More on the defense of beauty


Over on NPR’s Talking Plants, Ketzel Levine posted about my throwing in the towel as a
radical front-yard farmer and said this:

No doubt I particularly love her blog post
because I’m constantly having to defend my decision to have an
ornamental-only garden. Never mind that I don’t cook; people just seem
so disappointed that I don’t graze in my own garden and grow my own

Morally disappointed, that is.

I hear ya!  But it’s not just edible gardeners expressing moral disappointment in us ornamental gardeners; don’t even get me started on the eco-restorationists accusing us of harming thCurbe environment with every nonnative hosta or sedum we grow.  More than once have I seen our desire for beauty described as selfish or a product of our "vanity".  That’s right.  Planting this colorful hodgepodge in my hell strip was a vain and selfish act.

I asked in a comment on Ketzel’s post: What other forms of artistic expression besides gardening have to defend themselves from charges of selfishness or moral failing?  Okay, probably ALL forms, at some time or other.  Because there will always be people who, in their passion for their own cause, can’t see the validity of someone else’s passion. And there will always be people who don’t get the spiritual rewards of beauty and artistic expression, for both the creator and the viewer.

A friend recently wrote to tell me she was looking at photos of gardens the other day and "I had this moment when I gasped, audibly, at
the sheer beauty of what I was looking at.  It felt a little like the rush of a
drug or a drink."  See, the beauty of gardens can keep people off drugs and alcohol!

Honestly, it was like going to confession when I finally reported to you my failure as a vegetable gardener.  What a load off.  But the second best thing about writing that post was all the great suggestions for edibles that can be mixed in with my hodgepodge of plants, like lingonberries or a dwarf patio peach.  And will I be trying some of them?  Damn right.  I’m inspired by your conviction that a garden can nourish both body and soul, and by Michele’s declaration of "pretty" as an essential ingredient in the Revolution.  Right on, sister!

So while gardeners SEEM to have to make the choice
between ornamentals, edibles, and natives, it just
ain’t so.  Vegetables can be grown cheek by jowl with ornamentals, and most native pCarriecroppedlant enthusiasts simply add them to their mix of healthy, beautiful plants from all over the world.   And all types of gardeners can happily coexist because we share a love for growing plants in healthy ways.

But while we’re defending plants for their beauty (and never forgetting that they also clean the air and water and provide pollen for the bees) can we come up with a term that’s easier to defend than "ornamental", which conveys all the moral appeal of Carrie Bradshaw’s closet? 


  1. It is indeed telling that something like a garden which feeds our souls and provides a vital link in the food chain and life cycles of this natural world that sustains us, is under rated by some. It reflects a very linear/big box store approach to measuring something’s worth.

    I hope someone thinks up a name we can grab onto. One that both catches the inner and outer essential service that the ornamental garden provides. Calling it Soul Food only begins to touch on what it feeds. 🙂

  2. You said it, sister!!! Anybody who thinks beauty is a frivolous concern knows nothing about life.

    Gardening is a civic act. Gardening a hell strip HAS its moral dimension.

    You are lifting the spirits of everyone who strolls by that garden and making an argument that all of us ought to work with nature to make a better world.

    What you are doing in your garden is not fashion. It’s religion.

  3. I agree totally with you and Michele, and I stood up and put my hand over my heart when I read her last line.

    What we do IS religion.

    I’m sorry I don’t have a better term for you, but I’ll think on it. While I’m picking beans in my flowerbed.

  4. I hope I have not been lumped in with those who don’t appreciate beauty in a garden. Just being outside digging in the dirt is an act of beauty in itself. Gardening is art, science, sport and spirituality all rolled into one wonderfully creative endeavor that nourishes on every level. What I was ranting about was the perception, perhaps misinterpreted by my feeble brain, that there was a standard that a garden had to live up to in order to be perceived as beautiful. I find beauty in all kinds of gardens, from the most humble to the expertly designed. What matters to me is the passion behind a garden’s creation. I want to see some heart and soul in a garden. Love will always show itself as beauty in all kinds of quirky ways, often times not following traditional design rules. That’s how I interpret Garden Rant’s manifesto, which is why I’m here reading this every day! I love you guys and back you in encouraging more people to be out there “having a hell of alot of fun gardening their asses off”. What I’m not into is scaring off potential gardeners by holding perfection up as the standard. I think we all have some kind of internal critic in our heads. It kills me at work when a customer asks me what color flower I like because they can’t decide for themselves. As if my favorite color would be more “expert” than theirs! If it’s your garden, it’s all about expressing you, not me. Beauty, fun, passion, joy, self expression….lets have more of it out there I say!

  5. Wooly, I think we’re all on the same page here. If someone’s heart and soul are in their garden, great! To each their own and all that. The bigger the tent, the bigger the revolution.

    You also remind me of dozens of conversations I’ve had with garden coachees. If they know what they want that’s great, but if they ask me to pick all their plants I resist if there’s ANY chance I can get them to visit some gardens and find plants that THEY love.

  6. I grow veggies in the patches of sunlight that I have in the yard. Not a lot of other people in the neighborhood do, but then again, many yards in the neighborhood have large trees in them. We could point fingers at them for not clearing the trees to grow their own food and eat locally. And if they did, we could rant at them for… cutting down those carbon-consuming trees just to grow veggies. And of course we could shout at them for letting that ancient nonnative maple continue to grow in the yard instead of replacing it with a native maple.

    Or we could just garden, each of us growing what’s appropriate in the yard we have.

    A new term for “ornamental” garden? Um… how about… “garden?”

  7. The nice thing about salad bars is that everyone can pick just what they want, or mix things up and try something new on the next trip. We shouldn’t be concerned with what’s on each others plate. The important thing is that we are at the bar, and the people we have to worry about are the ones who don’t care about salad.

  8. A Nourishment Garden, if you need a new term.

    Extremists of all stripes are more comfortable in a black and white mindset. Nuance and shades of gray, and “Well that depends” requires more thought.

    Ones own appreciation of art and pretty is helped when a person is not so easily swayed or offended by what other people think.

  9. I may have posted this before, but three years ago October, i finally got back to my house, where flood water reached 4″ below my floor boards and six other houses on my street. The rest of the neighbors weren’t so lucky, and I did my time helping them drag out ruined, disgusting appliances, furniture, floors, and walls. I also rolled up my garden. The stench was horrific; whatever was in the ground caused my throat to swell and close up, sending me immediately to a doctor for shots and a prescription. The worst was my neighbors with uninhabitable houses coming to tell me how sorry they were I lost my garden, and I felt horrible because I still had a house. My garden added to their day, so I’ve filled it back with more color, and give out some pass-a-longs. Most everybody is back and we talk as I weed and add to my neighborhood. I’m still afraid to grow anything edible in this ground, but my little street garden is medicine. (I still get shaky writing about this. Sorry for the length.) And I have the best neighbors in the world.

  10. I just realized the source of my defensiveness in this conversation about beauty. I’d come to terms with it so long ago that I forgot about my original beef until I was contemplating my rant in the shower this morning. The San Francisco Bay Area is full of extremely wealthy people who can afford to *buy* beauty, rather than create it themsleves. They are too busy earning fat paychecks in order to pay the fat mortgages around here. But this enables many of them to squander their money on Gorgeous Designed Everything. There was a time when I had a hard time keeping my own head on straight when surrounded by people whose main pastime was Conspicuous Consumption. I’m mostly past all that now, but obviously harboring some pent up somethingorother which is causing me to wave my freak flag wildly. 😉

    And about the guilt thing. I can deal with most extremists cos I’m happily playing around with attracting all kinds of bees, butterflies, birds and other beneficials into my garden with all kinds of plants, not just natives. I’m trying my best to be more conscious of water, but I have to have a few water hogs in my garden or I’m not happy. This is the main source of my guilt these days. We aren’t on mandatory rationing….yet. I find a little voice in my head telling me it would be more justifiable to water veggies than ornamentals, and yes, I do have tomatoes and basil growing right now. But does the spiritual nourishment that the rest of my ornamental plants provide for me count as food? I dunno. I’m keeping my cannas and ginger juicy with bath water these days…

  11. I have a tough time figuring out why someone would have to be one-way-or-the other in a garden. My garden can be food- it can be beauty and smells, it can be habitat, it can be an area for a party. Gardens really should be flexible and changeable to some degree- the slow evolution over time for a garden reflects your own evolution and development, perhaps?

  12. If it’s any consolation, I think you’re right that artists in almost any field sometimes have to defend themselves aginst selfishness or moral failing–and “beauty” in particular seems culpable these days to charges of “selfishness.” But if the worst thing anyone ever did was to plant a pieris japonica somewhere outside of Japan–what? I guess the world would be a lovely place. Susan, thank you for your contributions to lovely places.

  13. So what if you can’t grow veggies.
    At least your planting something! Welcome to my side of the revolution by taking on eco warriors who do not work at anything.

    How many trees did they plant last year?

    The (have not hugged a tree in forty six years) TROLL

  14. I call the act and enjoyment of gardening in all its forms (edible or ornamental), “Eden Therapy.” I’m doing a whole blog and video series on it. I’ll let Susan know when it is ready to share with the fellow ranters!

    “Gardening is a physical act that nurtures the soul, stregthens the body and can heal the land and its inhabitants.”
    Shirley Bovshow,
    Your “Eden-Maker”

  15. What’s wrong with gardening for beauty? Nothing! So your edible garden didn’t work so well…big deal! Instead of planting a wide swath of grass (or perhaps worse, paving over everything with tonnage of rocks), you still planted very lovely, beautiful plants that clean the air, shade the earth a bit, provide things for insects, birds, and other wildlife, and, God forbid, look beautiful.

    Honest to goodness, the things some people complain about astound me. Beauty is important to our lives, especially natural beauty found in plants and flowers. Yes, it’s wonderful that we can plant edibles right next to our pretties, but if someone doesn’t or cannot do so…so what? Whatever happened to “it’s a free country”?

    At least you and others are attempting to create a little something…the point about one commenter regarding creating beauty versus buying it was interesting, too. If someone wants to line the front of their home with tomato and pepper plants, fine. But if another person prefers to fill their yard with lilies and roses and clematis and honeysuckle, even without throwing a few herbs or berry plants into the mix to make it “legitimate”…well, fine for them too. Beauty is a need, too, as evidenced by the beauty we see all around us in creation, and in a world like ours, such beauty is more needed and more soothing than ever.

    For Pete’s sake…what a ridiculous thing to pick on anyone for. It’s not like you’re skinning baby seals alive or something…

    (And for the record, I think the inferno strip looks gorgeous.)

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