The writing has an air of panic that I find very familiar, since I’ve been making my living as a speechwriter for the last 15 years:
It would be dangerous to guess what flower in America is most popular, but certainly the dahlia is very near the top of the list…. The dahlia is popular because it offers, to a greater degree than any other flower, a wide range of bright colors and great size. These qualities, much more than form and fragrance, have a wide appeal, especially to the beginner, and to the hobbyist who wants to make a specialty of one flower and to grow blooms bigger, better, and brighter than those of his neighbors. There is more friendly rivalry among dahlia growers than among the followers of any other flower.
In other words, how much space do I have to fill up? With what flimsy subject? Man, I’d better at least make all this sound culturally significant!
But the most interesting tidbit comes in the introduction by one Derrill W. Hart, author of the annual "Dahlia Roll of Honor":
Even the Wall Street district of New York City has a dahlia show. But it is more impressive to relate that in a canvass of a single big building in the district, there were found over one hundred men who were dahlia hobbyists!
Even if this is a complete exaggeration, could you imagine finding even a single dahlia fancier among the Masters of the Universe today? The only blowzy, florid, long-stemmed things Wall Streeters are likely to be interested in these days are strippers.
So, the question is, what happened to our culture to make it so unlikely that any powerful person uncurls in the evening by puttering among his or her vulgar but wonderful dahlias?
Did the rise of the suburbs and the suburban lawn kill off the backyard garden? Or was it the rise of the supermarket? Did a sort of faux gentility come to dominate as masses of Americans escaped the farms and the soil? Did that do in gardening as a respectable hobby? Did the many suburban homeowner’s associations, with their totalitarian prohibitions against any individuality in one’s patch of yard, make people afraid to plant their posies, for fear that their neighbors would take them to court? Or worse, think them crazy? Did the gym replace the backyard? Did the fact that most of our parents didn’t garden–while our Depression-era grandparents most firmly did–cause a kind of cultural amnesia? Did the rise of Home Depot, with its acres of Grub-B-Gone and RoundUp, finally succeed in making gardening seem about as appealing as scrubbing a toilet?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do think they are worth asking. The sum total of my knowledge is that the only people who garden in my part of the world are foodies and aesthetes like me and 80 year-old women. In my corner of the world at least, the evidence suggests that gardening has dropped out of the mainstream of American culture. I firmly believe that it’s a sign of cultural weakness, too.
So, how can it be brought back? Could the garden ever be like the martini–recreational vehicle of choice for generations long past that suddenly appeals once again to the young and culturally clued-in? Let’s hope so, and cheers!