The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Are you an art gardener?

Harvest basketI don't want to make you think I don't like art --- in fact, I majored in studio art (and biology) in college.  And any good vegetable garden becomes a work of beauty, full of enticing textures and colors.  Still, I think that many beginning homesteaders fall into the trap of thinking about beauty first and utility second when planning their garden.

My first year on the farm, I chose the prettiest vegetables I could find in the seed catalog.  Bright Lights swiss chard with red, yellow, and orange stalks, purple and ruffled cabbages, three colors of summer squash --- I had it all.  Over time, though, I've discovered that purple carrots don't produce as high a yield as those ordinary-looking orange carrots, striped zucchinis can't handle the vine borer the way yellow crookneck can, and ruffled cabbages don't taste as good as plain Jane cabbage heads.  I've slowly started choosing varieties based first on flavor, then on productivity (which includes bug and disease resistance), third on seed-saving ability, and only finally on appearance.

Our harvest basket still looks beautiful, but now we have more, tastier food to eat and put in the freezer.  Mark's hypothesis is that folks who choose seeds based on garden porn don't end up taking the time to harvest and eat the produce, but I give art gardeners a bit more benefit of the doubt.  I think that, like me, they'll grow out of it. 

Our chicken waterer is the grownup solution to chicken water.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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This entry made me laugh. At first, I was feeling unjustly proud: "ha-ha, I was never an art gardener! I always bought my seeds and plants based on . . . wait, what did I base it on?" And then it hit me: when I first started my garden, I bought all of my seeds and plants based on how ancient they were. I was a History Gardener - oh, no!

Well, to be fair, being a history gardener worked to my advantage in some ways, especially with my vegetable garden. I bought many of my first seeds from local living history museums and ended up with many tasty vegetables that were already prone to doing well in my area. So many people seem to give up on heirlooms after one or two years because they go the "garden porn" route of choosing their heirloom seeds and so end up with plants that don't grow well in their area. A little research, and purchasing locally from seed savers where possible, would yield them wonderful plants, but instead they switch over to the modern hybrids - or give up gardening altogether - and spend their time at social events complaining about how awful heirlooms are. (Heh, sorry, but people who put down heirlooms is kind of a pet peeve!)

On the other hand, those early 19th century roses (whose purchase from a catalogue was, I'm sad to say, completely based on the fact that they dated from the 1820s and 30s) mostly failed - sigh, sometimes gardening for history isn't any better than gardening for art!

Comment by Ikwig Sun Jul 17 09:49:20 2011

I guess we all fall into some knee jerk choices at the beginning before we know better. Although I grow a lot of heirlooms, I don't think it's a good idea to knee jerk either for them or against them --- although if you have living history museums that grow varieties that are obviously adapted to your climate, that's a no brainer!

I guess the real thing that sets good gardeners (like you) apart is being willing to accept that certain varieties don't live up the the hype. If the historic roses don't grow, you move on and learn from the experience. I know I've ripped out my share of failed experiments.... :-)

Comment by anna Sun Jul 17 19:20:36 2011

I think it goes both ways with beauty. For one thing, having flowers in the garden really brightens my mood, and it helps create a contrast to the dense vegetation in the summer that makes me feel like things are growing for a reason. I like when I start gardening near a patch of mostly ornamental (but also useful) plants like mint or marigolds, or my vitex shrub, and then the scents get stirred up and make a nice perfume.

I don't have any interest in growing food plants for their looks, though most of them look pretty nice, because I've also found that the pretty ones don't tend to do well or produce well. I find that most plants look nice in their own ways. That said, I am definitely an art gardener and gardening will always be about all of the senses for me, not just the utility of growing food. I hope I never grow out of it! In fact, I feel like I'm becoming that way more and more. Next year I'm planting a a type of green just for its pretty blue flowers (and a little bit for the fact that it lasts into the summer longer than the other salad greens).

Comment by Sara Tue Jul 19 15:54:39 2011

I think it's important to plant flowers or other ornamentals for beauty (and pollinators, etc.) But I think that a lot of people get disappointed when they choose their vegetables based on looks and then get low yields. As Ikwig mentioned, they often end up giving up on the garden ("too much work for so little food!") or switching over to the completely other side --- pesticides, chemical fertilizers, production hybrid seeds, etc. (Which is not to say that I don't grow a few hybrids --- so far, I haven't found a better sweet corn, broccoli, corn, or onion than our hybrids.)

Personally, I think that the goal of a vegetable garden should be to increase the taste and health value of your food. With that in mind, growing plants that suit your climate, even if they're not quite as pretty as other varieties, makes more sense. (A happy cabbage is surprisingly beautiful even if it's just a plain green head.) We're able to grow all of our vegetables for the whole year using hand tools precisely because we focus on utility.

Before vegetables became so cheap in the grocery store, people understood the importance of growing their own food and planned gardens to maximize yields, but unfortunately many people now grow a garden for fun and barely or never eat out of it now. I know people who go to the store and buy the exact same kinds of food they have growing in their garden just because it's too much trouble to go out there and harvest it! That's what I call an art gardener.

Comment by anna Tue Jul 19 16:09:43 2011

I realized while thinking over it that we just have different terminology. Art implies that there is work and creativity and intention (maybe undiscovered) involved. It doesn't necessarily have to be visual art. A real artist makes her own decisions in the garden.

The type of person you are talking about isn't really making decisions, but simply responding pretty pictures (veggie porn, I like that) or fanciful ideas. They are consumers of art-- trying to replicate the hyper realism of a seed catalog in their own gardens. It's a waste of time if the primary goal is to grow food. That's not art to me, but just another breed of consumerism.

Comment by Sara Wed Jul 20 12:14:48 2011
See, you said it much better than I did. :-) It's the consumeristic side of what I'm calling "art gardening" that annoys me, and you hit the nail right on the head!
Comment by anna Wed Jul 20 14:34:46 2011

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