(The following is the speech I gave to The Garden Writers Association last night at their annual convention in Raleigh, North Carolina. Despite the familiar first sentence and a few other tropes, it’s a new piece. Enjoy!)
2009 has been one extraordinary year in the history of American gardening.
As if on cue, a panoply of developing trends all pointed gardenwards, opening the garden gates to the most dramatic resurgence in American gardening since the Great Depression.
Of course, the current economic slump has proven an effective recruiting tool for new gardeners, who reap extraordinary savings by growing their own fruits and vegetables.
But the financial quagmire is just one of many causes for the cornucopia of new gardeners.
One contingent has started gardening due to well-founded concerns about food safety. This fussy crowd, it seems, prefers produce that hasn’t been mass-produced, shipped thousands of miles, exposed to carbon monoxide, and then gassed with ethylene.
The slow food movement, which emphasizes the freshness and flavor locally grown produce, has inspired many, who now harvest their own food right in their very local backyard.
Then there are the new epicureans, foodies who would no sooner dine on a hothouse tomato than serve spam as an entrée. That chorus of oohs and ahs issuing from the garden is the characteristic mating call of the foodies—summoning their partner to come and marvel over the serene delicacy of sweet corn, the sublime fragrances issuing from the tomato patch and the sensuous blue-black hues of the zaftig eggplant.
The thundering herd of gardeners over there? Why, that is the stampede of Baby Boomers, now nearing retirement. The Boomers’ children having flown the nest, this super-sized demographic has increasingly discovered a creative and rewarding form of recreation. The Baby Boomers’ landing in the garden reminds me of Arthur Koestler’s maxim: “Recreation is re-creation.”
The wide-eyed group over there, in plaid shirts and overalls? They are seekers after something they have been unable to find on the internet, a wide-screen TV or their iPhone: authenticity. They are by now a little disenchanted with life in webville. They saw themselves as rulers in the empire of information: only to discover they were mere clickstreams, cookies and avatars in a corporate web. But in the garden they go from virtual to virtuous, their efforts rewarded with nourishment, flavor and beauty. In the garden they can connect to their planet, the seasons and themselves. Here, among the plants and flowers, the only tweets come from the birds.
The fitness craze has engendered its own gardening army. You can’t miss this crowd. They’re running, bicycling, or at the gym. When they aren’t busy burning calories and subduing their heart rate, you might see them in the supermarket, scrutinizing the labels on boxes and cans lest a gram of transfat or corn syrup corrupt the temples of their bodies.
Now the fitter than thou have jogged into the Great American Garden because they want to fortify their well-tuned bodies with the freshest, most nutritious food they can find. Soon fitness magazines will blazon headlines like “Turn Your Mulch to Muscle Power,” and “Weed Your Way to Fab Abs.”
To confirm that this is the Year of the Gardener, President Obama decided to create a vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House. Tens of thousands of new gardeners burst into bloom. Hail to the Chief Gardener!
It’s a new world that we – gardening writers and gardening companies – find ourselves. Just minutes ago, we were the old economy, a fragrant, sleepy corner of the American commerce, where bees accounted for most of the buzz. Newspaper editors and television producers gave even more space and time to celebrities and mindless controversies. Consumers seemed increasingly consumed by electronic gadgetry that kept them up-to-the-minute on the price of everything and the value of nothing. Going into the 21st century, everything—commerce, tastes, trends, news—seemed to be spinning faster and faster.
The English writer G.K. Chesterton wrote of what he called “mankind’s favorite game,” which he called, “Cheat the Prophet.” Writing at the dawn of the 20th century, when writers like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells were prophesying mankind’s destiny, Chesterton explains how “Cheat the Prophet” is played. “The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that the clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go and do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.”
If the trend forecasters, cool hunters and secular prophets of our time foresaw this Great Garden Revival, they were uncharacteristically quiet about it. Or maybe, because I was in my garden, I failed to notice them.
Brothers and sisters of the garden, we are privileged witnesses of and participants in a new era of gardening. As gardening’s champions, we all need to do a better job inspiring those new to gardening and better serving the needs of veteran gardeners.
Gardening is front-page news this year. Americans who have never touched a trowel are now aware of the White House garden, the savings they can reap from growing their own, and the nutritional bonanza that is the home garden. Michael Pollan, among other writers, has made Americans keenly aware of what is at the end of their forks. The great Tomato Blight of 2009 became fodder for newspaper editorials.
Gardeners are coming to us. Millions more gardeners are waiting in the wings; underground, in a state of latency, like seeds they await the day the earth grow moist and warm, and the sun burn brighter, before they burst into bloom.
Dr. Coué, the early 20th century proponent of the power of positive thinking, created the mantra, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.” The gardening business and writers now need to every day, in every way, get better and better.
To help make the Great American Garden a 21st century reality, we have to show conviction, ingenuity and enterprising spirit. Wannabee gardeners need to be supported with easily accessible information and inspiration. We need to promote the garden’s role in our schools and communities. Our veteran gardeners should have instant access to answers for their gardening questions.
Up to now, gardening has been an insular culture. We are believers all, and there is a reassuring familiarity—not without its charms—that pervades our books, catalogs, websites and articles. By contrast, look back at seed catalogues from the 19th century—and well into the 20th—there is an excitement, a sense of discovery, a “wow factor” that pervades their pages.
Gardening will always have its dreamy, otherworldly component; the garden may well be the last vulgarity-free zone in our culture. Yet, as people blessed with a passion, let’s share this passion with our readers, editors and customers. The garden’s extraordinary rewards and delights are welcome news—an antidote to much that’s wrong with civilization. My Fellow Gardeners, our moment has arrived. Let’s make the most of it.