A growing divide on the gardening front

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 11, 2012 - 9:01 AM

The once-genteel fellowship of gardeners is fragmenting into factions, from hipster veggie growers who reject chemicals to ornamental traditionalists who aspire to perfect blooms.

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Rhonda Hayes was scrolling through tweets when she linked to something that got under her skin. A young male blogger declared that he didn't consider himself a gardener because he wasn't "a middle-aged woman who's been doing it just for the beauty of it and not considering all the other aspects."

"I was like, 'Wait a minute, honey!'" said Hayes, who gardens in Wayzata. To her, the comment implied a dismissal of mature female gardeners as out-of-touch growers of pretty flowers, as opposed to trendy organic veggies.

She fired off a tweet of her own, noting that she'd been "growing food before you were born." And she wasn't the only one who took offense. "Them's fightin' words," another reader commented.

"Fightin' words" were once exceedingly rare in the pastoral gardening world. But the blog explosion, the green movement and the edible-gardening renaissance are dividing gardeners into different -- sometimes prickly -- camps.

"It's noticeable," said Tom McKusick, publisher of Northern Gardener, the magazine published by the Minnesota Horticultural Society. "Things go through cycles, and right now, it's the traditionalists vs. those opposed to using chemicals."

The anti-chemical crowd tends to skew young; many of them view those who use herbicides and pesticides as shortsighted dinosaurs who are destroying the planet. ("Are Conventional Farmers Evil?" mused one organic-oriented blog.)

Traditional gardeners, on the other hand, say they're happy to see a new generation picking up the trowel, but grumble that some of today's newbie gardeners are self-righteous know-it-alls.

There are definitely different coalitions within the greater gardening community, said Julia Vanatta, a spokeswoman for the local chapter of Wild Ones, a national organization that advocates landscaping with native plants. "I don't see it as friction," she said. "But there's a divide geographically, and an age divide."

Younger gardeners tend to be enthusiastic about organic methods and edible landscapes, while many seasoned gardeners have established tastes and habits that lean toward ornamental plants. "It's hard for them to break from lilies and hosta and perfect roses," said Vanatta.

"It is an age thing," McKusick agreed. "Sustainability is kind of a buzzword. It starts with young people starting to get into gardening, focusing on veggies and growing their own food. For them, it's not a huge leap into other forms of gardening -- natives, rain gardens. If you've been gardening a certain way for a long time, you're likely to continue. If you're inexperienced, you don't have to make the leap."

Vanatta also sees a divide between those who live in city neighborhoods, where natural-looking landscapes are increasingly acceptable, and suburban dwellers whose landscape options are limited, often by associations and covenants, to manicured lawns. "You have to have a certain look or you're scorned," she said.

Communities may have their norms, but there are still different camps within neighborhoods. Suzy Troha, a Minneapolis gardener, falls firmly in the naturalist camp. "I'm a purist. I have a very strong opinion that anything I put in my yard that isn't native is taking something away from the natural environment," she said.

Her native-plant landscape is "messy looking, but I love it," she said. Some might view her garden as a "frumpy housewife," compared with other, more manicured ones in her neighborhood. But that's OK; her aesthetic has changed over the years, and a traditional garden now reminds her of Joan Rivers, she said. "It's overly done. Too many textures and colors, too busy and loud, too much of a good thing."

No one has flat-out dissed her landscape style, at least to her, Troha said. "But I've gotten cracks, in a kindly neighborhood fashion. One of my neighbors did say, 'Even a naturalistic garden does require some maintenance.'"

She assumes that "the lawn guys" (male neighbors who labor over their perfectly maintained turf grass) aren't fans of her landscape. "They probably cringe and have to look away."

'Hipster thing'

Veggie plots may be newly hip and trendy, but they weren't invented yesterday, seasoned gardeners point out. "For a lot of us, this isn't our first rodeo," said Hayes, a master gardener, blogger for startribune.com and MAWG (middle-aged woman gardener), an acronym she coined.

"Gardening was not sexy for a very long time, until just recently, when all the edibles started happening." But she was growing her own food decades ago. "I started a very intense and controversial front-yard kitchen garden in Wichita, Kansas," she recalled. "I was on the cutting edge."

After her children grew up and left home, "I lost my audience for food," Hayes said, so she now grows plants that feed wildlife rather than vegetables to feed her family. "Now I feel behind the times, especially in Minneapolis, where [growing veggies is] such the hipster thing."

Mike Lieberman, the California blogger (www.urbanorganicgardener .com) who made the comment about middle-aged women gardeners, said he meant no offense. "It's not derogatory. It's a fact," he said. "The audience for garden writing is a female-dominated audience."

When he started gardening in New York, growing veggies in pots on his Brooklyn fire escape, he couldn't relate to most of the information he was finding. "A lot of what's out there is about growing ornamentals," he said. "It was targeted to people with a lot of land and a lot of money. I was a twentysomething living in New York with not a lot of land and not a lot of money, so I came at it from a different angle. I saw an opportunity to bring in a new voice, a new perspective."

He has no interest in sparring with other gardeners, he said. "It doesn't accomplish anything. It takes energy and time that can be used more productively."

That's one thing Hayes agrees with him on. "Do we have to start choosing teams?" she said. "Now we're getting political with gardening? That was my one political-free area."

Garden rifts can appear more heated online than they are in real life, McKusick said. "The blogosphere is different than the garden magazine world. The number of garden blogs has exploded, and people are competitive about their views, they want to get hits, so controversies happen as a way to stand apart. People are trying to be heard."

But gardeners overall, and Minnesota gardeners in particular, are a tolerant bunch, preoccupied with their plants, not arguing in cyberspace. "Most gardeners aren't blogging," McKusick said. "They're too busy gardening."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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