the main cause.  Granted, middle-class “career women”, outside politics and professions like medicine and law, remain a curiosity in Europe and the UK.  Left to the routine of domestic life, the sexes segregate distinctly from the front of the home, where men grow ornamentals, to the back, where the women grow the vegetables and herbs.  From a design standpoint, this traditional layout is not only aesthetically pleasing, but also practical in the densely populated towns and cities typical of Europe.  By contrast, in the countryside, especially in France and Switzerland, unprotected vegetable gardens dot the roadside next to the sides of homes as well as the backs.  Yet even there the gender tradition holds firm.  I’ll never forget some male French friends who laughed at my idea of adding vegetables to their ornamental gardening routine.

In the UK, where garden preferences are nearly opposite those of the traditional US, most homes are located in dense urban areas.  The model British row houses—which we imitated in eastern US cities—have, in effect, two gardens, front and back.  The men dominate the front, the women the back.  In the US it’s almost exactly the reverse, with the exception of the heavily British areas of the east coast, such as around Boston, where men’s garden clubs still thrive as mainly ornamental-oriented societies.

However, both Burpee statistics as well as anecdotal evidence indicate that US men grow most—but not all—the vegetables, especially the vine crops where fencing is involved, and large plantings of root crops where much physical labor is involved.  For one droll example, cucumbers are grown almost entirely by men. On the other hand, lower maintenance veggies, such as lettuce, are split more evenly 50-50.  Upper body strength has something to do with US garden preferences, as does the agrarian—versus industrial—origin of American life. More of us were peasants and farmers for a much longer period of time than our counterparts in heavily industrialized Europe, especially the UK and Germany.

Also, I speculate that the promotion of flower growing to women in the early 20th century reflected the early phase of the modern women’s movement that led ultimately to feminism. Why should men be the only ones growing the flowers?  Indeed, even today flower growing remains a bit of a men’s club, particularly in high-end shrubs and trees.

The only place in Europe where the men share the vegetable garden is Southern Italy and Greece.  This must be related to the important place they have in the kitchen, especially in Greece, where men prepare most family meals, with the women handling the table and shopping the markets where no home garden is possible.  Of course, the men run the flour mills, oil presses, vineyards and wineries, which remain extraordinarily decentralized, or on a village level, to a degree unknown elsewhere.  In the US one can still see this Greek tradition in the preponderance of restaurants and diners owned and run exclusively by men.

It is also interesting to see the male-dominated flower breeding traditions of Europe carried on, to this day, by amateur flower breeders in the US.  Personally, I find this quite odd.  Even US native plants, such as Rudbeckia and Echinacea, were bred by European men in the late 20th century—’Goldsturm’ by a German estate gardener and ‘Magnus’ by a Swedish amateur, respectively, each the classic of their type. Today, few women in the US are carrying forward the early feminist project of ornamental horticulture, except in the non-profit world of public gardens and trade associations, where they are better represented.  My sister, Anna, of Ball Seed fame (an entirely separate company) is an extraordinary exception in the world of commercial horticulture.  However, I guarantee she became President due to her ability rather than her gender.  Perhaps US women shy away from flowers due to the conventional imagery of the “flower lady” and the nuptial bouquet.  Too bad.  The field is wide open to qualified American women.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 4th, 2008 at 3:06 pm and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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