Are Ugly Gardens a Feminist Issue?

The garden blogosphere is aflame with arguments about this post from Robin on Garden Rant. Her argument basically is that ugly vegetable gardens give gardening a bad name, and gardeners should clean up their act — or at least their vegetable patch.

I’m not sure how to respond to this. I love a good-looking ornamental garden. Northern Gardener profiles at least one fantastic garden in every issue, and I have tried hard to keep at least part of my own yard looking good. (Operative word: Tried.) But, hey, no one’s perfect. Life intervenes. People get sick. Jobs get busy. Or, in this economy, jobs disappear. Children need extra attention, or parents do, or spouses, or maybe some weekends, you just need to ride your bike or do something other than weed. And, not every gardener has the cash to invest in artwork or fancy pots or a designer to help them figure out what looks good.

After reading Robin’s post and a few of the responses, I could not help but wonder if this whole ugly garden debate smacks of rivalry among women, a pervasive, really tiresome force in our society. Gardening is largely (though certainly not entirely) a female sport. And, the vast majority of garden bloggers are women. Is this the old cool girls vs. nerds, stay-at-home moms vs. working mothers, Sandy vs. Rizzo deal? Oh, please, say it is not.

In solidarity with the ugly gardeners, I’m posting a photo of one of my less attractive garden ideas. (If I were at my other computer, I’d have some really unattractive photos to post.) Growing food is a feminist issue, as this recent book argues.  But it has nothing to do with how attractive your vegetable patch looks.

8 Replies to “Are Ugly Gardens a Feminist Issue?”

  1. That’s not a bad point. It may also explain the heated arguments on either side. Nothing like a feminist class war to heat things up.

    Also those pumpkin pots may be ugly, but they sure are a neat idea!

    Great post!

  2. Mary – this is a very interesting concept! This whole fiasco has sort of dominated my thoughts over the past few days. It has really drummed up a lot of feelings I’d rather just not deal with. One thing I keep thinking is there is definately a clear divide here. Not only that, it is almost predicitable. What I mean is that, if I know the garden blogger, I’d bet money I can tell you what their opinion would be. Some will side with the author out of personal loyalty (which I struggled with, myself), others REALLY believe that more value should be placed on the appearance of the garden than the production (though I expect there are only a few in this category), and still others are fully prepared to stand up for the ugly gardens much like we would any other situation where we are left feeling judged. And nobody does this better than women! We’re pros at it!

    My question to you is, am I Sandy, or Rizzo? (I’m an ugly garden supporter)

  3. Interesting perspective. I think people react to it based on how it affects them? Last night I was talking with a gardener about this and my take is that it is a class issue. I think people who maybe are feeling the pinch of the recession or who grow vegetables because they have to feed a family or who grow them because of tradition were the ones most hurt by it.

  4. Very thoughtful post Mary. The tone of the discussion surrounding this controversy has seemed a bit reminiscent of the tone surrounding other polarizing issues such as feminism and class. It reminds me of the stay-at-home vs working mother passionate arguments I remember hearing during my child-rearing years. The way I see it there’s no absolute, and everyone works out what’s best for their particular situation.

    Gardens are works in process, and everyone has a different aesthetic, not to mention budget. I like pretty gardens, mine’s not always pretty, and I’m too busy living my own life and taking care of my own stuff to rant over the way others do their stuff, including their gardening. As long as my veggies are healthy, productive, and organic I’m happy. Home grown tomatoes are delicious whether they’re staked with a fallen branch or surrounded with a $40 cage.

  5. Mary,

    It’s so cool that you are offering up this take on things and are willing to tread into this area. Really interesting. If nothing else, I love the fascinating and intelligent discussion the original post has initiated.

    In general, the post seems to have provoked people on a number of levels based on wherever they are coming from socially, economically, and culturally. Also where they are as a gardener since beginner gardeners with less experience who are more prone to making the kinds of mistakes Robin highlighted.

    Responses to the piece vary as a result.

    But the one that stands out most strongly to me besides experience level is class status. And class certainly crosses over into how we think about aesthetics, sometimes affects what we value (productivity versus pretty is an example), and it definitely has an affect on women and how we live our lives. I am a strong believer in the adage that the personal is political. So on that level, I agree that it does tread into that terrain, if not just a little bit.

  6. I just discovered Ruth Stout today on @margaretroach blog and I think this woman is quite the feminist and no nonsense gardener and I find her approach to her garden & life to be quite charming.
    I love the no waste approach of the pumpkin pots in the photo above – very creative on many levels. I find the fuss about pretty gardens to be drenched in consumerism and unfriendly neighbourhood competition possibly more about property values. Have a peek at Ruth Stout’s garden and give a listen to her values.
    http://awaytogarden.com/2010-resolution-a-no-work-garden ;o)

  7. Linda, your last sentence makes the most sense of anything I’ve read on the subject.

    Mary, thank you for these thoughts. I’m curious, though, if gardening is largely the pursuit of women, what of farming? Ask any six year old to draw a farmer and it’s likely to be male. (Just playing devil’s advocate on that one).

  8. Thank you all for commenting. It’s wonderful to hear what other gardeners and writers have to say. As Gayla and Mr. Brown Thumb note, class is part of what is going on in the discussions. And, Gina, you can be Rizzo or Sandy — that’s your call.

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