Devolution? Is That What’s Happening In My Yard?


My friend Gerald's vegetable garden. God, what's next? Cannibalism?

Allison Arieff is one of my favorite New York Times bloggers. The founding editor of Dwell–a magazine so stylish and committed to its subject that I read it regularly even though I am not interested in modern design–she's always worth a listen on the subject of our American landscape.

Yesterday, she once again considered the future of the American suburbs in the wake of the housing bust and half-finished and abandoned homes in exurban developments.  Arieff points out…

If some of the readers of my last post
have their way, suburbia could eventually evolve into something
straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road,”
where a desolate, polluted land is dotted with abandoned homes and
buildings that have been stripped of all valuable parts, and
lawlessness (and cannibalism) rules the streets.

Personally, I wouldn't wish such a fate on the railroad suburbs.  But McMansion-stuffed Upper Saddle River, NJ, where I grew up?  I don't know how sorry I'd be.

What struck me, however, was not Arieff's post, but the thoughts of a guy named Dan T:

‘The Road’ is a scary book and I hope it doesn’t come to that. That
said, I think we are seeing devolution as people lose their jobs and
more of my neighbors are growing their own food.

Devolving?  Is that what we're doing when we plant tomatoes? 

Seriously, this is how most of America views growing a little food in the backyard–as a return to some nasty, medieval way of being.  Most of our neighbors just don't comprehend that growing food is one of life's great pleasures, particularly in a hobby garden where nobody starves if the potatoes rot in the ground one year.

Since I love my vegetable garden, I prefer the term "europeanization" to "devolution."  Dan T, if you are seeing more backyard farming in your suburban neighborhood, please consider the possibility that you are actually seeing America reach new heights of civilization, a post-Neanderthal stage at which our souls and brains are finally large enough to allow us to appreciate the incredible beauty of kales and cabbages and the unbelievable flavor of even the humblest onion, if you cook it right out of the ground.

But really, all of us who know that it's lovely to grow food, what are we going to do to get rid of this general impression here in our great nation that gardening is primitive and unlovely, something that only desperation can justify?


  1. I noticed that post, too. More gardeners need to speak up in public about the joys of growing our own food. Today, I’ll be recording some more podcasts for Jacksonville’s paper and as usual one of my topics will be growing veggies. Newspapers are dying for content–couldn’t more of us help out?

    Also I have hope that we’ll see that organic garden on the south lawn at the White House. That would raise the profile dramatically.

  2. I’m not sure who these people are who think home food gardens are a sign of devolution…All I hear from people about my efforts is praise, admiration, and many many thanks when I’m willing to share.

    Everyone I know tries to grow food to some extent, whether it’s a vegetable plot or an herb garden on the patio. And the ones who claim they have no green thumb talk about how they WISH they could grow food but they’re not good with plants.

    Maybe, somehow, I only manage to talk to people who don’t think like Dan T, but honestly, I have zero anecdotal evidence to support the claim that most of America shares his views.

  3. The New Yorker had a great article about the Dystopians who take glee in predicting devolution through peak oil, peak soil, etc. It’s a pretty narrow and cynical outlook. McCarthy’s book The Road is altogether different. Everyone should read it, especially our leaders. It’s set in a post nuclear world, and not a shred of life other than man can be found–the waters are gray and dead, land gray and dead, skies gray and dead, etc. For me it had the effect of making THIS world feel intensely precious–the blue sky, sunlight, birds, trees (and civil human interaction–no cannibalism here!)–all were miraculous, and so fragile. Not sure what my point is, other than of course, we need to garden.

  4. Here, Here! I second or third the notion that we aren’t devolving but evolving when we turn our largely unused suburban yards into interactive and beautiful gardens that feed both our bodies and our souls.

    BTW, I’ve read The Road and it was so dark and with no happiness or hope at all that I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who takes mood enhancers by prescription! However, I liked it. 😉

  5. As one of the un-evolved (I always grew some backyard food), am I now the top of the devolutionary ladder? Do we get valet parking with that?

  6. “De-evolving” only to the eyes of people confined to concrete mega cities! There are 49 other states outside of New York and in some of them a backyard food garden is the norm. People just need to get out more.

  7. This simply reminds me of an attitude that certain “work”, even pleasurable work, is an act of devolution. Meaning that evolution (however wrongly applied) is marked by changing work habits -off the land, away from resources and into the office or machine. Reminds me of a college friend who saw me changing my own motor oil. He thought I should be aware that I could get off my back and get this work done for $15 by someone else, someone less evolved I suppose. If I display a lawn ornament like a tractor or wheelbarrow, or old plough (plow?), I’m telling the world where I came from-how I evolved from that landscape of work to the middle-class ecstasy of pleasure or recreational landscapes (read skiing, golf, sunbathing, etc.) I wonder if that is what Dan T really meant. Devolution poorly used. As for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, that’s more than devolution, thats horror.

  8. I’m with John. People need to get out more. Even though we continue to lose family farms in Wisconsin, people farm and garden everywhere in the state. I live in a gonzo garden town with veggies growing in plenty of front yards. We’ve put in over 200 trees and shrubs on our 1/2 acre so there’s not much sun left. But two neighbors (both retired) have amazing veggie gardens. One man grows things the neighbors like, but that he doesn’t eat. He just calls me over when the French Breakfast radishes are ready!

  9. I should think any neighbor’s negative opinion of backyard food growing falls away when they are offered a basket of surplus tomatoes or zucchini or lettuces for free! There must be escalating awareness out there that growing one’s own vegetables, pleasurable or not, is a wonderful way to save money while eating well.

    I bought a flat of six tomato plants last spring for $2. Three of them thrived beautifully and yielded what must have been at least $30 or $40 worth of tomatoes. Pretty good return.

  10. It is my goal to turn my lot into a Path To Freedom style garden. If I don’t grow most of my own food I’ll be stuck eating the overpriced rotten produce from the grocery store. We are so far from everywhere that by the time the stuff gets to us it is usually on it’s last legs.

    So I much prefer picking fresh fruits and veg from my garden.

  11. This makes me think, somehow, of a great article in Harper’s a couple of years back about Detroit as an analogy for a new Arcadia kinda thing. With so much abandonned real estate, it sounds like, even in some core parts of the city, people are reclaiming land to grow their own. It’s a harsh and sad way to get our little ‘correction’ but no, this is not ‘devolution’.

  12. You touched a nerve with this one, Michelle! A little more devolution is a good thing, if that’s the case. Others have said it brilliantly–people need to get out more. But since some are terrified of ‘bugs’, think that soil is full of ‘germs’ (and bugs, of course), and shudder at the thought of getting their Manolo BLAHniks dirty…I guess we’ll always have critics like that among us. Maybe they’ll be the first to disappear as we ‘devolve.’ We can but hope.

  13. Dan T sounds a lot like my brother-in-law. He has this sneering attitude towards people who grow vegetables in their front yard. He thinks only uneducated, poor people do such things and that front lawns are meant only for showcasing the house. I actually find a few veggies grown in the front yard charming. I’m actually going to plant mostly perennial herbs in my front yard and treat them as landscape plants, as my current herb garden location is anything but convenient to the kitchen.

    Dan T is probably influenced by the attitude of “growing your own vegetables means you’re too poor to buy them at the market.” Also, it may be a cultural thing where his mother had a victory garden, so growing one’s own veggies reminds them of hardship and rationing. Whatever his rationale, it won’t stop me from growing my own fruits & veggies.

  14. frank @nyc, I’m with you. I had college roommates who thought I was insane for building by own dorm furniture in the parking lot. Now, I’m seeing a lot of people my age (33) and younger absolutely fascinated with learning to DO stuff. It’s why garden coaching is gaining more popularity, sure, but at an even more basic level I have friends asking if they can come help (ok, watch and hand me tools) while I do carpentry and masonry projects on the house. They have no idea where to even begin with these tasks, but they WANT to learn.

    Everyone gardens for food for their own reasons. Maybe it’s to save money, or to eat better, for exercise, or as a way to put a little less into The System. The end result seems to have a lot more positives than negatives, in my opinion. But I suppose to some people that’s just “different” and therefore weird.

  15. I’m a gardener by profession and have a vegetable garden so I’m on the side of ” woo hoo for home veggie gardens”.

    But I can understand Dan T’s perspective if he perceives the notion that the individual home grown vegetable garden is the only viable economic option for people to attain their food source.
    He mentions his neighbors losing their jobs , as in the devolvement of income , which can be translated into no money available to feed your family with.

    He views the vegetable garden as a mode of survival while others who are not besieged by impending poverty are happily puttering around in their summer time vegetable gardens.
    These happy gardeners do not HAVE to garden for their survival in contrast to those who NEED to.
    Dan T’s poignant comment is on the state of our poor economy not on the matter of hobby backyard vegetable gardening.

  16. Maybe my neighbors won’t freak out when I start digging up my entire yard (back and front) for veggies. I already “reclaimed” half of each for flowers. The “devolution” will be complete this summer! I am writing about it on the blog! Should be fun!

  17. Michelle D., you’re absolutely right–Dan T is referring to his neighbors who seem to be gardening out of economic necessity.

    I’m just reacting to the idea that this is a step backwards. I’d call it something else–wising up. Supermarket food is both expensive and sucky. I save at least $3000 on my grocery bill every year by growing my own vegetables. I could afford not to grow them, but then I’d have to give something else up.

  18. Right on, Michelle…

    ‘Primitive’ might also be considered in a positive sense. Modern society has stripped much of what is real and necessary to the human experience.

  19. Even this morning before I read the NYT article and Dan T’s comment, the term Devolution struck me the same way both times. This is more about specialization than a critique of vegetable gardening.

    As society got more and more wealthy, the tasks people did became more and more specific and limited. You made money at what you did and paid someone else to do everything else.

    The tragic collapse of the economy means you can’t be that specialized anymore. You might just have to learn how to DIY. This trend back to more generalized skills is a devolution from the ever increasing cultural specializtion.

    That also might mean we can’t just throw things away and go buy a new one anymore.

  20. “what are we going to do to get rid of this general impression here in our great nation that gardening is primitive and unlovely”

    Another thought in regard to this is more suburban people will turn to vegetable gardening first to try and save money, not despite it being dirty, primative work, but because they think it is EASY. All I have to do is plant it, then harvest the food. I think a lot of them will be disappointed when they realize it requires a certain set of skills to achieve optimum results.

  21. I garden because I enjoy it. I grew up with my Mom’s Victory Garden that we had to have. It also brought her much joy. After she passed (at 46), I let the land go for years. I would try, but would not commit the time and let the weeds take over. Today, I have a few raised beds and some larger areas for potatoes, squashes, etc. If I had the time, I would devote the entire acre (including in front of the house!) to gardens. To me, it just feels right to grow my own.

  22. As a Garden Coach, if this is devolution, then I’m profiting from it already! I received an e-mail to day from a client who wants to turn her backyard in to a veggie garden.
    In a month I will be teaching a class titled “Blending Edibles In With Your Ornamentals”. It’s one of the most popular so far!
    What will Dan T think when the White House is eating homegrown veggies?
    Like it or not, those gardening elites out there will be paying while we are feasting!

  23. Anyone who thinks growing food in the back yard is devolution is an a%*hole.

    Then of course gardning involoves growing herbs you read about in some self help book for their medicinal traits without knowing what the hell your’e talking about.

    Heirloooms? Isn’t that what the hired help picks from the garden for the fancy dinner this evening?

    But growing your own food? How third world.

    The (sow it, grow it, eat it) TROLL

  24. Remember the horror in Rhett’s eyes as he looked down at Scarlet’s hands?

    Oh yes, I have been “dissed” for growing veggies (Can’t she just buy them?) and remember the looks I got loosening cement-like soil in street tree beds with a pick-axe (and trowel) “in public” – and even being look down on by guys pushing shopping carts overflowing with cans as I planted annual in the corners far from the trees roots!

    In the 90’s, a NYC Councilmember called me a racist for speaking out in support of saving a fabulous community garden just south of 125th Street in his district. I was, in his words, “keeping his people down.” Whoa Buddy! These were MY people – fellow community gardeners that fought to save (thankfully) many gardens! Of course he had never visited their most beautiful, productive, community-active garden! Jerk.

    It is only our examples of success that will turn it around.

  25. That seems to be right up there with drying clothes on the line, which is ILLEGAL in many places in this country, though starting to come back into fashion. I do believe people in Europe never stopped. Stuff just smells better when it’s been out in the sun. (That said, in winter a dryer is a nice thing…)

  26. I’m glad to read your discussion of this because the grow-your-own thinking is slowly taking hold in Ann Arbor but is running up against the zoning question. Recently the city council very reluctantly passed an ordinance to allow backyard chickens, highly restrictive. In the past, people were ticketed for growing flowers in lawn extensions, but that seems to have been largely resolved. I’ll be interested to see how the first case of a neighbor complaining about a full-out vegetable garden (not landscaped) in a front yard is handled.

  27. I think people like Dan T need to know a few more people like us. While perhaps skeptical at first, my neighbors are in constant amazement of my urban vegetable plot and have even moved to create their own! Keep up the good work, everyone!

  28. I garden, cook, clean, knit, sew and bicycle for fun. Well, the cleaning is more of a chore – the point is though, I do enjoy these things, and I even have a few more hobbies. I guess that makes me a full on Neanderthal.

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