I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about what it means, as a gardener, to actually own my own piece of property. Sometimes when I am taking my vegetable scraps out to the compost heap, following a route that spans the full expanse of my backyard, I marvel at the fact that the entire vast swath is mine to do with as I wish. The soil, the trees, the rocks, the grass (weeds), every dip and sweep of this somewhat pie-shaped, .49 acre lot is all mine! For a single human, a half an acre is a king’s riches. It is more than enough to keep a solitary gardener busy and fretting with planting schemes and projects for a lifetime.
A quarter acre would be enough. An eighth. A 10′ x 15′ rectangle. It’s mine, I own it, I am content. I would rather own a sunny balcony with an array of pots than merely occupy a 50-acre estate. Mary Lennox, recall, pleaded only for “a bit of earth.” A bit. But she wanted it for herself.
The whole idea of private land ownership is fundamental in American culture, obviously, but I think it’s in our genes as well. Even hunter-gatherer societies who couldn’t conceive of private property clashed with one another over hunting grounds and resources.
But of course, they were just being practical.
We gardeners like to covet and control. There is no sugar-coating it. We see our gardens as a means of self-expression, whether we are decorating them as fussily as we would our living rooms or attempting to create native plant wilderness. We tend, shape, manipulate. What’s less obvious is that the rose garden and the bird habitat are shaped with equal passion.
I know that there is a certain class of gardener — protégés of Sara Stein, for example — who seeks to return their property to a Rousseauian state of nature, whereby they need no longer prune, nor weed, nor remove leaves, etc. Even these good folk, I suspect, would dash out the back door with a giant machete at the first sight of Japanese honeysuckle overtaking their sassafras grove. And who would blame them? They spent 10 years getting those sassafras established!
I know I’m not the first gardener who developed the passion only after purchasing my own property, because the same thing happened to the famous garden writer Beverley Nichols. In this passage from Down the Garden Path Nichols describes the joy he felt in performing even onerous tasks in his very first garden:
Until you actually own a garden, you cannot know this joy. You may say, ‘oh yes, I love a garden.’ But what do you really mean by that? You mean that you like to wander through rows of hollyhocks, swathed in tulle…and that you like to drink lemonade under a tree….You do not like bending down for hours to pull up hateful little weeds that break off above the root…you do not like these things, for one reason and only one reason…because you do not own the garden. All gardeners will know what I mean. Ownership makes all the difference in the world. I suppose it is like the difference between one’s own baby and somebody else’s. If it is your own baby you probably quite enjoy wiping its nose. If it is somebody else’s you would have to use a long pole with a handkerchief on the end. That was why I loved all this early work, because the garden was the first thing I had ever really owned.
What about community gardens? Well, the community vegetable garden near me is sliced up like a pan of brownies at a kids’ party, with each gardener carefully guarding his portion. Most community gardens appear to be set up this way, with fences making it very clear whose plot is whose. The gardeners may share hoses and wheelbarrows, but they don’t often share the earth itself.
This is all kind of a paradox, because gardeners are also known to be very generous. We are all quick to share our extra vegetables, divisions, seed packs, and of course, unsolicited advice. And I know there are many gardeners out there who donate their time at public gardens, which is generous indeed.
For most of us, though, ownership is fundamental to the experience of being a gardener. We are happy to yank up hateful little weeds — whether they’re sprouting in a pot, a city garden, or a 50-acre estate — because they are our hateful little weeds.