Adrian Higgins, Why So Bitter?


We love Washington Post garden writer Adrian Higgins.  But we really don't see the point of this letter to Michelle Obama, warning her of the many things that can go wrong with a Washington, DC vegetable garden.

Many things can go wrong crossing the street in Washington, DC, too, but that doesn't mean everyone ought to sit huddled in the house instead.

I've never gardened in any city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm, but I have gardened in a city.  And my experience of it is, way fewer pests than in the country.  Unless you count passers-by offering you criticism as you work.  Or reporters taking offense at your optimism.

The best way to deal with pests and diseases in the vegetable garden is to plant a diversity of crops and shrug off the ones that don't do well.  As long as the soil is good, you will still get an outrageous bounty of food, no matter what.

And condescendingly directing Mrs. Obama to the nearest Whole Foods at the end of your letter–is this what you really mean, Adrian?  That gardening is best left to the professionals because it's too hard for amateurs? 

This is the same tired point of view we've all been spoonfed for the last 60 years, ever since World War II ended. It's been good for Scotts Miracle-Gro and Monsanto, but lousy for the environment, for our bodies, and for our spirits.  And I count myself as living proof that it is entirely untrue.

I say, go for it Michelle!  You and your husband have already proven the pessimists wrong once and showed us that we live in a far better country than we thought.  I have faith that you can do the same thing again in the garden.


  1. Uh, I think the point of it was to make a joke, and to whine, as we all do about the challenges that accompany the joy of gardening wherever we do.

  2. This is an example of people, who feel that their little hobby has now been invaded by people hooked on the latest fad. Mr. Higgins, who must be a gardener since he is a garden writer, must feel that his secure little world of gardening which has been mostly ignored by the general population and know nothing of it except for lawn care, had been swamped with so many newbies with obviously stupid question that are so simple to answer, he can’t be bothered. Perhaps he doesn’t want to deal with a personal call from the President’s wife at 10 o’clock at night asking “I’m trying to get rid of slugs in the garden. I forget, do I put apple cider or beer in my slug trap?”

    Better yet, why not propose to Mr. Higgins that eating fresh veggies is pointless and why not eat all our food in pill form since going to Whole Foods is a meaningless exercise in healthy living as is growing your own food.

  3. Oh My Gosh – talk about no sense of humour!!!!

    I thought it was a HILARIOUS column, full of situations we have all encountered but told in such an exaggerated way (tomato horn worms the size of hamsters!) it made me laugh out loud!

    I seriously doubt it was intended to deter Mrs. Obama or others from gardening but rather provide some insights, told in a light-hearted way, about the challenges she may encounter.

  4. Agreed. I think his article is needlessly cantankerous. The odds of the White House garden having ALL of the problems he mentioned are pretty low. Yes, sometimes things go wrong in the garden, but I’d rather be optimistic and suffer the occasional disappointment than pessimistic and not try at all.

    Also, as to Elizabeth’s comment, I totally agree. I really don’t understand people who want to keep gardening as their own little fiefdom. I would be THRILLED if more people started gardening – then I’d have more people to chat about it with!

  5. While I do think Adrian went overboard, my impression is that he is trying to inject some reality into all of the glowing, romantic press focused on veg gardens–even right here on GardenRant, for example.

    Don’t those gorgeous photos of Rosalind Creasy’s a few posts ago kind of go against the manifesto that states: “We Are:…Bored with perfect magazine gardens. In love with real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden gardens.” That was my first impression when I saw those post.

    Yes, growing veg can definitely be part of a beautiful garden, but in my experience with veg growing, those gorgeous photos do not accurately illustrate what veg gardens look like for large chunks of the season–especially right after a major harvesting of the bounty–and when one must use cloth covers/netting to keep pests from attacking.

    I don’t think Adrian is bitter or trying to discourage Michelle or new gardeners trying veg for the first time…I think he’s trying to be cute while alerting her and others that one must prepare for the onslaught of pests that arrives in every vegetable garden. I do think he should have been more responsible, however…and offered up more defensive tips and advice. He was a little too heavy handed with the negatives, in my opinion.

  6. My goodness! I’m sure that she was just trying to be humorous… but it was a bit overdone!

    No one’s garden turns out quite like they had hoped (but sometimes it’s better!:)

    MY garden is the finest in the World…

    in February… in my head:)

    It doesn’t matter that some things don’t work out; the journey itself is a great part of the process (and all of those vegetables are icing on the cake:)

  7. My, my, someone got out of bed on the wrong side today.
    I read the letter in much the same way as Chris M. above- a humorous way to give a new gardener advice.

  8. Michele, I think you ought to read it again. It didn’t sound bitter to me, more of a tongue-in-cheek way to describe some of the frustrations that vegetable gardeners deal with. I’ve been growing produce for some years now at a busy intersection about 1 mile from the White House. We’ve never been plagued with pests and we can’t hardly eat all the food we grow. We’re still working on last year’s pickles and canned good. You are correct that gardening in an isolated setting such as mine (and the Obamas) means fewer pests. I’ve never had any, unless you count the harlequin beetles that like to swarm over swooning Brussels sprouts plants. But Washington does get hot. Seven years ago, it was 92 degrees on April 16. Not good for spinach and other cool-weather vegetables. But for that we have huge crops of hot weather varieties like okra, tomatoes,pole beans, peppers, eggplant. And tons of salads on either end of the season. Tomatoes always want to wilt. But my Cherokee purples are never phased. Choose resistant varieties. Michelle Obama should do just fine.

  9. Ed, I don’t care how hilarious the piece was. I am simply weary of the point of view–and really expect better from a long-time garden writer. The fact that you are getting so much beautiful food in DC proves that it can be done.

    We should be telling beginners that it can be done. Not discouraging them for the comedy.

  10. It’s interesting how we all interpret the same article in such different ways. To me, it was humorous and a way of saying “Welcome to our gardening world!”

    The references to the challenges were just illustrations of the “new and exciting” adventures in the garden that the First Lady may encounter. I don’t see any harm intended or discouragement for that matter.


  11. And George Will would caution Michelle against wearing jeans in her garden, since she isn’t panning for gold or busting cows.

  12. Shirley, you are a gardener, so you know that growing vegetables is not just a series of rolling disasters.

    But would-be gardeners do not know this. And they get enough discouragement from the culture at large as it is.

    If I were considering my first vegetable garden, I’d read that piece and think, “What a stupid idea. I’ll go back to scrapbooking instead.”

  13. Wait! Apparently I’m not done yet. That piece bothered me because it was clearly inaccurate!

    In a 100 word comment, Ed Bruske offers a more complete and balanced picture of the DC garden.

    If you are going to be funny, you’d better be true, too. And if you only discuss the frustrations of vegetable gardening without suggesting the delights–or even the simple fact that many problems are fixable–you are simply being unfair to the subject.

  14. I think you’re underestimating the intelligence and determination of “would-be gardeners.” One tongue in cheek newspaper column is, in my opinion, unlikely to sway anyone determined to make a go of it, and does nothing to sully your garden manifesto, especially since you are “In love with real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, BUG-RIDDEN gardens.”

  15. I disagree with those who say this wouldn’t turn off a new gardener. I run a community garden in an urban setting, the newbie gardeners are so easy to lose, mostly because they are afraid they won’t do it “right” Only those with gardening experience with all or some of these issues might find it funny (although I found it appalling).

    Plus, phytopthora is spelled incorrectly in the article.

  16. I thought Adrian was overly patronizing. He may know a lot about gardening, but his British humor falls flat. I personally think we gardeners have an obgligation to bring as many people into the fold as possible. Gardening can be trying as we all find out sooner or later, but let folks find out for themselves and don’t send them to a grocery store as an alternative.

  17. Any gardener, potential or otherwise, who would allow an article such as this to either discourage them or infuriate them should probably
    (1)-Hire a gardener/ find a farmer’s market
    (2)-Take a pill and a few deep breaths.
    Gosh, lighten up, people.

  18. I don’t know what that style of article is called, but I don’t like it. I see it a lot and never finish the reading because it isn’t my cup of tea. I guess some people find it funny or clever, I find it overdrawn and sort of one-note repeated over and over. Not very inspiring, entertaining or informational. I doubt that many people will feel one way or the other about it. It kinda irks me that way a lot of writers are talking down to the first lady like she is completely clueless about things outside the whitehouse. Isn’t this woman a lawyer? didn’t she go to school? doesn’t she read? doesn’t she have friends and family members that she talks to? I can’t imagine that she has come this far and has never planted one seed or nurtured one potted plant before.

  19. i was stunned by the article. at first i was thrilled that he was writing about the white house garden, but don’t have any idea why he’d aim to squish it like an unwanted slug. maybe it was intended as tongue in cheek?

  20. I thought the article was funny. Anyone who would be deterred from trying a garden because of this clearly exaggerated advice would probably quit after a first disappointing season.

    If you’ve never had a disappointing season, you must
    be a magical being without the recent record droughts or other surprises we’ve seen recently. To me it was just a humorous way to point out that with all its joys gardening is also about persevering.

  21. Eh–this sort of patronizing, snarky attitude is rife in the WaPo. That’s one reason I canceled my subscription last month.

  22. I’d like to see Mr. Higgens do a piece on the futility of seeking peace in the Middle East, or how pointless it is to try to reinvigorate the economy, or how many unseen factors might hinder the admin’s work toward healthcare reform.

    Yes, Adrian, all these things are hard, and fraught with peril, almost as hard as growing a decent tomato in the San Francisco fog. Evil, unknown diseases and insects are hiding in crevices and ready to overtake our sincere, earnest efforts at anything we attempt to do, on any day. Why bother to get up in the morning?

    But I have a feeling that Michelle, like her husband, has heard before, in relation to many things, that she cannot do it. I think she can. And so does she.

    Gardens are for everyone, Adrian! And Michelle Obama is doing important work teaching new gardeners that it’s ok to dig in and try! I suggest you roll up your sleeves, get on down to the White House, and help out. If you can’t do that, keep the hand-wringing to yourself.

  23. I thought it was very tongue in cheek & humorous, but rather too long with the litany. Needed a touch of humor along the lines of too many zucchini or something to balance it out.

  24. While reading that I was waiting for the locust to appear and for him to suggest Michelle would lose her first born unless she smeared slug slime across the entrance to the vegetable patch on the full moon of the summer solstice.

    It is a wonder there is any produce in a grocery store at all after battling all that. An even worse thought that came to mind is the vast amounts of “crop protection products” modern petro-chemically addicted farmers would use to ward off these plagues. Growing vegetables is so difficult we should leave it to the MACA’s and their magical potions? I don’t think so.

    Adrian, there are no plagues. Let the people grow.

  25. I’m bitter. Clogged streets leading the way to chain stores
    where the big wigs are liars.
    They lie to make a buck and if people want to buy it why should I complain?

  26. Give em 4 years probation. They’re a pretty couple like the Clinton’s.
    I’m not looking in their back yard.

  27. I vote this posting, and the resulting comments, as the all-time oddest of GR’s posts. It’s like no one is on the same page. I can’t decide if that means Higgins failed miserably or succeeded wildly by causing so much disjointed conversation.

  28. Funny: Sounds to me exactly like the negative kind of rant that you do — why don’t you like it when someone else does it? Same spot problem?


  29. Oh, for heaven’s sake! He was trying to be FUNNY! And, at least for me, he was funny. No-one believes in caterpillars as big as hamsters, no-one believes in all these exaggerated disasters, and surely someone among you has told your own stories of catastrophes in the garden and embroidered a little, just for fun.

    Anyone ever heard Flanders & Swann’s Song of the Seasons:

    January brings the snow
    Makes your feet and fingers glow
    February’s Ice and sleet
    Freeze the toes right off your feet
    Welcome March with wintry wind
    Would thou wer’t not so unkind
    April brings the sweet spring showers
    On and on for hours and hours
    Farmers fear unkindly May
    Frost by night and hail by day
    June just rains and never stops
    Thirty days and spoils the crops
    In July the sun is hot
    Is it shining? No, it’s not
    August cold, and dank, and wet
    Brings more rain than any yet
    Bleak September’s mist and mud
    Is enough to chill the blood
    Then October adds a gale
    Wind and slush and rain and hail
    Dark November brings the fog
    Should not do it to a dog
    Freezing wet December then:
    Bl**dy January again!

    Same genre of humour. I guess you either get it or you don’t!

  30. OH MY GOD! One can only imagine what you “ranters” might think about Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, or most of the works of Mark Twain. The word is satire. Read Catch 22, or watch Dr. Strangelove until you get it. The Garden is not a place to take too serious!

  31. I too thought Higgins had an extra dose of cranky in his cereal the day he wrote that column. And, yes, I’m very familiar with “the funny.” It just really wasn’t. You want funny? Go back and read some Henry Mitchell columns. Plus, if you’ve read Higgins consistently over the years both in print and on-line, you’d know that, really, he doesn’t know squat about growing edibles.

  32. This dry-humor is a matter of taste and I get it, but thought there were gaps (maybe intended) in his advice to newbie area veggie gardeners.

    HOWEVER, I spent the last 4 days at 3 different public graden events talking to thousands of DC-area gardeners. They brought the subject of Adrian’s article up to me many times over the course of those events. One older couple even came clutching it in their hands to share with me. Another lady said they read it 10 times that morning and had scrapbooked it. All were unanimous in their praise and laughter. Clearly he knows his audience.

  33. I am very grateful for the article. I was wondering what those strange brown caterpillars in my garden were. And strangely close to my cropped peas, too… Now I know that they are cutworms, and they shall no longer be suffered to live!

  34. We all pretty much agree on the damage done, intended or not. There is probably no one receiving better coaching on gardening than Michelle Obama.

    We the proponents of gardening lack a communication strategy designed to build and perpetuate our community. We tend to dwell on the details and drudgery rather than the basic joy. Rather than ambassadors of the cause we leave others to discover gardening on their own, little chance as there is. No wonder most people who garden learned to do so at the hand of a mentor whether parent, grandparent, neighbor, or other teacher who shared with us the joy they found in it.

    Whom among us has written an article about the joys of the burst of rich flavor as we bit into a tomato freshly picked from the vine? Let us share the wonder of it with those who haven’t yet discovered the joy, and then promptly shut up until we are asked for more by someone who is trying to be more successful after they have begun the journey.

    To some degree the advertisers of all the bug and disease remedies are biting the hand that feeds them. Maybe they could just help the retailers sell the plants and seeds and LATER, reap the harvest of selling their product. That’s called sequential disclosure: Joy of gardening first, then the joy of protecting the fruits of our labor from the predators.

  35. I think that even though this article was meant to be humorous, the general public wont pick up on this variety of humor. The positive side of the White House veggie garden is that more people are growing veggie beds! Woot

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