2009 has been one extraordinary year in the history of American gardening.
As if on cue, a panoply of developing trends all pointed towards the garden, opening the gates to the most dramatic resurgence in American gardening since the Great Depression. First and foremost, the current economic slump has proven an effective recruiting tool for new gardeners, who reap extraordinary savings by growing their own fruits and vegetables.
The cornucopia of new gardeners has gravitated to the garden for a range of reasons. One contingent started gardening due to well-founded concerns about food safety. The locavore movement, with its emphasis on acquiring locally grown produce, has inspired many, who now harvest their own food right in their local backyard.
Hear that? The chorus of oohs and ahs is the sound of gardening’s epicures, foodies besotted with the taste of ten-minute old broccoli, European tomatoes and exotic herbs from the garden.
The thundering herd of gardeners over there? Why, those are the Baby Boomers, nearing retirement, their brood of children having flown the nest, who have discovered a creative and rewarding form of recreation. The wide-eyed group over there, in plaid shirts and overalls? They are the seekers, looking for something they have been unable to find on the internet, a wide-screen TV or their iPhone: authenticity. In the garden they connect to their planet, the seasons and themselves.
The trend towards healthier lifestyles has engendered a veritable gardening army: they’ve landed in the Great American Garden because they want to fortify their well-tuned bodies with the freshest, most nutritious food they can find. And when the President and First Lady 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!
Gardening is, by its nature, a serene corner of the cultural landscape. Other than the occasional cacophony of crows squawking for our fresh sweet corn, we don’t get much excitement around here. We gardeners comprise one of the quieter interest groups in the land, our murmured bromides all but drowned out by garrulous trout fishermen and vociferous birdwatchers. Gardeners reckon life not in minutes, hours or days, but seasons.
Yet, bewilderingly, one key ingredient is missing from this great new flowering of the American garden: flowers. While sales of vegetables, herbs and fruit seeds have surpassed the wildest hopes of the country’s nurseries, there has been a commensurate drop-off in the sales of flower seeds and plants. In these belt-tightening days, it appears America’s gardeners seem to regard flowers as somehow superfluous, a luxury to dispense with in tough times.
In flower gardening, your rewards are reckoned, not in salads, soups and souflés, vitamins, antioxidants or fiber. The pleasures derived from flower gardening speak not to the body but to the human spirit.
When dining at restaurants, and there is a bud vase or a small bouquet of fresh flowers on the table, I often perform a feat of legerdemain for my dining companions. With a dramatic sweep of my arm, I snatch the flower vase and conceal it under the table. “Now,” I ask, in my best magician voice, “see anything different?”
It never fails: my companions instantly recognize something significant is now missing from the table – and it’s not just a vase with a lily or two. It’s as if a divine light switch has shut off, and the table, aglow and alive just moments ago, now looks dead, drained of beauty and warmth. Once the vase is back on the table, the flowers’ magic is back at work, lighting up the table, and dancing in the eyes of my companions, whose relief is unmistakable.
The effect of my floral disappearing act is no fluke. Science is just now beginning to apprehend the effects of flowers on our lives and surroundings.
A recent Rutgers study set out to explore the impact of cultivated flowers on human emotions. Flowers, when presented to women, unfailingly evoke the Duchenne smile: the term of art for the spontaneous teeth-baring grin of delight and gratitude. Flowers, researchers discovered, exercise an instant impact on happiness, with lasting effects of boosting mood, enjoyment and life satisfaction, diminishing depression and anxiety. Flowers make the home more welcoming and create positive emotional feelings in visitors. People who buy more flowers are happier. In this anxious, uncertain time, flowers are no luxury, but a blissful necessity.
My grandfather prospered during the Great Depression by growing sweet peas and violets. Not only were they popular, they were essential to combating depression. The late 1920s and early 1930s saw also similar streaks of popularity in cosmetics, movies and inexpensive mass entertainment, such as the hugely popular Century Of Progress back in my hometown of Chicago.
But there’s more: the flowers you grow in your garden have significant advantages over purchased flowers, which are days old, and often exposed to carbon monoxide and other pollutants, in their cultivation and shipping.
Your flower garden is not only harmonious, colorful and fragrant, it will also enhance the value of your home. Ask any realtor. Plus, the flowers you gather will have a radiance and freshness money can’t buy – and at a fraction of what they would cost at retail.
The tribe of new American gardeners who have opted out of flowers are missing much of the garden’s magic, beauty, harmony, color and fragrance. Right now, they can plant fall flowers, as well as bulbs to bloom next spring. I hope they will conduct their own experiment with flowers in the garden and the home. Their glittering Duchene smiles will be all the proof I need that the experiment has proven a success.