Gardener with a Capital G: How Words Shape Values

Gardening is a powerful human impulse. It’s a long-term committed and interdependent relationship between a person and the land/ecosystem with which they are co-existing. As such, it can be agent of change for the better in this world on all layers: individual, communal, intellectual, physical, economic, environmental, social, spiritual. Recently I’ve listened to U.S Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speak of the admirable and courageous Green New Deal, with its goals of grappling with climate change and social and economic inequity and injustice. She states over and over: “we need to reprioritise.” And in my head, I think: “We need more Gardeners.”

I see profound value in the relationship I refer to as ‘Gardening’ and myself and like-minded ‘Gardeners’. I see these as passionate professions or pursuits requiring art, craft, and science. Hard work, investment of self, and deep study. The question as to why gardening and horticulture are undervalued, underpaid and frequently dismissed as possibly ‘nice’ but in no way ‘necessary’, is one that is deeply interrelated with how, why, and what our culture values (and devalues) across the board. That complexity is compounded by the history of what ‘we’ value in relation to to colonialism, racism, cultural and bio-diversity, economics, gender, and environmentalism. Gardening, in the way I view it, generally demonstrates an inverse relationship to our cultures’ credos of competition over collaboration and community; profit over people; people over planet; scarcity over abundance.

Botanist, Biologist, Horticulturist, Gardener. What is the narrative we each hold in these words? How we language these things holds important keys to how we change up the reality and perceived value of the people engaged in them. The words garden and gardener mean many different things to many different people, including:

1. Someone who tends the land they live with for food, beauty, medicine, utility, and spirit.

2. The nice-enough man (or crew of people) who drives up to my neighbour’s tidy, chemically-dependent, green lawn and regimented line of foundation shrubs and mows and blows them all back under control.

3. My neighbour – a middle class, middle-aged white woman who is happy with her tidy, under-control landscape – that is rarely used by anyone for anything, but has a large carbon footprint, and contributes weekly to the highly toxic ruff off into our precious watershed (she is, I will note, proud of her summer garden of tomatoes and basil in the back yard each summer. Perhaps this might give me an entry point for cultivating her greater gardening awareness?).

There are all manner of other variations – ornamental gardeners, edible gardeners, organic gardeners, butterfly or bird gardeners, permaculture gardeners, biodynamic gardeners, ecological gardeners and so on. The word ‘gardener’ – since World War II and the subsequent wide-scale introduction of chemicals to the practice of gardening in the United States, and parallel increase in an idealized middle-class, consumer-based lifestyle and its ‘leisure time’ – to a large extent has been co-opted by branders and marketers who by following the money (the end-point of ‘valuable’ in our current mainstream culture) depicted/depict a ‘gardener’ as an affluent white person (generally a woman), serenely cutting a basket of colourful (generic) flowers, or if a man, he’s smiling at his perfectly manicured green lawn from behind his fossil-fuel powered mower.

Because of this baggage, some people suggest we need new words – that the word Gardener is compromised and faulty”

I have heard suggestions along the lines of ‘guardian’, which feels too human-centric to me, and ‘land-steward’, but that feels unrelated to cultivation and gardeners. I happen to like the word Gardener as it denotes a person in relationship with a piece of land; I consider the relationship the Indigenous peoples of North America had/have with the lands they lived/live with/on to be among the wisest and most loving of people/land relationships. This is, in every sense of the word, gardening – before the words themselves cropped up. Land-based cultures the globe over have always had special people who cultivated the land respectfully (with everyone’s long-term well-being in mind). They were/are Gardeners, gardening.

When I see the wide variation of what Gardeners are and do, I can see where we need more specificity – Some words to describe my ideas of the highest level of gardening might be High Gardening (although living in a cannabis-legal state, this gets confusing), Quantum Gardening, Deep Gardening, Critical Gardening, or Wholehearted Gardening. Or maybe it’s Gardening with a capital G. Which is how I am referring to it here.

For me, a capital G Gardener is someone who is living and working in synchrony with land, in interdependent relationship with plant and animal communities (including but not limited to spiders, snakes, gophers, etcetera) and who is using organic and habitat friendly methods to do this. A Gardener is someone who is always learning and trying to improve on their side of this relationship and grasps completely that our gardens – windowsills, backyards, front parking strips, fire escapes, public parks, wildlands and watersheds – are places to be known, listened to, protected, and respected.

I’ve conducted my garden-elevating conversations on public radio for almost 11 years now, and over the last year I’ve been deeply immersed in researching, interviewing, and writing about 75 women expanding the horticultural world in meaningful ways. While there could be many more, this first cohort of women demonstrates over and over again that leadership can look and behave very differently than we see at the highest levels of our society – political, corporate, social, religious. As scientists, writers, artists, activists, and educators, they demonstrate that you can lead a good and satisfying life that does not place people over the planet or profit over people or the planet. They are of a diversity of ages, races, backgrounds, and beliefs. They are not all binary, cisgendered or heterosexual ‘women’. They are hard-working, passionate and purpose-driven people and they all start from planet/plant-love and radiate out from there, connecting to others and lifting them as they go. Each in her own way is then positively impacting what our culture as a whole values, raising our awareness respectively about social, economic, and environmental justice. Expanding us.

While I love that they are all women, a broad-based gender designation, which has been underrepresented in some areas of the plant world and contained into other areas of it – the fact that they are women is only important if they bring something different and new to the environment of cultural decision-making. Over the course of the year of research and conversation, it became far more meaningful to me that they were women who were in a respectful relationship with plants and were taking that as a purpose in one way or another out into our shared world. Each of the women in the book is modelling how to recalibrate what is valuable.

They’re modelling a new way for current and future generations and their shared starting point is they are all Gardeners, in the greatest sense of the word.”

How do we elevate the value of plants people – botanists, horticulturists, and gardeners – in the world and improve their standing and value? I think we start with words. We start by talking – by raising awareness and understanding. And then we go farther, by putting our money where our mouths are: by gardening ourselves; by knowing where our food and plants/flowers come from and making it as local as we can; by paying fair wages for labour and  fair prices for food; by being informed as to the nature and impacts of what we do, and what we buy and consume that leads to more land or human degradation/oppression or more extraction; and we make less expedient and more considered everyday choices in our gardens and in our lives – more push mowers, and hand weeding – less lawns, fossil fuel, and chemical control. And we talk about that. We vote and look into the nature of who we vote for and where they stand on issues like these.

If we are leaders in our own worlds – as parents who children learn from, as teachers or business owners who model and mentor and train, as gardeners from whom an entire neighborhood can very visibly see a different way, as citizens, as living beings – we model these values, share them, and lift them at every chance we get. We support that which is valuable. If you read The Planthunter and believe in what Georgina Reid is doing with her work here, then support that work financially, buy her book, tell others about her work. The same goes for other plants people you admire and learn from. If you want to support new professional gardeners, help them access land, funds, or donate to the scholarships funds of the programs that they hoping to attend. That will show them they are valuable to you.

Researcher and writer Brené Brown states “all meaning for we humans comes in the form of connection.” And while I accept that not everyone is or wants to be a Gardener in the most active sense of the word – with 38% of all households in US reportedly engaging in the activity of gardening, with 40 million acres of turf grass across the country, with biodiversity of habitats and species being lost daily, and our children spending less than four minutes of unstructured time outdoors each day, with our racial, economic and political divides only widening – we have a lot of room and possibility for improvement. Gardeners and gardens are powerful potential sources of connection and inter-sectional spaces of change for the better in this world.

To unequivocally demonstrate that Gardeners and Gardening are valuable, we need to consciously co-evolve and Garden with our whole hearts and minds, with all of our creativity and capacity to live with and help the planet whose lives (including many fellow humans) we depend on and whom we’ve imperiled. Because, no matter where you are – there is a direct line across this generous planet connecting your footprint to mine. We are all in this together, on this planet we all shape and impact – that we ‘Garden’ – for better or worse.

So, go out and find your Gardeners – love them, applaud them, pay them well, respect their hard work, knowledge and skills, send them to school, hire them, mentor them, support them.

Better yet – grow up and be one of them.

This essay by Jennifer Jewell is an edited extract of a 2000 word Instagram post (!!!), responding to this article by Georgina Reid published on The Planthunter on 27/02/19.