The Dark Side of Grocery Gardening


Guest Rant by Robin Ripley of the Bumblebee Blog

The news media tell us that Americans are returning to the
land in their own back yards. On weekends, we trot off to the local garden
centers to indulge our newly-found enthusiasm for grocery gardening. Recession
be damned! We’re planting vegetables!

But there’s a dark side to all this happy tomato talk and we
need to get it out in the open.

Some of my fellow gardeners have committed—or are about to
commit—vegetable garden planting, maintenance and design treason.

I’m talking about ugly, unsightly vegetable gardens.

There are would-be gardeners out there who practice the plunk-and-plant
method rather than properly identifying the best location for each plant and
enriching the soil with compost. They fail to weed early and often—or to weed
at all—so weeds thrive and invite their friends. Soon, there are as many
unwanted as wanted plants in the garden. That sets up the ideal environment for
opportunistic pests and diseases to move in.

The trespasses don’t stop there.

These gardeners give little or no thought to overall vegetable
garden design. Rows rule! They fail to consider how they will navigate narrow
pathways or reach into the center of large beds for maintenance, reinforcing
their excuse to avoid maintenance altogether. Everything is low and flat to the
ground. Even the indeterminate tomatoes are horizontal because they failed to
be contained by the two-foot-tall sorry excuse for tomato cages these gardeners
bought at Wal-Mart.

There are no edible flowers for color. There is no art or
ornamentation. Heck, there’s nowhere to sit!

These garden crimes are most acute in the vegetable
gardening world because people set aside significant chunks of ground for the
specific purpose of growing vegetables. The vegetable gardening offenders start
all at once (however badly) and then stop. Potential growers of flowers and
ornamentals usually wade in slowly. Their gardens grow in size and momentum in
proportion to their prowess with a hoe, so you hardly ever see a neglected
flower garden.

I don’t want to suggest that the average weekend gardener
now needs to hire a fancy designer to put in a vegetable patch. But is it too
much to ask that if you’re going to plant vegetables that you at least take
care of them? All of these ugly vegetable gardens are giving us respectable
vegetable gardeners a bad name. Frankly, it’s no wonder that homeowners
associations have banished vegetable gardens in their neighborhoods. If
gardeners are going to approach grocery gardening in that lackadaisical way, I
suggest they find another hobby.

Don’t get me wrong. My own garden has the random unlovely
patch. Last year my tomatoes succumbed to fusarium wilt. A merciless drought
took a toll on the garden (and the gardener with the water hose) a couple of
years ago. Sometimes my pet chickens sneak in and stir things up. My garden
gets weeds too.

When that happens, I move into action. If I’m feeling
particularly overwhelmed by it all, I call out the reluctant reinforcements.
(That would be my husband.) We will pull out the unsalvageable and disguise the
merely unsightly with moveable container plantings so that even when there are
unlovely corners, the overall effect is, I think, still pleasing. Above all, we
pay attention.

Vegetable gardens can be places of great joy and beauty as
well as great bounty. I am proud of being a vegetable gardener. But the dark
side of grocery gardening is a shadow on all vegetable gardeners.

Robin Ripley is a
garden and food writer whose special interest is in designing gardens that both
produce food and improve the beauty of the landscape. She lives on a small Maryland homestead where
in addition to caring for her potager, she raises and cares for small dogs,
chickens and a grouchy cat. She makes as much by hand as possible, from bread
to cheese to wine to pastries. She is co-author of the book Grocery Gardening  by Cool Springs Press.

Photo by Daniel
Gasteiger of Your Small Kitchen Garden


  1. First the lawn police now the veggie police. I can see it now We will soon be forced to buy health insurance and then forced to start a vegetable garden.
    What a bunch of COMPOST

    The TROLL

  2. Yes, I admit it. I have used the plunk-and-plant method. It has only been the last couple years that I have put more effort into the design and overall look of my vegetable garden. The main reason was out of necessity.

    My veggie garden had become the dominant force in my backyard. So to look out the patio door and see something that resembled the Amazon meant it was time for change.

    The vegetable garden can be beautiful, functional and productive.

  3. I am more encouraged by people’s interest in vegetable gardening than I am vexed by their lack of expertise. As someone who consistently takes on more plantwise than they can handle, I am guilty of more than occasional green chaos, but then, I live in the country and no one has to see it.

  4. I think biting off more than you can chew occurs in all sorts of activities – gardening, pets, sports, – it seems to be human nature.

    When I am giving advice to novice gardeners, I point out how important it is to start out small. I don’t think saying it works as well as lessons learned the hard way.

  5. Robin, get a grip.My Garden is my business,Design “Rules” do not apply to my veggie and Herb Garden.
    I am thrilled that people are finally growing more of their own food,some of them in very small spaces.So what if every vegetable Garden is not a georgeous Potager?
    Some of my clients just want to grow food,not have a vegetable Garden as a design statement.Over time there usually is some fine tuning.

  6. While I agree a lack of knowledge is a problem when it opens up the area to increased pest and pathogen problems, I am adamantly against holding someone’s inexperience in garden design against them. The garden world certainly doesn’t need more design snobs.

  7. Okay Troll – I have a message for you – Kiss My Grass!

    Here’s the deal people – Robin has a great point about disease and pest issues. Plus, we are trying to encourage more people to garden, right?

    I, like many of us, have far from a perfect garden. However, because the vegetable garden I do have is in my front yard, this means cleanliness counts.

    According to the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at UofI (, landscaping reduces crime and improves health for your community. Keeping an ugly, messed up, weedy bed is not going to encourage others in your community to veg garden too.

    We want to encourage more people to vegetable garden so we have more vegetables to feed the hungry with. I donated over 100 lbs of veggies to my local food pantry last year – you can do this too! Plant a row for the hungry for sure!!!

    Besides, where’s the health benefits to a garden which you never or rarely tend? My point: sitting on your grass gets you pretty much no where, but helping your community can change a lot of lives for the positive.


  8. I don’t understand the cynicism and dire predictions re the current craze for vegetable gardening.

    How is this any different than the majority of enthusiastic new home buyers who “start all at once and then stop” with their ugly flower gardens–who rush to the nursery to buy up all the pretty plants and plunk them down in ill-prepared beds only let them wither and die/get munched by deer. Or those who line their sidewalks with dots of single-stemmed marigolds or the same old ugly red and white begonias bedding schemes?? Or fill wooden barrels with dracena and geraniums (gag, gag, gag)

    People rush into gardening for lots of reasons–and lots and lots of them fail. I’m convinced there are MORE ugly, neglected flower and foundation plantings than there are vegetable gardens.

  9. I’m really surprised by the sense of hostility towards this subject. To read some comments you would think Robin asked for the elimination of vegetable gardening.

    I think maybe some are taking it a bit extreme. I mean how difficult is it really to take a little time to plan and maintain your garden?

    Luise H., if gardening is your business and I walked into where you grew your vegetables to find something that looked like it came off the set of Sanford & Son, I very seriously doubt I’d buy from you.

    Would you eat at a restaurant that had food on the floor and dirty dishes everywhere?

    Get a grip.

  10. Ya know, my garden is my garden. I am not terribly identified with or by it, but it serves a purpose and I work hard to learn as I go and not make too many mistakes along the way (in addition to the many I have learned from for as long as I’ve been doing this). Form follows function in my planted areas. If I put flowering sages at the ends of rows or within groupings of squashes and beans, they are there to draw the bees, not beautify.

    So Robin’s post cheeses me off although I do detect some good-natured humor in it. I really don’t care if people like how my stuff looks. How do they determine what a weed is, in my cultivated patches? A weed is basically vegetable matter that’s growing where you’d prefer it didn’t. And now that I have chickens who happily eat the weeds like salad, there’s more wiggle room. The weeds keep the soil loose until I remove them and plant something more meaningful.

    If someone off the street comes through my backyard and sees aphids on the cukes, are they going to also see the ladybug larvae scarfing down the aphids? Or the beneficial lacewings? Not likely. My garden is its own ecosystem. It took me a year to realize that I had all these beneficial insects keeping the pesky ones at a dull roar. Someone just looking at my yard isn’t going to see that at first glance.

    Honestly? We are so lucky that more people are even considering subsistence gardening. That they are composting. That they’re realizing this is some of the best food one can consume. Yeah, my indeterminate tomatoes get real gangly and bushy if I don’t nip off all the sucker vines quickly, but you know… they also hold heat better in the late fall when temperatures drop, and I had tomatoes on the vine survive frost last year for that reason. Remember how tomatoes are perennial in temperate climates? They are butt ugly when they go dormant.

    I might not love the red geraniums that my neighbors propagate with stems off a mother plant, all over their yard, but at least they’re growing something. And you have to start somewhere.

  11. Wow. Such vitriole.

    While “design” in vegetable garden planting may not be what is needed, I agree with Robin that a little thought is. And maintenance. Choosing a good spot for your veggie plants is vital – proper sun, protection from wind or critters or flood will encourage good crops, and crop rotation & clean-up discourages disease & pests. We know this. She isn’t telling everyone to turn their plot to a potager. Just take care of it. Stake your tomatoes, trellis your cukes & gourds, don’t let large veggies overrun smaller ones, pick up leaf litter…

    Make it look appealing & more people will find gardening to be so.

  12. I too think this rant is off base. We want more folks to grow their own vegetables and to include their kids in the process. Perfect-looking gardens is not the ideal; getting more kids involved is. Think of it as in investment for the future.

    If you’d like to help me keep my vegetable and herb gardens weed-free, come on down. FYI, my gardens, weeds and all, will be in USA Today next week!

  13. If you care about the aesthetics of your property and have a vegetable garden, you will put value on the design / layout of it.
    If you don’t put value on aesthetics, then you won’t invest the time to make it look appealing.
    That’s the bottom line and that’s the point that will be conveyed when anyone looks at your home, your garden, or your personal appearance, ect….

    The people at this link see the value of a well laid out working vegetable garden :

  14. Robin has a point that good design is easier maintenance and just requires a bit of forethought. Like her coment about two-wide beds, flat (not raised) and no pathways. Why set yourself up for extra work when a bit of pre-planning can take care ofa lot of back ache, plus just make the veggie patch an all-over more pleasurable space to hang out in.

  15. Good planning is essential in a vegetable garden. Whether anyone else thinks my version of good garden planning is attractive or not is irrelevant. I’d rather see people growing food, and perhaps breaking a few design “rules,” than not growing it at all. And I think it does a disservice to beginning gardeners to suggest that their gardens are somehow wanting because they lack art or ornamentation. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and feeding one’s family from your own back yard is definitely a beautiful experience.

  16. Huh. I was thinking of starting a small vegetable patch to tend with my daughter this spring, but you know, after working 8-9 hours, commuting home, and making sure the family is fed, bathed, and extra-educated, I might not have time to keep up with the staking, weeding, and primping. Maybe I should just nix the whole idea. Wouldn’t want to give you “respectable” veggie gardeners a bad name.

  17. I think the reason why so many vegetable gardens end up looking unattractive is because people don’t know how to make them look nice—not because they want their garden look bad. I try to educate people about plant combinations that look attractive, mulch (which is the quickest way to make a vegetable garden look tidy), how to build eye-catching structures for kitchen gardens, and which varieties are tasty and pretty. And I also let them know if they end up with a jumble one year, they can just plan better the next. My gardens look better every year and it’s because I’ve learned from other gardeners and my own mistakes.

  18. I agree, Robin, there’s no need for veggie gardens to look unsightly. I hate to curb anyone’s enthusiasm, but I don’t think it’s too much to encourage people to plan for paths or at least stepping stones in the garden to allow for maintenance and harvesting without damaging anything (or injuring body parts).
    I’ve recently been thinking about the practicality vs. design dilemma in the garden, and how often a practical solution is an attractive one.
    A veggie garden doesn’t have to look perfect, but it doesn’t have to be an eyesore either.

  19. I strive to keep my vegetable garden weed free if for no other reason than to stop the competition for resources.

    I recently redesigned my vegetable garden, which I have dubbed, Le Petit Potager, and forgot to add access. It was laughable, especially since I am a garden designer. Taking the time to get it right is admirable and necessary.

    I have a full time job, three little one’s at home and grow the garden as part of my families education and well being. We have all learned for our vegetable garden experience. H.

  20. Robin has a lot of valid points. ANY landscaping that is poorly done can lessen the value of your home, and your neighborhood. I know that my own neighbors have concerns that I ripped out my front lawn and simply told them I’m doing “edibles”. What they don’t know is I’m planning curved walkways, a patio space, and edibles mixed in with beautiful perennials. They don’t know that because it takes too much time for me to explain it to them, and they haven’t done as much research as I have to know that edible gardens CAN be functional and beautiful at the same time (thank you Rosalind Creasy!). I will be making more of an effort to make the front yard edibles look prettier than I would have if I was just doing raised beds in the back yard, and hopefully my neighbors will be able to learn something from me in the process. But still, I think growing your own food, even if it doesn’t look “designed” is better than not growing anything at all. People have to start small to see if it’s for them.

  21. When I was a kid and wanted to start a project, my mother always asked: “Are you sure you want to take this on?” She explained what was involved, and if I started and did not finish, there were consequences.

    To me, this post is about people whose mother did not do that. They plant and hope for instant, effortless vegetables, and are not willing to put in the work required. The same can happen with other plantings, but at least you don’t waste a nice dinner (or 10) if you ignore those plants.

    In the end, let’s face it, you reap the results of your actions (or lack thereof).

  22. What jumped out at me was Robin’s comment on “two-foot-tall sorry excuse for tomato cages these gardeners bought at Wal-Mart.” I have some real tomato cages that must be over 30 years old because they came from my parents. They are 3 1/2′ tall, made of heavy gage metal and they can support all but the most rampant of the indetermenate tomatoes. Ban flimsy tomato cages! Do I focus on the minutia or what?

    I keep my garden small because I know my weeding limitations and how much we can eat and how much I can can/freeze and how much I can give away. Newbies have no idea how much work is involved and get stars (tomatoes?) in their eyes and plant enough to feed a 3rd world country and can’t take care of it. I don’t think Robin was being snobby at all. A little planning goes along way to reduce work. Except a potager is more work. I have always wanted one. I have drawn many plans up. Tnen reality sets in and I know there is no way I am going to do the manicure type maintenance that they need to look good.

  23. I think there is a discernible movement toward creating attractive and coherent vegetable gardens. I also think form should go along with function and a weeded, organized, well-supported vegetable garden is more functional.

  24. Form and function serve a purpose… but in my opinion, I don’t care how it looks when someone grows veggies – just as long as they are out there trying to grow! Plus, even though weeds suck and infest other gardens, they harbor tons of beneficial insects – much more than not having them would. I find it much more important to be inspired to just plant and grow veggies, than to worry about how it looks in the interim.

  25. It always surprises me how quickly some people are offended and outraged by someone else’s opinion. Robin could have easily gone with the idea of save yourself some work and aggravation with this kind of vegetable gardening advice and maybe no hackles would have been raised. There will always be the lazy, half hearted and half finished gardeners around with unsightly attempts at progress. I don’t worry about them affecting my own attempts to grow vegetables any more than Robin’s opinion of them would affect my gardening choices. Don’t take things so personally people. And well The TROLL is just a troll. Has he not mentioned the commie plot health insurance reform lately?

    I do not have a potager. I have neat rows well mulched completely surrounded by what some ordinances would call weeds or brush (wildflowers) and a falling down split rail locust fence held together with bailing wire and old shoe strings (for now). People stop to take pictures of it. Granted it is in the wilderness deep in the forest, not suburbia. Site and location matter when it comes to design choices.

  26. Whew! A lot of anger over this rant, and I wonder why. I think Robin meant it as partly tongue in cheek with a bit of design and maintenance advice thrown in. I wish someone had told me 20 + years ago when I started gardening to create paths, not to compress the soil, place the plot in sun, etc. As to beautiful design, part of it is in the eye of the beholder (as one of my readers told me the other day). However, being told to add a few flowers and tending first a smaller plot are good ideas. There isn’t much more beautiful than three producing tomato plants and a nice container of basil. Add some mozzarella, and you have a salad.

    Let’s all give Robin a break and consider her intent before picking her to pieces.~~Dee

  27. This blog is called “Garden Rant”, and Robin has ranted, appropriately enough 🙂 Thank goodness we live in a country where she won’t get arrested for speaking her mind (nor will any commenters). However, in her rant, she’s not very encouraging to gardening newbies, which is unfortunate. How many of us started out knowing next to nothing, and have learned along the way by doing, and making mistakes? And which of us knows everything about gardening (including Robin)? Learning new stuff is a big part of the fun for many of us. Meanwhile, Robin’s entitled to her rant, which does have some good advice woven between the disparaging remarks.

  28. FOR REAL folks. I’m with the defenders of Robin. Mainly because of the following:

    1) I just started vegetable gardening in North Carolina last year. I’ve been in more of a zone 4-5 for veggies. Zone 7b-8 is a TOTALLY DIFFERENT STORY. I learned that the hard way last year when I

    2) Got so excited by the warm weather in March that I dug up and re-purposed my back garden bed for veggies, only to be reminded about the need for SUN in a veggie garden when

    3) The gigantic trees back there leafed out and there wasn’t so much sun anymore.

    4) I tried to grow some veggies in my FRONT garden last year, too, but I kept losing track of them in all of the flowers. And, quite frankly, my front garden is a place I do a lot of work in about 4 times a year. Otherwise, I look at it while I sit on my butt and write, while looking at my garden. I don’t have a lot of TIME to garden. So, my peppers and eggplants languished.

    5) So THIS year, I got my landscaper to build me 5 large 6×6 raised beds (I’m tall, so I can reach that far). So far, even though I’ve only been working in them for two months, I’m SO GLAD I did that.

    Not everyone can afford that or wants that, but if you CAN, I recommend it. We are MUCH more likely to get lots of edible veggies this year. PLUS, the nice layout helps, since the new beds are basically in my front yard. (Front/side)

    But, the BIGGEST reason I’m with defenders of Robin (and full disclosure–Robin is a partner in Garden Center Blogger-lest I not say that and people freak out further)

    is this:

    This blog is called GARDEN RANT. R-A-N-T. The posts here are NEVER going to be “oh, well, first you plant this here. Then you feed it with miracle gro. Then you need to rotate crops with radishes. . . blah. . . blah. . . blah.

    Want that? go somewhere else!

    Hugs and kisses!

  29. there are many ways to learn.

    i’d say a culture beginning to realize that it needs to re-learn how to feed itself is a tiny, messy step in the right direction.

    experiential learning ( vs. ‘book-larnin’ – tho i love books) is best.

    here’s a useful way to learn, hands-on, in intensive food gardening workshops#, from John Jeavons of Ecology Action:

    The recent NYT “Crop Mob”# story is another useful way.

    in addition to feeding ourselves and our families, there is the matter of feeding our souls and cultivating community#.

    some form of experiential learning —-without too much ‘shoulding’ on others or ourselves, is a great way of cultivating community AND crops.

    reaching across generations is another great way. recognize and be patient with the fact that most of us are a couple of generations removed from the family folkways of how to grow food.

    What Bill Mollison and John Jeavons both do so well is observe the low-tech, indigenous systems that work, and propagate those systems around the world. I learned more from Bill Mollison (the Tasmanian/Aussie creator of permaculture#) about the US CCC and ag methods that helped bring us back from the Dust Bowl in the Depression, than I ever learned from any American.

    You can learn to grow food alone, but it’s not the way most of the world succeeds in doing so. It takes a village…

  30. I am sorry I wasted my time reading the post. Now I’m sucked in to a comment. You are kidding me? What a misguided bunch of baloney from an obvious garden snob. Get a life.

  31. While I appreciate a nice-looking veggie garden, I would never judge anyone or discourage someone from gardening because they don’t have a design plan, design sense, or the money to make their garden look pretty.

    I have a friend who does veggie gardening on a very limited budget (as in there isn’t always enough money to pay all of the bills). Her garden is a necessity for her to eat and she saves seed. While she does weed, she also uses whatever she can to assist her in the garden (plastic buckets and other recycled stuff). My friend is probably the person buying her tomato cages at Wal-Mart because that is all she can afford. Her garden is not always lovely looking, but she is a very successful gardener.

    As for me, if someone judged the looks of my garden all of the time, I wouldn’t garden. –Sometimes it’s weedy because there is only me to weed since the hubby died, and I work full-time. I have two 85 ft beds and one 100 x 10 ft bed.–Try gardening that all by yourself. Should I give it up because sometimes it’s ugly and weedy? I have hired help, but I can’t always afford it either.

  32. It was not the ranter’s aim to give tips about to have an attractive vegetable garden without a lot of work. That would have been the person who wrote about using mulch effectively.

    No,besides the obvious digs at “gardeners without forethought,” there was a classist, condescending tone that is really offensive, and was echoed by at least one other writer.

    The red geranium dig: isn’t that usually associated with a comment about gardens in tires? You know, “those people” who really don’t have the good taste (read money) to shop from Annie’s Annuals at 5 bucks a pop plus shipping? Why can’t we be satisfied with critiquing our own gardens and be glad that at least “those people” are planting something, anything with color that makes them happy?
    The ideals of good taste and design is too often a luxury of people who are well educated but out of touch with how most of the world lives. It takes leisure time and disposable income to raise a practical endeavor like vegetable gardening to the aesthetic level some of our writers consider acceptable.

    Overall, I found the writer as offensive as a homeowners association in a gated community, except that those people know the restrictions before they buy into it. I don’t think she even realized the sub-text of her article.

    Let us now praise every effort to garden and every garden no matter how different the outcome is from our own ideas about beauty. Criticize your friends gardens, flower shows, public gardens, arboretums, any garden you have to pay to see; but leave the geraniums out of it.


  33. Marie, I wasn’t digging at my neighbors for their geraniums. No, the other neighbors do that plenty. I am glad they like their geraniums and that they have something growing in their yard that isn’t grass, unlike the anti-geranium neighbors with the flawless putting green next to me…

    One has to start with something and learn from trial and error, and what irked me about Robin’s rant (I guess commenters don’t get to do that, too, huh) is that it assumes everyone’s biting off more than they can chew, and not putting thought into their efforts. Or making an effort to be methodical.

    I got there by trial and error. Experience was the best teacher.

  34. I find it interesting that I can’t tell what the photo that accompanies the post is supposed to illustrate. Is it a “good” garden or one of the ignored, messy ones? I like it, whateveritis.

  35. I seriously think that this post was to be informational, humorous and tongue-in-cheek.

    Maybe gardeners are very “literalist?” I think I just made up a word.

    Laugh, people, and go outside and garden.

    We love this blog because it is FUN and INTERESTING and has PERSONALITY. Chill out, folks. 🙂

  36. I’m a day late on this post because I have been thinking about it as I work out in my perennial beds. I love that people are so passionate about this subject! I agree with many others that a vegie garden can be attractive or not. I live on 5 acres so am not subject to the opinion of neighbors in a suburban neighborhood, nor am I subject to neighborhood association rules, thank goodness. My vegie garden would probably be considered attractive, it is fenced with post and rails, has two arbors, a birdbath, a birdhouse and gravel walkways with raised beds. On the outside of my garden are my berries and fruit trees. All of this is on the small side. I did this deliberately because I am more of a flower gardener than a vegetable garden but value fresh seasonal produce. I am not interested in preserving but do it as needed. My garden is very easy to maintain because of the way it has been planned and layed out, but this came from a couple of years of frustration and flat out giving up due to uncontrollable weeds and grass. My neighbors on the other hand have very large gardens that are not attractive and are placed in very unusual areas but they produce like mad. They are more of the farmer way of thinking, they grew up on farms and that is how they garden. You wade through weeds to pick the produce. When my daughter was younger she wanted to have a garden of her own, so naively we plunked plants in the ground, needless to say it was a disaster and she has so far refused to revisit the concept of gardening. Planning a garden does indeed make the workload lighter as well as more aesthetically pleasing. But in the end it has nothing to do with productivity.

  37. Wow–a lot of comments already on this one!!

    A couple of quick suggestions for those who do want to pretty their veggie patch (though I think a garden of any kind should be a haven of free expression and trial and error):

    1. Create a chive border–they are really easy to grow. If you buy 1 bunch of chives you can separate them into single chives (toss out any that don’t have strong-looking roots) and stick them in the soil a few inches down. Soon each single will grow into a whole bunch. In the Spring they have pretty flowers and you have a lush looking path edging or border. Once they get all floppy and you are ready to start again–harvest them all, mix the greens with some olive oil and freeze in an ice cube tray for use in soups…

    2. Nasturtiums are another super easy, edible, and gorgeous plant for the veggie patch. One of my faves is Mahogany because of its fresh, verdant, light green foliage. Just poke the seeds into your dirt in the early spring and Voila!

    Have fun. We learn best by doing, right? I learned soon enough that certain things were worth repeating and that certain solutions needed to be found–this is where true creativity comes in.

  38. What about these two statements from the Garden Rant manifesto, on every page of this blog:
    “Bored with perfect magazine gardens.
    In love with real, rambling, chaotic, dirty, bug-ridden gardens.”

    Isn’t it a bit contradictory to the Garden Rant point of view to insist on order and landscaping everywhere?

  39. Wow, sure are a lot of folks pulling on their crankypants about this one. I don’t know, maybe I’m amused by Robin’s post since I was there last year. We decided to share our yard and co-garden with some close friends who lived in an apartment. Knowing that we had a labor force of four, we got… ambitious. If you plant every seed in a packet, that’s a lot of cukes, and zucchini, and beans (three varieties!), and peppers, and tomatoes, and so on.

    Of course by mid-summer my season was in full swing and I was working 80 hour weeks, my wife was close behind, and our friends picked up what slack they could. Because of the quantity of seeds and seedlings, we eschewed aesthetics for access. And by the end of the season, the yard looked like hell.

    So I feel like Robin’s crosshairs were right on me and people like me, and all I can do is laugh and say “yep. But even if you had said this to me last March, I would’ve done it all the same.”

  40. I may have been over-the-top with my rhetoric about some gardeners giving other vegetable gardeners a bad name. I feel badly that I’ve clearly offended so many people.

    But a lot of people have missed my point altogether—that vegetable gardens need care. There is a whole range of maintenance (or lack thereof) between the finely manicured potagers you see in the magazines and the type of garden I’m talking about—the one that was planted and never given another thought. It sounds like most of us, myself included, fall somewhere in the middle along that spectrum. Unfortunately, people interpreted my post as criticism of anyone who isn’t “clutching at pearls in their potagers.” That’s not true. I’m talking about abandoned, ugly gardens that have had no care.

    I agree that the movement toward growing our own food and reconnecting with the earth is a good one. I am involved in my local foods group and support all types of sustainable practices. I would be surprised if anyone who has met me and seen my garden really thinks I’m a snob.

    Our instant gratification society has led us to believe that any effort is a good effort and everything should be as easy as pushing a button. But no one will convince me that growing a vegetable garden is for everyone. It can be damn hard work, depending on how ambitious you are. We do no service to would-be gardeners by pretending that it’s easy and won’t take any time at all and that the rewards are tremendous without lifting a finger. It’s darned discouraging to a would-be gardener to over-extend and end up with a weed patch that requires bushogging to tear down. It’s also not very inspiring to would-be gardeners to see examples of vegetable gardens that look like little more than large patches of weeds.

    Okay, that said, I apologize for offending so many people. But hey, if we really want people to connect with the earth and grow food, let’s all pull some weeds and inspire with our results.

    Robin Ripley

  41. One of the reasons I haven’t grown many veggies is because I felt like I had to set aside a dedicated plot of land to do it “the right way”, i.e. geometric rows and beds. Robin is one of the people who convinced me that I could integrate veggies in amongst my flowers and make it pleasing to my artist’s eye. I look at the garden as though it’s a painting and I plant and edit to make the garden fit the vision I have in my mind. Knowing Robin as well as I do, I can say that she too looks at the garden with an artist’s eye. It does make us hypercritical at times (especially of our own efforts) but we’d also be the first to say that your garden has to fit your definition of beauty and no one else’s. Still, knowing your limitations is a big part of gardening: we should all be wary of planting more than we can tend(and I speak from experience).

  42. Interesting article and comments. I’m too new to gardening to take offense; INDOOR gardening at that. I was inspired by an article in Natural Home Mar/Apr called “Hatch This”, where you plant your seeds in egg shells and transfer to outdoors when appropriate (or you can give them as a gift). After reading your article, I’ll attempt to have my garden look aesthetically pleasing on my small apartment patio, but don’t hold your breath ;-).

    Here are my “egg hatchlings” (about 2 weeks old):

    If you’re interested, here’s the link to the Natural Home article:

  43. I didn’t read all the comments pro and con. I am doing it Robin’s way cause it’s the only thing that works for me after years of gardening. I just read 4 books from seasoned gardeners so I could balance the new vege gardens. I wanted to know what plants to put together so pest and disease would be naturally guarded.

    I set up my beds so they will be neat and not stress the plants. This means less watering–less weeding–and less work for me. Having a well managed garden is better on the environment. It’s not snobbish–it’s like taking the time for quality assurance.

    You can’t build a smart bed unless you study and learn from seasoned gardeners. Plant tomatoes without good gardening sense and you won’t have tomatoes.

    So I read Robin’s rant as more of a conversation and I agree with her–Your garden will work harder and more efficiently if you garden smartly. I’m going to let my carrots tend my tomatoes. I learned that by studying–not just plopping the two in the ground side by side. It takes work and learning to garden for all of us.

  44. Well I was considering buying Grocery Gardening (even though I find the writing lackadaisical) – not anymore. I wouldn’t want to disappoint the author(s). I see her point about design for ease of use/maintenance but why say it so rudely? Why push people away when they do make an effort to grow something?

    The vegetables taste the same either way, weeds or no weeds.

  45. Robin writes “But a lot of people have missed my point altogether—that vegetable gardens need care.”

    So we don’t know how to garden properly and we can’t understand the written word either?

  46. It seems clear, Robin, that for most of us your message was lost in the tone and attitude you chose to adopt in your rant.

  47. Nothing wrong with fads. Nothing wrong with poor planning from newbies. Nothing wrong with getting discouraged. Nothing wrong with not understanding pests, or location, or soil. Also nothing wrong with obsessive planning, careful planning, deep knowledge or wanting people to share that with you. Because in every 10 new or ignorant or over-their-heads gardeners, one will figure it out, find someone like Robin, clean up their act, and inspire someone else.

  48. Yikes! On behalf of the people with no aesthetic sense (like me) I apologize. While I would put my vegetable gardening skills up against just about anybody, I’d never win a design contest for anything. Ever.

    I take care of my soil first and then my plants. I try and keep things tidy and healthy. I grow what I like to eat and what my family likes. That’s pretty good isn’t it?

    This post was a quality rant, but I think that I will stay focused on encouraging people to start a vegetable gardening without introducing other barriers or pressures. People think it’s hard enough to grow stuff and if other gardeners take the snobby root and simply judge the look of the flat rows and rectangular plots… well, we’re just going to scare people off. Not my mission! Ugly but functional is fine with me. Just grow something!

  49. Get a life. I don’t have a vegetable garden. I have a garden with many beds in which I grow vegetables, flowers and herbs, not in straight rows mostly. Whatever faces the street is neatly manicured to stop hysterics. The rest is my own business. I am a Master Gardener and like to experiment. I never thought I would be subject to someone else’s rules. I weed when I can, but I do a lot more with my life than garden, including volunteering.

  50. The biggest thing I’ve observed in my lifetime: if more people stopped worrying about what everyone else does wrong, and instead just focused on doing the right thing themselves, the world would be a lot better place.

  51. I can’t tell whether the picture at the top is supposed to represent a “good” garden or a “bad” garden. I must say your post makes me curious to see pictures of some of the garden crimes you speak of, so I can determine how much I might agree with you.

    I do agree heartily with your idea of chairs in the veg garden. And wide paths. And flowers.

    However, I must say I’ve never really seen a vegetable garden that I would consider a criminally bad garden. Even in my community garden where every plot is different and garden styles range from using tidy wooden raised beds to recycling TV towers for climbing peas. The overall look is simply growth and exhuberance, which, to me, is always a good thing. They just can’t help but look good.

    If there are gardeners, who in their inexperience, choose the wrong tools (the small cages) out of ignorance, surely they will know to do something different next year.

    I’ve seen gardens that mix edibles with perennials in a way that enhances both, to the point where the hanging fruit looks like little jewels. Larkwhistle garden in the Bruce Pensinsula in Ontario is one. A garden like that really is a delight, and something to strive for, time and creativity permitting, but not something to feel guilty for not having.

    To me, the only real vegetable garden crime is neglect. Ripe fruits hanging on vines left to rot,or freeze. I’ve seen both, and it’s always a sad thing.

  52. I plant my veggies in a rusty old wringer washer, galvanized wash tubs, and wooden drawers to name a few. I have a large lawn that I’ve not mowed in four years. I seldom pull weeds. I am likely Miss Robin’s “Garden Anti-Christ”. This makes me very happy 🙂 (But I don’t think she will “get the point” of this comment…also making me happy.)

  53. I’ve seen a lot of rants here and there about how horrible vegetable gardens can look. This isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last. But get a grip, people. I’ve seen a lot of vegetable gardens in my life, and I have yet to see this mythical weed-infested jungle of which you speak.

    The extent to which I’ve thought about the design of my vegetable garden is pretty damned non-existent. I try to figure out how much of what to plant to fit in the space and keep us in food, but that’s about it. Then I plunk everything in.

    In 3 years, I have never weeded my vegetable garden. I’m not sure what these rampant weeds are of which you speak. I genuinely don’t understand how the odd edible volunteer somehow destroys the entire garden. I have one set of neighbors who is a little put out by my compost pile, but everyone and their mom loves my garden. The elderly housebound 90-something has passed on to me through her son that her greatest joy is watching my vegetable garden grow. Random people come in off the street and want to gawk at it’s beauty.

    So, to recap. I know don’t know squat about design. I couldn’t care less about design. I don’t (need to) weed–at least not the vegetable garden; it’s the lawn that we’ve left to shovel snow on that demands that sort of effort. I plunk my edibles in willy nilly. All the things you complain about, I do. Everyone loves my garden. It is extremely productive. Random people ask for my vegetable gardening advice because my garden looks so damned cool. Perhaps I’d find it a little easier to share your antipathy towards the ugly vegetable garden if I had ever seen an ugly vegetable garden in real life.

    Near as I can tell, the ugly vegetable plot is just a rhetorical device to tell people to weed, as though lawns and ornamental gardens don’t require upkeep. What bugs me is that the phony drama is only going to serve to discourage people from attempting gardens in the first place.

  54. I met Robin in 2008 when our group of Spring Flingers had a fun day roaming South Austin. I like her.

    So it was upsetting to read these words:
    Frankly, it’s no wonder that homeowners associations have banished vegetable gardens in their neighborhoods. If gardeners are going to approach grocery gardening in that lackadaisical way, I suggest they find another hobby.

    Robin, I have to ask,
    1) why do you classify growing fresh food as a hobby? Isn’t it more like a human right?

    2) You have 21 acres in the country and I doubt you have to answer to a homeowner’s association. Yet you think it’s okay for HOA’s to stop those of us on small lots from growing vegetables because untidy plots offend your aesthetic sensibilities. Kiddo – that does come across as elitist.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

  55. I truly can see both sides of this debate, but it seems that extremes are what are being discussed here. I don’t think Robin in any way expects perfection out of anyone, including herself. She is just decrying those thickets of green where one cannot even hope to find a green bean, let alone know where to dig up the carrots.

    There is a LOT of room in the middle of these extremes. I’m pretty sure any of us that are serious about gardening fall well within that middle ground.

  56. I find myself perplexed as to why the author of a book entitled “Grocery Gardening” would write a rant like this. Wouldn’t veggie gardeners that jump right in, with perhaps more enthusiasm than design knowledge, pretty much be the target audience for the book?

  57. Oh my. I’m sure this blog was all tongue-in-cheek, but it’s vert “off-putting,” as my English mum would say, for anyone remotely interested in veggie gardening. Of any sort. Anywhere.

  58. I’m going to preface this with the fact that I’m a Landscape Architect, so I am well aware of design and the need of design.

    That said, my vegetable garden is for producing food for my family and nothing else. It’s separated from the rest of my landscape so as not to “offend” anyone’s sensibilities.

    There are no flowers for color, garden art or seating in it. All those things are located in another part of our yard. I spend hours before every season planning out where plants will be located, and when they will be planted and/or transplanted. I use “unsightly” concrete reinforcing mesh as tomato cages because they work wonderfully. Our small goat & chicken barn is sided with boards from a 20 year old fence that was taken down and about to be thrown away. We reuse materials that would otherwise be put in a landfill.

    I spent this entire weekend pulling out bindweed from our soon-to-be planted beds and all the while I kept thinking to myself if this was the type of garden you were ranting about.

    It’s not pretty, but it’s functional. We don’t have beautifully constructed raised beds or trellises because the size of our garden makes it cost-prohibitive. Does that mean I shouldn’t even have a vegetable garden? Of course not.

    I think why a lot of people are rubbed the wrong way is that your post seems snarky to all of those that not only don’t know how – from lack of experience/knowledge -but also those that choose to not make design the number one aspect of their vegetable garden.

  59. Well I’m sure that you wouldn’t like many of the allotments that are to be found here in the UK! They look disorganised and messy but they sure do grow a lot of good tasting vegetables.
    Many of the holders only have a limited amount of time, and indeed money, available to spend on their plots so design is the least important factor and rightly so!
    In your eyes many, including me, commit the treasons you list but frankly my dear we don’t give a damn!

  60. I was delighted to find a garden blogger in my neck of the woods, but soon came to realize that it was more about her lifestyle rather than real gardening. I had not read her blogsfor along time until now and nothing has changed.

  61. The first time I read your post, Robin, I smiled and shrugged: I sure like a tidy-looking kitchen garden… and I’m also happy to see any kitchen garden.

    I toured dozens of kitchen gardens last season and can attest that about 10% made it to harvest looking gorgeous. Most gardens – even those that started the season pretty – were neglected, weedy, and going to seed in August and September.

    Amusingly, all gardeners insisted their gardens looked terrible, and they apologized. (Most of them were right, but I always applaud a garden’s existence and leave the gardener to comment on its appearance.)

    Experience proves that you can harvest lots of great produce from a weed patch… and if your focus is food, I say, “More power to you.” Heck, I’ll show examples of ugly gardens to encourage non-gardeners: there is no exclusive “right” way to grow vegetables.

    Returning to your post today, I’m impressed at the passion it evokes in so many readers. The responses illuminate a universal truth: people put energy into things that matter to them. It is possible, if your passion is to grow food, to ignore gardening nearly completely. It’s also possible, if your passion is gardening, to ignore growing food.

    I love to see a tidy, beautiful kitchen garden… but I would implore all readers: if you can’t make your kitchen garden beautiful, plant it anyway. Grow your own food, enjoy fresh produce, share with your friends, get along, have fun.

    I’d like to offer some perspective on one of the threads of this discussion: The notion that produce grown in a messy garden is somehow equivalent to food prepared in a dirty kitchen. I enthusiastically harvest wild berries and nuts in nearby meadows and woods; the lack of skilled garden design, planning, and maintenance in no way detracts from the quality or my enjoyment of the produce. Cultivation isn’t natural… it’s pampering. When you harvest food in a messy meadow, you don’t dub the non-food-bearing plants “weeds.” If I could harvest all my vegetables from the wild instead of having to pamper them into existence, I’d choose the wild asparagus every time.

    Thanks, Robin, for the thought-provoking post.

  62. That’s funny–I was always given to understand that a monoculture encourages more pests and diseases. So now it’s actually the other way around–having more plant varieties in a space encourages pests and diseases? Which is it? Or is the truth that you hire a gardener rather than do it yourself, so you actually don’t know?

    My other grievance with this post is the notion, often expressed on the Internet as “tl;dr” and “this chat is boring” and other such nonsense–that only YOU are important, only YOU exist, and every other human being is just a TV show meant to entertain you. And if they fail in their duty, YOU get to throw a little snit and stamp your little foot and rant and rave, because YOU have lost out on YOUR entitlement.


    Missy Madam, you have far more important things to worry about in life than how someone else’s veggie garden looks. First and foremost, your dire need for therapy.

  63. Pretty vegetable gardens – right on!
    Messy vegetable gardens – right on!
    Vegetables – right on!
    Gardens – right on!
    Patience with people who don’t know everything about everything gardening like we do but who might want to grow a little and be a part of something awesome but might not have the time to devote to be garden designers themselves and just want to “play in the dirt” and maybe don’t mind having chaotic, rambling, dirty, bug-ridden gardens …
    RIGHT ON!!!!

  64. This is my first time commenting here and I’m amused and bemused by both sides. Gardening’s supposed to be fun and stress-free.

    While I do agree with Robin that veggie patches are hard work and no doubt more than some people realise, the tone was a bit snobby. I think it’s great that Wal Mart sells gardening gear, making growing your own accessible for everybody.

    It seems, in garden design, there’s always an element of snobbery.

    I have an allotment (community garden) and I think it’s the most beautiful thing. Course, there are some sad looking over-grown ones but I think that’s quite rare nowadays as they’ve become so popular (100,000+ people on waiting lists). Most allotments are higgledy piggledy with lots of recycling and reusing and they’re gorgeous.

    I also have 3 raised veggie beds at home and these have to look nicer as I look at them every day.

    I have, however, never seen an overgrown veggie patch. Some are a bit weedy but…well, no one’s perfect.

    Instead of moaning about plots gone to seed perhaps people could put out more helpful info for new gardeners, although I’m staggered that some commenters didn’t realise veggie patches needed sun. You really only do learn by doing.

    Oh, and I think it’s a bit rich to complain about people ranting back at Robin. Perhaps if she’s that sensitive (she doesn’t appear to be), she shouldn’t post anything controversial. I’ve enjoyed the debate!

  65. Everything is better when it’s well designed, but neat and tidy doesn’t always fit in with everyone’s lifestyle – thankfully. I wish I had a clean car and I wish my gardens were tidier, but I’m a bit disorganized and kind of slothful. Still I garden with cheer and exuberance and I believe that is all that is important.

  66. Pretty Vegetable Gardens – right on!
    Messy Vegetable Gardens – right on!
    Vegetable Gardens – right on!
    Gardens – RIGHT ON!

  67. I realized why this pushes so many buttons for me.

    Traditionally, in America, everybody thinks that they get a stake and a say in what your front yard looks like. For a long, long time that meant that they got to tell you that you needed a weed-free pesticide-soaked expanse of green carpet. And that you had to clip it really really short every week or two.

    People rebelled. They wanted vegetables. They wanted cottage gardens. They wanted low-water gardens. They wanted to do what they bleeping _wanted_ with the land that they bleeping _paid for_.

    So, now, woohoo! Vegetable gardens! Cottage gardens! Xeriscapes!

    And now we’re being told that everybody gets a stake and a say in what those look like.

    Say _what_?

    No. Thank you kindly, no.

    Now, I can accept the idea that new gardeners might need a little help with the functional aspects. But if an experienced gardener uses newspaper to suppress weeds in the beds, and cardboard to suppress the weeds in the nice wide paths, and buys a nice comfy plastic bench to sit in as they admire their tomatoes, functionality is amply served. Will the complaint go away? I’m guessing not.

    The right to grow vegetables is not about appearance. It’s not about the right to decorate one’s front yard with nice red tomatoes. It’s about the right to _grow_ nice red tomatoes. (Or nice orange tomatoes or nice green tomatoes or nice zebra-striped tomatoes.) It’s about the right to grow the food that one wants to grow, the right to have organic vegetables without having to get in the car and drive to Whole Foods, the right… well, you get the idea.

    (And, by the way, the garden with the newspaper and cardboard and plastic bench? Is probably absolutely gorgeous. But whether it is or not is not the point.)

    The idea that growing vegetables is a privilege that may be haughtily withdrawn if my tomato cages aren’t pretty enough is a button-pusher. And apparently not just for me.

    Now, did the original ranter _mean_ all the things that I’m saying and implying that they meant? I dunno. I’m willing to accept the idea that they didn’t, but it sure sounded like they did.


  68. Wow. Who knew that vegetable gardens were so controversial?
    I have tackled aesthetics in my vegetable garden by using raised beds. Plus, it makes it so much easier to take care of!

    I’m all for people at least trying vegetable gardening – even if it isn’t pretty. If they grow their own vegetables, they are more likely to eat them making our people healthier. And they will learn what it takes to get food which will make them re-think the real value of it. And as some of the commenters pointed out – it brings them closer to the environment which could lead to them being more conscientious about what’s happening in it – and that’s good for everyone.

    Having said that, however, I agree with Vicki about flower gardens and I’d like to take this opportunity to invite my neighbor to get control of her front flower bed – it looks like an overgrown dumpsite!

Comments are closed.