Most of the time, the garden is a quiet place, an idyllic refuge from the madding crowd. The loudest noise is usually the gentle buzz of bees or hum of hummingbirds on nectar-gathering sorties. Once in awhile, though, a controversy will alight amid the flowers and vegetables, the garden gloves come off, and, before you know it, the dirt is flying.
In the 90s, there was a showdown regarding hybrids versus heirlooms. The heirloom faction championed the mostly old, late, but flavorful cultivars with romantic names, and portrayed hybrids as a plot by Big Agriculture. In fact, the hybridists were improving the heirlooms for increased flavor, vigor and yield.
Soon another controversy arose. Exotic species from abroad were being introduced to America’s gardens. The nativists saw the foreign introductions as alien invaders, potential monopolists that would crowd out our indigenous plant life. The exoticists, on the other hand, cherished their rare species, gathered by intrepid plant explorers. Both controversies rage on, with no end—or middle ground—in sight.
Normally, in the winter months gardeners serenely peruse nursery catalogs and order seeds and plants for the coming season. This year the placid annual rite was rudely interrupted by an article in the Atlantic Monthly. Gardeners flung down their catalogs, sprang from their couches, and marched, if not to the barricades, to their computer keyboards to transpose their howls of dismay in upper case letters.
The perpetrator of the outrage is the writer Caitlin Flanagan, who in her January piece did a slash and burn number on the School Garden Movement. The article, posing as a review of the 2007 biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee, gives the book scant mention, preferring to cast asparagus on Waters, the celebrated chef and progenitor of the contemporary School Garden Movement.
In her piece, “Cultivating Failure,” Ms. Flanagan contends that the School Garden Movement exacts a terrible cost on California’s cash-strapped, dysfunctional school system. Underperforming students, especially from minorities, are, she maintains, squandering precious time growing arugula, when their energies would be more profitably engaged in studies of math, science and literature.
In her opening salvo, the writer imagines the child of a migrant laborer, a naturalized American on pace to fulfill his father’s dream of a better future for his family. Then, on the first day of middle school, he “heads out to the field, where he stoops out under a hot sun and begins to pick lettuce.”
As the reader mulls the darkish ironies of this scenario, and the luxuriant infelicities of Flanagan’s prose, the writer’s klaxonlike voice yanks us from our reverie and flings us into the thickets of her second paragraph.
Mounting her bushelbasket, the Red Bull-fueled Flanangan declares, “The cruel trick has been pulled on this benighted child by an agglomeration of foodies and educational reformers who are propelled by a vacuous if well-meaning ideology that is responsible for robbing an increasing number of American schoolchildren of hours they might otherwise have spent reading important books or learning higher math (attaining the cultural achievements, in other words, that have lifted uncounted generations of human beings out of the desperate daily scrabble to wrest sustenance from dirt).”
What sticks to Flanagan’s crocs, one suspects, is not the fate of the “benighted” Latino and minority students in California schools, whose American dreams, she feels, are turning into compost in the garden.
Flanagan’s arguments against garden education are really an hors d’oeuvres. For the entrée served up in her piece is Alice Waters, who jump-started the School Garden Movement at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, where students, Flanagan fails to mention, spend roughly an hour-and-a-half each week in the garden. She is out to pillory Waters and the largely left-leaning idealists crusading to introduce garden education to American schools.
Decrying garden education as a “giant experiment” (it isn’t), Flanagan complains, “That no one is calling foul on this is only one manifestation of the way the new Food Hysteria has come to dominate and diminish our shared cultural life.” Huh?
Proponents of the Slow Food Movement and school gardens may, at times, sound preachy and precious. Reformers like Ms. Waters have provided ample targets for writers like Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Nathanael West and Tom Wolfe. However, today’s food crusaders merit a sharper satirical knife than that wielded by Flanagan.
Yet, Ms. Flanagan has done the School Garden Movement an enormous favor, bringing welcome attention to the food fight and rallying the troops, who lit up the blogosphere with their denunciations of her piece.
Gardening surely merits a place in the school curriculum. Rather than be an adjunct to a student’s course of studies, gardening can serve as a hub where multiple disciplines converge. Consider the University of Wisconsin‘s innovative but less well known “Fast Plants” school programs. No blistering sun required, and their instructional value is unparalleled.
Furthermore, gardening is unique in how it involves and reflects multiple academic fields. One can study literature, history and mathematics by way of the garden. Furthermore, the science of the garden itself can be investigated from the vantage points of botany, biology, nutrition, ecology, evolution and astronomy.
Plants and seeds provide students with new ways to understand the world and their place in it. A small, modest garden supplies tactility, shape, color, fragrance and flavor: all key ways we apprehend reality. Finally, gardening provides an overarching narrative that connects and unites all aspects of humanity. Nothing to rail against.
Don’t forget tomorrow’s speech by Simon Crawford, our new plant explorer, at the Philadelphia Flower Show in Room 201C at 10:30 A.M. Thursday, March 4. Hope to see you there.