Just What is the Definition of Gardening?


A guest rant by Tom Alexander

A good friend and best selling author on marijuana cultivation
recently submitted his books to the Garden Writers Association for their annual
Quill & Trowel awards.

At first he was told his works wouldn’t be considered for the
awards because the judges didn’t consider them to be “gardening.” Then he
received word that his works would be considered but “the judges had a
significant difference of opinion as to whether the subject matter was
gardening. Lacking a specific definition of gardening, which will be resolved
later, the group accepted your entries for review and judging.” To say the
judges were prejudiced and his chances at an award were next to zero would be
an understatement.

Obviously, there is going on behind the scenes at the GWA a
discussion as to just what defines gardening. I would submit that even though
marijuana is illegal (for a few more months at least in California),
cultivating the plant is gardening (or farming in the larger plots.) Many marijuana
gardeners have researched breeding and cultivation techniques that are way
beyond anything that many land grant universities are doing, both in soil and

Even though the plant is considered a weed, it needs a good
growing medium, lots of nutrients and water. It needs pruning to bush out for
maximum yields. It needs close attention, especially indoors for pests such as
white flies, aphids and spider mites. Gardeners also have to pay attention to
when the flower buds are at their maximum ripeness just like vegetables and
other flowers. In short, it needs a human to attend to its needs. To me that is
the definition of gardening: plants needing humans to survive and flourish.

In the gardening world, many times there is an elitism that is
sort of inherent in the plants and kind of garden a gardener grows. Those that
don’t know the latin names of every plant turn their nose up at those that do.
Those that like fancy flower gardens with a feng shui design, look down at
those who garden in more of a disorderly kung fu design. Vegetable gardeners
think their gardens are better than flower gardeners. Container gardeners
choose the beauty and art of the container over growing in soil. And vice versa
in many of those examples.

Now we have the non marijuana gardeners considering marijuana
growers as not gardeners at all.

Gardening is much like obscenity. You know it when you see it.
For me, the definition of gardening should be the planting, tending,
cultivation and care of a plant; any and all plants, including marijuana. Just
because it is for now, an illegal plant, doesn’t exclude it from being grown
and considered gardening. Moral and personal judgements shouldn’t come into
play as to what is gardening. In fact it is much more difficult to garden
marijuana because the gardener has to worry about the garden getting stolen by
thieves or confiscated by law enforcement. Most gardeners don’t have to worry
about those two reasons for crop failure in their gardens.

Tom Alexander has been a gardening publisher since 1980. His
blog, GrowingEdge.com covers all aspects of sustainable, organic and
non-genetically modified legal gardening and farming in soil, hydroponically,
aquaponically and in greenhouses. In September he also is reviving his
marijuana information blog, SinsemillaTips.com . Follow him on Twitter
@thegrowingedge .

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at yahoo.com


  1. So if I am cultivating poppies in Afghanistan in my organic second floor deck in self watering pots that is not gardening?

    Or does gardening end when the black helicopters show up at my door.


    Does dusting off my silk ficus count as gardening because it is eco-friendly requiring no water and no fertilizer.

    A new can of worms has been opened. Instead of arguing about it let’s go fishing!

  2. What is gardening then? People who plant gaudy annuals in circular swaths that are overwatered, overfertilized? People who buy whatever is pretty at the big box and plop them into the ground? I think it runs both ways, and I would consider the marijuana grower MORE of a gardener than the previous two since they require a knowledge of biology and chemistry and understanding the plant than aforementioned ‘plant enthusiasts’.
    I very much dislike garden elitism in this sense. Maybe it is because it is sometimes running parallel to socio-economic and political lines. I personally know how I would fix the gardens of everyone of my neighbors around me to suit my tastes, but would never dream of enforcing that on anybody but myself, much less telling them that they are not actually “gardening”.
    We actually owe quite a bit of thanks to the marijuana growing industry for their advances in hydroponics, lighting, plant genetics, and hormones. They have created a market for these items, and have made these available for the non-marijuana growing gardener as well.

  3. The following was my comment made at my last post titled, “Where is the Passion.” http://thegoldengecko.com/blog/?p=912

    “We have been talking about how the nursery business has completely ignored the innovation and enthusiasm that is evident in the hydroponic community. As many of you know we have talked before on how the hydroponic community has basically taken a lot of the younger crowd’s garden business. We have ignored it because of the 500lb gorilla in the corner, WHAT this hydroponic equipment is being used for by this younger generation! That does not mean we can’t take the ideas and enthusiasm this segment has and use it our business.”

    “I have garden club member’s buying T5 florescent lights instead of building a greenhouse, starting their seedlings in rock wool cubes, using Smart Pots, etc. There is HUGE innovation happening in the hydroponic and indoors growing community that is being completely missed by conventional garden centers because of that gorilla.”

    “A friend in the garden center business in Houston told me a year or so ago that he did not think there where any hydroponic stores in Houston. This man is connected and owner of a successful garden center. After talking to his kids he found out that maybe there we’re a couple in Houston. I did a check; there are six hydroponic stores in the area!”

    “Look outside the traditional avenues for the most innovation! Change comes from the edges, and unless we visit the edge once and a while we never grow.”

    Everywhere is different, and the above comes from the view here in northern California. It may be quite different elsewhere, but to ignore this aspect of horticulture is turning a blind eye to the fasted growing, most innovative, passionate segment of gardening around here.

  4. GWA probably relented due to thoughts of a lawsuit.

    I’m careful with usage of garden design vs. landscape design.

    Why? A potential client called, & I sailed along using ‘garden design’. He finally said he wasn’t interested in me designing a vegetable patch.

    Point taken. Not everyone thinks ‘garden’ includes ornamental horticultue (trees, shrubs & etc.)

    Thanks for your post Tom.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  5. My simple explanation of gardening is growing things outside. When I move some of my pots inside for the winter, I switch to, well, messing around with houseplants to get me through until I can go back outside and garden. Logical? No.

  6. “Obviously, there is going on behind the scenes at the GWA a discussion as to just what defines gardening.”

    uh, I doubt it. Obviously what was going on behind the scenes at GWA was a discussion over the acknowledgement of homegrown pot. They were squirming over the politics of the issue. Since you have to pay to submit I wouldn’t waste my time with their approval.

    Gardeners don’t want any organization defining what gardening is. It is what it is.

    I predict the first university horticulture department to offer courses in indoor crop culture (tailored to marijuana growing) will have a landslide of students from far and wide and be the only school without financial problems due to all the out-of-state tuition money coming in.

  7. The upcoming referendum on legalizing marijuana growing here in California may nor go quite the way people expect. According to the law, if passed you would be allowed to grow a 5X5 plot of marijuana in your yard. The law stipulates that while this would be legal throughout the state, municipalities would be free to add their own set of rules. The city of Rancho Cordova, just a few miles from here plans on instituting a $600 tax on every square foot you cultivate. If you use the whole 5X5 area you will be taxed $15,000 a year. http://www.sacbee.com/2010/08/29/2990210/rancho-cordova-asking-voters-to.html

    I wonder if this is what everyone who has been saying, “legalize it then tax it” had in mind? Why can a person brew 200 gal of wine tax free, but not grow marijuana tax free?

  8. Agreed. The GWA objected because of law concerns, not over a definition. To endorse a book that condones an illegal activity in the other 49 states would be unconscionable. They chose a polite but condescending escape route.

    Of course he is gardening, but your friend obviously knew going in that this would happen and was spoiling for a fight.

  9. Interesting.

    I admit, I traditionally do a little eyeroll when I’m browsing for garden books and keep finding “Grow Your Own Marijuana” books taking valuable shelf space. But I can’t really argue that it’s growing a plant, all right.

    I guess it’s the…mm…single-mindedness that irks me. My ex-husband grew pot in the closet in college. He was certainly intent on it. He also had no interest in growing any other plant whatsoever. Whereas I am a gardener, and I grow all kinds of stuff, and I find new plants very exciting.

    I think I would be happy to call him a farmer (or ex-farmer, now.) He had a crop. His crop was very important, but I think there’s a difference–and I grant it may be a small technical one that occurs only in my head–between growing a crop and having a garden.

  10. Wow. I guess I’m more generous than most when it comes to a definition of gardening. To me gardening is the art and science of growing plants. I include my vegetable patch, my perennials, my houseplants and my planted fish tanks!

    The difference for me is good gardening vs bad gardening. I don’t like the Chemlawn but if you’re doing the work yourself it is, in my book, gardening – bad gardening because it is so bad for the environment, it’s expensive and wasteful and worst of all it’s b-o-r-i-n-g.

    PS. I really like the phrase kung fu garden design. I may have to steal, I mean borrow, that.

  11. Responding to Ursula V, if growing only one plant exempts one from being a gardener then many Tomatoe growers would be in the same catagory. Hear any complaints about books on growing tomatoes?
    Does marijuana cultivation lead to vegetables and ornamentals?

  12. I’m on board with Ursula V. Cannabis growers are farmers, not gardeners unless they’re actually growing it in a garden (and per the author’s comments, that’s just a stupid idea). A next-gen, laboratory-style hydroponic get-up is not a garden however impressive it may be.

    None of this, however, diminishes these farmers have contributed to the greater horticultural umbrella; nor do I think any more highly of gardeners than I do farmers.

  13. @ Gloria
    “Does marijuana cultivation lead to vegetables and ornamentals?”

    In some cases, yes. It’s a gateway plant. 😉

  14. From the original Rant:

    “In the gardening world, many times there is an elitism that is sort of inherent in the plants and kind of garden a gardener grows.”

    I saw plenty of this in the subsequent comments… Its easy to look down your nose at your neighbor, isn’t it. Been There

  15. Great Rant!!! I live in PA, where, to the best of my knowledge, growing marijuana is illegal. Yet my local Borders store has 3 shelves of books on the proper cultivation of cannibis. And this is in a store that only has about a dozen narrow shelves of gardening books to begin with.

    Obviously Borders considers marijuana growing to be gardening, since that’s where they are shelving their books.

    I’m going to have to check our public library, see what the verdict is there.

    Seriously GWA, regardless of the legality, if you are cultivating a plant, it’s gardening. It doesn’t matter if it’s considered a weed (dandelion greens?) or it’s legal or illegal, if you are caring for it, it’s gardening.

  16. I would think a decent definition of gardening would be this : “the care and cultivation of plants, the purpose of which may be aesthetic, medicinal, or culinary”. Of course scale & goal is important, too, but that just switches the discussion from gardening to farming, IMO. If the case is the GWA doesn’t want to get their hands messy with a book focused on an illegal crop – well, what’s the worst that could happen ? They aren’t advocating the cultivation of marijuana just by accepting the entry. It should be looked at for its merits as a guide to growing a specific plant in a specific way. I mean, how many books are out there focused on growing a single genus or species, or using just one method ?

    And Trey, I think Rancho is simply trying to get ahead of other cities in controlling what they see as a potential jump in marijuana gardens. Tax the heck out of it – and if growers don’t pay up, they can seize the crop ( and it’s another fine to tack on if the referendum doesn’t pass but the pot-tax does). Win-win, in their eyes. Seems silly to me. Unless they can prove it’s not for household consumption, it shouldn’t be taxed (just like homemade wine & beer). Soon as money starts changing hands, though, tax it similar to alcohol & tobacco.

  17. Several pot growing operations have been raided in the southern desert mountain regions in Utah and Arizona. I’m always impressed at the sophistication of these farms and the size and vigor of the plants that are hauled out of some of the most inhospitable growing regions in the country. That does not mean that we should hold up these growers as bastions of master gardening and pioneers of the hort industry.
    Sure, your red-leafed marijuana plant is beautiful and garden worthy. Peyote cactus is also a fascinating and beautiful plant which is difficult to grow. You can grow a myriad of poisonous plants in your garden as ornamentals that would drop an elephant, as the illustrious Ms. Stewart has pointed out. If it turned out that a majority of people were using their castor beans plant to make ricin, as someone in Las Vegas did a couple of years ago, I would expect it to end up on a banned plant list in some states and where it wasn’t, growing that plant would be frowned upon. It’s all about intent. You are still growing a plant that is a narcotic and that has moral implications, whether you accept that or not.

  18. If the GWA’s going to reject a book about growing marijuana, they need to reject books that talk about growing opium poppies, too. And I have some lovely books about cottage gardening, heirloom flower growing, poppies in all their forms, etc. that discuss Papaver somniferum, which is every bit as illegal as cannabis to grow. (Only the seeds are legal–the minute you germinate them, you’re an outlaw. Technically.)

  19. Just grow a cute fine textured groundcover and whamo, a beautiful garden. It has the most beautiful texture. People down south get all excited when they walk into our garden and see Vitex agnus-castus lurking in the confines. We are surely growing something that we shouldn’t. What will those gardeners think of growing next!

  20. Technically, Papaver sominferum is a banned plant on the FDA list. They just haven’t prosecuted people for growing it as they haven’t had enough people converting it to opium, I guess. You can be if they came across large poppy fields they would be destroyed.

  21. Kaviani, would you call someone with a greenhouse full of orchids a gardener? I would. I fail to see the difference between that and someone with a room full of pot plants and gro-lights (legal issues aside). Defining gardening in any but the loosest terms possible is a bad idea.

    I recently spotted an apartment window with a grow light and what appeared to be a very healthy cannabis plant. I’ll take growing tips from this or any other “gardener” who cares to share how they get such vigorous growth.

  22. Great post. I agree that the GWA controversy has more to do with the legal aspects of what the pot is grown for than the gardening aspect of it. A book about growing a yard full of dahlias or irises, or a greenhouse of orchids, would not raise an eyebrow.

    Growing marijuana is already legal, at least in Oregon, for licensed medical marijuana users (indeed, in this state, they can’t legally procure pot except by growing it, or having someone who is licensed grow it for them). So these folks definitely benefit from sharing knowledge, and evaluating books, blogs and other forms of writing about growing marijuana is useful.

    It also seems to me that there are 2 things being considered here; one is the growing of plants by humans, the other is how humans are using the plants they grow.

    As for gardening vs. farming, as both a private gardener and a commercial farmer, I know the difference between the 2 activities, but am loathe to draw the line really. The biggest difference to me (besides the size of the plots, fields or blocks) is that I make money (a living, sometimes!) from farming, which also demands specific tasks from me at certain times, while gardening I can do in my own sweet time in my own sweet way (making as many mistakes as I want), and derive only personal satisfaction (and some great meals) from. But I’m not against someone making a little cash at the farmer’s market from their garden, and there are times I also feel pressured to weed, water and prune in a timely manner in my garden, for example.

    Lots to think about! thank you!

  23. Oh, and I forgot another difference about farming vs. gardening: Having to deal with all the regulatory crap and record-keeping! I can do anything in my garden I want with no one looking over my shoulder.

  24. Seems to me those enthusiastic growers of marijuana are farming, rather than gardening. But…push come to shove, I’d have great difficulty putting into words just exactly how they are different.

  25. Hi-Ya!! (Fast kick by a Ninja weed.) The weeds are kung-fu fighting here, and the wild flowers are having opium parties with poppy seeds all in my backyard…(Don’t tell anyone.)

    I consider a person to be gardener whether he/she is growing one marijuana plant or has a whole yard full of ornamentals.

    My daughter’s boyfriend works in one of the two hydroponic stores here in Austin, and they get all kinds of customers…Those who are probably growing pot and little old ladies growing African violets.

    Even one of the professors from the school where I work purchased supplies for a school plant project from the hydroponics store.

    Maybe I should suggest a course on horticulture hydroponics to boost our budget?

  26. Is that what marijuana looks like? I never pictured it like that, almost a topiary with purplish leaves jutting out everywhere.

  27. My mother had this plant appear in her garden and she liked it so much, she cultivated it back when I was a kid in the 70s. Well, my brother threw a bunch of his pot seeds out the window and apparently one of them landed there.

    My father saw the plant, and told my mother to destroy it – NOW! When she found out what it is, she said something I still chuckle at and agree with:

    “That’s such a shame it is illegal, it’s such a beautiful plant!”

  28. Susan in the Pink Hat,

    You are comparing marijuana to ricin?


    That’s like comparing a martini to a Molotov cocktail….

  29. Yeah, the ricin comparison is a bit extreme. Amy’s comparison to opium is better. I was a bit stuck on theRicinus since the palmate leaves of marijuana plant feature vaguely reminded me of Castor Bean plant.

  30. A long time ago I had friends who were way into growing their own weed. They were what I would consider to be beyond “master gardeners” to the point of botanists. They spoke about growing in a language that was quite technical rattling off terms about breeding, x, y, generations, etc.

    While their gardens were a bit different than most because they were tucked away in the hills, they still had mad gardening skills to produce beautiful flowers from their plants which are not weeds. A weed is a plant that is growing where it’s not wanted. It takes gardening skills to grow top grade, healthy, insect and disease free drug cannabis.

    Growing weed is often refered to as cultivation or growing which actually make them more like farmers as they do grow a cash crop. Regardless, a plot, farm, or garden seems to imply the size of the area used.

    With the advances that gardeners and scientists have made in marijuana cultivation in the past few years, I don’t see how it would not be considered a garden plant.

  31. The people in medical marijuana states who have mj cards have integrated their plants into their property’s landscape. The plant looks a lot like cleome but with many different cross bred sub-varieties of the three species (cannabis sativa, indica and ruderalis) that have many colors of leaves and flowering buds with plants that are small (2 or 3 ft. tall) to giant (more than 10 feet) depending on the cross breeding. I predict landscape designers will use it in many landscapes once the stupid stigma of illegality is lifted. It is truly a beautiful flowering plant. It will also be bred by seed companies as strictly a flower and to not have high THC when it is legalized. Would you grow it then?

  32. Ah, Susan, I see what you are saying.

    BTW, the house my wife and I moved into was previously owned by quite the whackjob. He didn’t like my current next-door neighbor and garden mentor (for whatever reason) and grew Castor Bean plants as a border between their yards. He also made damn sure my neighbor knew what they were.

    Needless to say, the neighborhood was happy to see him leave….

  33. In this case, I do think the distinction between farming and gardening is a meaningful one, if not particularly easy to pin down. I’d be more inclined to group a book on marijuana cultivation with agricultural literature than with horticultural works. (Unless of course the book in question was something like “Designing with Cannabis.” Does anyone do that, by the way?)And while I’m sure that political considerations were a major concern for the Garden Writers book committee, I can sympathize with their desire to arrive at some sort of definition for gardening, however inexact. Otherwise, there would be no reason to exclude books like “Culture and Diseases of the Sweet Potato,” to pick just one random example from my shelves.

  34. Wow, what a great discussion you have started here, Tom! Hard to add much to this excellent philosophical tome, except that I was struck by your comment that “Even though the plant is considered a weed…” So now we crossover into the definition of a weed, which I consider to be a plant that is growing where and when you don’t want it to. You don’t “garden” or “farm” with weeds – they don’t need our help. But can a plant requiring the type of care that a marijuana plant requires truly be considered a weed? I think not.

  35. Hi Sylvia… I called it a weed since in the midwest, hemp planted during World War II for its fiber is still growing wild in the ditches of Kansas, Missouri and other states. The plant has to be coddled every few days for maximum yield for form (shape & weight) and potency. It is interesting that the thousand (or more) of different breeds of cannabis some of the most highly potent have familiar gardening names… Blueberry or Strawberry which actually smell like those fruits.

  36. Many weeds are incorporated into gardens: Joe Pye Weed for landscape vertical height, dandelions, lambsquarters, chickweed for edible greens and ornamental grasses to name just a few.

  37. “I predict landscape designers will use it in many landscapes once the stupid stigma of illegality is lifted.” That’s a huge if, Tom. What, two states currently allow this plant to be grown under careful circumstances? If marijuana were legalized, I think there would be some pretty strict regulations about where it could be grown and by whom. I’m betting I’ll see tobacco being listed as a narcotic long before I’ll see ornamental marijuana showing up in my local Home Depot. All of this talk of growing marijuana for its botanic interest reminds me of when I was in college and the botany department finally had to eliminate peyote cactus from their collections in the dry greenhouse. It kept getting stolen.

  38. Should be fixed.

    1) It’s farming.

    2) It’s like complaining when pole dancers are refused entry in a ballet competition. “Elitism” isn’t the issue here.

  39. So Mimi, are you suggesting that in a competition for books written about dancing, a book about the finer points of pole dancing should not be considered alongside books about the finer points of ballet dancing? An interesting parallel! Because both are done for money, as well as entertainment.

    The competition in question here isn’t one of actual growing–just books about growing. The big question is about the difference between growing for personal reasons versus growing for commercial reasons; and there seems to be some debate about where to draw that line.

  40. I would venture to say that the average hydroponic/aeroponic grower has a much better grasp of the science involved in growing plants. How many gardeners know the pH of the soil they are using? A small percentage at best. Ask any hydroponic /aeroponic grower what their Ph or PPM is and they know it.

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