But Strippers Are A Hobby!


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!


  1. Maybe I’m hopelessly optimistic but I think g’ing’s coming back, with the boomer generation having the time and the huge food movement and environmental sensibility in the culture. We’re reclaiming and transforming gardening, something that has to happen for it to be really appealing again.
    This fabulous post also made me wonder – can stone walls really cost 60K? And the toilet image is a good one for gardening-as-spraying.
    And the photo is fabulous!

  2. Now, I’m not sure how to bring gardening back into vogue for the general population, but it seems to be a fairly popular pastime around Austin. There are at least three garden bloggers (myself included) in my neighborhood alone. All of my friends who actually own their homes are at least somewhat interested in gardening… and we’re in the “18-35” age group. (I also have to point out that my boss, who is a “powerful lobbyist” around the Texas Legislature, maintains his own gardens and generally avoids the local “gentlemen’s clubs.”)

  3. That is a a weighty topic, Is gardening in decline and why?

    Since I have labor issues that is where my mind tends to go. When El Presidente stands up and says “jobs that Americans are not willing to do” it may be a clue that doing physical labor in this country is looked down upon. Gardening is too low class, low status and can only be done by the help.

    The second major factor as I see it and it was mentioned by John Peter Thompson in the interview is the serious disconnect people have with nature. His diplomatic, “we find that our newer customers do not share the culture of growing or the an understanding of basic plant needs”, is an understatement. The commodification of the garden has turned things into the dreaded “plant materials” which are viewed and treated no differently than the living room sofa.

    Nature and the garden are not seen as a powerful living force but as another room to fill with status objects that needs to be kept scrubbed clean.

    Changing the psyche of a culture is a Herculean task.

  4. Reports of gardening’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Can’t give you a source, but I remember reading some time back that gardening was the foremost leisure-time activity in Canada. This doesn’t mean that most of those people are enthusiastic gardeners, but they do spend some time on it.

    Canadian Gardening ran an article a couple of years ago on the garden of a former Cabinet minister (and yes, he does the garden himself). A former leader of the opposition would prune the roses in his official residence himself as a form of relaxation.

    Anecdotal true, but it’s out there.

  5. Another thought. The demise that’s been reported is, I believe, in sales of all garden-related products. So what if people are gardening just as much or more than ever but just buying less of the chemical crap than previously? I mean, how valuable is this research, anyway?

  6. Hey, r sorrell–great looking blog!

    Okay, gardening is popular in Austin, but isn’t Austin the American Athens? Great music (I loved Joe Ely and Joe King Carasco in my youth–Austinites, no?), educated cultured populace, high-tech employment base. In other words, TOTALLY UNLIKE AMERICA.

    USDA stats certainly suggest that vegetable gardening has plummeted in recent decades. And I dunno–I look around even a densely settled state like New Jersey, and I am appalled at the degree to which the landscape is just wasted. No tomatoes, no lilies. Nothing but grass and evergreens of Japanese origin.

    But Susan, if the current reports of gardening’s decline depend only on the declining sales of Grub-B-Gone, well, then yeah!

    And I do think that if the demographic group called “culture leaders” gardens, others will eventually follow. Except I’m unconvinced that even the editors of gardening magazines actually garden! Otherwise, why would those magazines seem so disconnected and clueless?

    Time for a movement. When the neighbors look at you as if you’re crazy for getting so dirty, time to mutter back, “People who waste their yards really ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

  7. From my vantage point, I think people want to garden, but they don’t know how. Noone teaches you how to garden anymore. You have to figure it out yourself (where to start?) or take classes at a junior college. And there’s so much to learn. It’s a real time investment.

    And successful gardening requires confidence and a positive attitude open to experimentation. Some things aren’t going to work out. That’s something people don’t understand. People see amazing gardens and they feel intimidated.

    Plant availability is an issue. People get shitty plants at Home Depot and they all die…because Home Depot sells shitty plants and their nursery workers know shit about plants. Deal with that once, and it’s a big turn-off.

    Time is an issue for people. Parents spend all their time ferrying kids around to a zillion activities. When I was a kid, my ‘rents didn’t drive me anywhere. (Indeed, I was more likely dragged along.) Gardening requires discretionary time and energy which are in short supply. People don’t know that gardening is an energizing activity–mentally, physically, spiritually…

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