Recently I was interviewed about “American gardening”. I recalled my thoughts at “Virtual Horticulture“. However, the reporter pressed me about major trends and fashions. What’s the hottest plant? Trendiest perennial? Most popular vegetable?
I tried, to no avail, to tell him that gardening is utterly decentralized—so much that it’s impossible to make generalizations, choose favorites or pick winners. Never has America been one entity; it will always be a “crazy quilt”, as long as there are vast, almost endless stretches of earth with folks popping up here and there and weather blowing across it. The earth spins, Mr. Reporter.
But he wasn’t buying, and he was wrong. The tiny horticultural shards scattered across the landscape remind me of two other social activities: education and medicine. And even they aren’t as fragmented or “micro-variable”, as I like to call it.
Education is thoroughly site-specific, from your mother’s knee to the local high school, where kids graduate about the time they become legal adults. The “localism” of family as well as civic and religious social life creates a sort of entropy that, while resisted by the young, is nonetheless profound. We are steeped in our youth by the town and countryside of our birth. This is why schools are under local control—the owners, managers and public. Family is just the first among the equal sovereignties of “place”, especially after puberty. So what does this have to do with medicine (much less gardening)?
Almost everything, unless you are on an extended sabbatical in a foreign land, in which case you better get to know the local doctor. No one really practices long-distance medicine. They have flying doctors in Alaska and Australia, and there’s the occasional news report about a “virtual” operation. But they’re the rare exceptions that prove the rule. A patient has to be seen by the eyes and touched by the hands. “Localism” is a euphemism for “immediate surroundings”. You don’t create it so much as manifest it. If you live in Chicago, Illinois, there you are. If you live in Madison, Wisconsin, very different story. Imagine if you live in Mobile, Alabama? Or Chula Vista, California?
So it is with gardening. Horticulture (“gardening with a college degree”, as a friend once quipped) equals diversity. And its root is protected—even sacred—space: a little of what’s right amidst a lot of what’s wrong. There are only four common or universal elements in the garden: air, water, light and soil. Notice the general variations to be found in each of them. No wonder, then, that the range of complex variation in vascular plants alone is incredible.
I sighed as I answered one question after another from a faraway non-gardening reporter about “national trends”. This is why we need local agriculture extension agents, I said to myself. And keep them local. No Feds, please, not in our gardens.
The reporter nagged me a bit more, so I tried my “Maine gardener versus Arizona gardener” routine. Eureka! He got it. Nothing comparable to our geographic diversity exists in a single nation except perhaps in India and China. However, I’m not sure how their regional parts exactly interrelate. I know one thing—they don’t have National Public Radio.
My view of American horticulture is that it doesn’t really exist. View the USA the way you view China and India—there’s not “one” of them either. As Joel Garreau said about 30 years ago, there are “Nine Nations of North America“. When we decide or commit to “owning” our local and regional gardening identities, rather than aping the Royal Horticultural Society, we shall become “American”.
But there’s another universal in gardening I forgot—the gardener. The love of plants qualifies as a fifth element. On that both the Down-easter and Desert Rat gardeners can agree.