A new garden ethic: On the page and in practice

“The more we check our egos at the garden gate, the more we’ll make gardens that work for a common good, that reconnect us to the world we’re erasing, and even bring us closer to one another.”

— Benjamin Vogt, “A New Garden Ethic,” 2017

I often begin my columns with thoughts that were pondered and expressed hundreds of years ago, and time and again I am amazed at how relevant the authors’ ideas remain for gardeners today.

Yet, I think this week’s quote from a book published just last year would likely confound gardeners of centuries past in some ways and confuse modern gardeners in others.

First, gardeners past and present might wonder why on earth they should leave their egos behind when they enter their garden. After all, aren’t gardens meant to reflect the personality of the gardener? Shouldn’t a garden showcase the gardener’s style, horticultural knowledge, even status?

Second, pre-industrial gardeners would scratch their heads over the bit about needing to make gardens work for a common good; for them, that was the whole point of gardens! They were intended to produce for the common good of humankind: food, medicine, clothing, household goods.

Most post-industrial gardeners don’t think of gardens in terms of a common good at all. They just want to grow enough veggies for their own family, maybe gift some extra tomatoes and zucchinis to the neighbors.

Third, our gardening ancestors probably never imagined a world in which humans would become disconnected from nature. Indeed, they were concerned about how to harness that connection and make the wild less intrusive, less fearsome, less wild.

Fourth, it was a given back then that growing things brought people together. Families, neighbors and communities gardened and farmed together to maximize the potential of each growing season. Today, we usually garden by ourselves. Maybe we’ll share our garden with others by posting a picture on Facebook or Instagram.

However differently gardeners of the past and present might respond to Vogt’s comment, the author says one thing humans throughout the ages have shared is biophilia, a “subconscious desire to affiliate with nature.” People have always been drawn to make sense of the natural world, and it is this innate magnetic pull that Vogt believes could point the way toward a new garden ethic.

A re-envisioned garden ethic de-emphasizes the personality of the gardener and prioritizes the locality of the garden and the plants within it. When Vogt writes of gardens that work for the common good, he’s referring to the wellbeing of humankind, animal kind and plant kind.

He writes, “When gardens aren’t supporting local flora and fauna … they fail to be the models of democracy and freedom we imagine them to be.”

I recommend reading Vogt’s book to better understand a garden and land ethic based on “a larger-than-human perspective.” To understand how local gardeners and land stewards are practicing such an ethic, be sure to attend the Living on Your Land conference from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at Rogue Community College in Grants Pass. Registration is open until April 6. Cost is $60 and an optional lunch is $10.

Presented by the OSU Land Steward Program and the Rogue River Watershed Council, Living on Your Land will feature 28 classes, each 90 minutes, on topics related to natural resources and land management: Improving Streamside Habitat, Native Pollinator Plants and Propagation, Rainwater Catchment Systems, Water Rights, Weed Management, Small-Scale Homesteading, Edible Native Plants and others.

For more information about the conference and to register in advance (no walk-in registrations are allowed), see www.livingonyourland.com.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more The New Garden Ethic, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.

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