A couple weeks ago, there was a multi-garden-blog kerfuffle that resulted from, as so many multi-garden-blog-kerfuffles do, a guest post at Garden Rant. The post in question was written by one Robin Ripley, blogger and published author, on the topic of "ugly" vegetable gardens. A number of bloggers then responded to the post with their own posts,1 and it was all very exciting for two or three days, and then the whole thing kind of petered out.
I don't have a vegetable garden at the moment, and probably won't this summer, either. I had one last year, and not only was it ugly, it also didn't produce anything but a few ears of barely-edible corn (I think I waited too long to pick it off the stalks), I didn't enjoy any part of the process and was left with no particular desire to do it again. We've gotten as far, this year, as buying a few seeds and having conversations about how one might plan a garden on our small and oddly-shaped lot, which conversations invariably end in me getting so overwhelmed by the details that I throw up my hands and declare that it's all too complicated-sounding, and, you know, what the hell, I don't even like being outside during the summer and can never remember to water anything outside, so why are we even talking about this in the first place. So I don't really have a dog in this fight; my vegetable garden will probably be both immaculate and imaginary.
However. Being sort of a sucker for drama,2 I followed the links and read the posts and everything, and think both Ripley's defenders and detractors are aiming at the wrong things because people don't want to talk about the real reasons why her piece was obnoxious. Ripley herself claims to be "baffled" that people would take issue with her point that "that gardens take work, need maintenance and can be improved overall with some attention to design." So I thought that maybe there was still some value in dredging the whole thing back up again. To explain. Or possibly I just need to vent about it. Either way.
If you're sick of the whole argument, as I expect a lot of people are, you should probably skip this post and come back tomorrow.
The reader may read the article in question for him/rself, if s/he doesn't trust my summary,3 but here's how it plays for me:
A. Americans are planting vegetable gardens in greater numbers than before, due to the recession.Ripley backpedaled (barely) once the negative responses started coming in. What she was trying to say, she says, is:5
B. However, some of these gardens will be ugly.
C. They're ugly partly because some gardeners don't know what they're doing, or they don't care what they're doing. They don't weed, mix in compost, plan out the design of their gardens in advance, buy good equipment, or try to make it look pretty.
D. These people are bad.
E. People who plant vegetable gardens and then don't take care of them make the rest of us vegetable gardeners look bad.
F. I'd rather these people didn't garden at all, than make me look bad.
G. Sometimes my garden looks bad too, but when that happens I fix it, because I pay attention to things [unlike these other, bad people, who do not4].
H. In conclusion, clean up your vegetable garden or you suck.
A. I was just over-stating things a little; I got carried away, I exaggerated, I didn't mean all those horrible things you think I said. And also I didn't even say them.
B. I wasn't talking about your garden; I was talking about those other people's gardens, the ones abandoned because people took on more than they had time for.
C. If those other people (not you!) would pay attention to them and do a little planning ahead of time, their gardens could look really nice.
D. Probably they don't tend their gardens properly because they're so stupid and lazy that they think gardening is, or should be, as easy as pushing a button and getting instant vegetables.6
E. You probably shouldn't start a vegetable garden if you're not willing to work hard at it and keep up with it for the whole season.
F. People were angry with me for telling them they sucked, and will probably be mad at me again for telling them that gardening takes effort, because everybody is always so mean to me and I don't know why.
Now. Some of Ripley's defenders have tried to defend her using the argument well the title of the blog is Garden Rant, so she was supposed to rant about something, and she did, so what's everybody getting so bent out of shape about? This is a highly-efficient, time-saving approach, because it enables the speaker to excuse the post without having to read it first. But obviously there are a large number of super-offensive garden-related rants which nobody would excuse on the grounds that they're rants and the blog's name is Garden Rant and therefore it's okay. So I feel like this excuse is ridiculous on its face, as is the similar everybody's-entitled-to-their-opinions-and-isn't-it-great-that-we-can-all-have-different-opinions argument.7
I am told, and more or less believe, that Robin Ripley is a nice person, in person.8 And I doubt very much that she sat down to write the post with the intention of pissing off a large segment of the gardening blogosphere. Hence her surprise. But I'm baffled by her bafflement: what reaction could she possibly have expected to get?
It's not only that her piece is likely to discourage any rookie vegetable gardeners who happen to come across it, as many people pointed out, and that's unfortunate; it's not even that she's ego-tripping on the subject to the point where she thinks that every unsightly vegetable garden is somehow a reflection on her vegetable garden, though she is.9 It's that she appears to be completely unable to even imagine that there might be people out there who want to grow a vegetable garden but don't have the money to buy better than a cheap Wal-Mart tomato cage, who don't have a husband they can draft for weeding duty at a moment's notice, who lack the experience and knowledge it takes to do these things correctly from the beginning, who don't have years' worth of gardening equipment stockpiled in their garden shed (maybe they don't have a garden shed at all, not even a little one) or the free time to weed as often as they know they should, much less the free time to be -- for fuck's sakes! -- making their own bread, cheese, wine, and pastries by hand, as the author bio at Garden Rant states.10
She is, in short, forgetting to appreciate that she has things really damn good, better than most of the people reading her post. She has more experience, help, equipment, time, land, and money than most people who want to grow a vegetable garden have, and then she's telling these other people that if they can't grow a garden that meets her exacting specifications, they shouldn't bother to try.11
And then she's surprised when they respond that she should go fuck herself. If someone came up to you on the street and told you If you can't do any better at dressing yourself than these rags you're wearing, you should stop going out in public, what would you do? Smack them? Tell them to go fuck off? This is that. The offense readers of the Garden Rant post registered is offense of this sort. And they're not going to accept "What? Dressing yourself is something to take seriously, and it takes thought beforehand and effort. You can't just throw anything on and expect people to shower you with fashion awards. And maybe if they're not going to take it seriously, maybe they oughta stay inside," as an apology.
We do all have these moments where we forget that things are easier for us than they are for other people, and usually we can just be embarrassed about that in relative privacy and then go on, as opposed to having it publicly dissected across Twitter and a large chunk of the gardening blogosphere by a number of otherwise total strangers. So I do feel for Ripley a bit.
But it's hard to feel for her very much. I mean, I'd sympathize more if she had, anywhere in the original post or its defense, acknowledged that her particular situation makes it easier for her to plant and maintain a large, attractive vegetable garden than some other people's lives permit. Or even if she'd recognized that other people's ugly vegetable gardens are only her problem to the degree that she wants them to be. Instead, she complains about six-year-old soccer players getting trophies for showing up, because six-year-olds thinking they're good at soccer when they're only mediocre RUINS EVERYTHING.12 Or something.
The basic point about scaling your garden to the size you can reasonably manage is, no doubt, a good one. It's too bad Ripley was more interested in berating the new gardeners who will get this wrong than she was in providing information that might help them get it right, all for the sake of . . . whatever she got out of it. Publicity, I suppose.
1 The ones I've run across so far, in the order I ran across them:
- In the Garden Online,
- My Skinny Garden,
- Snarky Vegan,
- Read Between the Limes,
- Happy Hobby Habit,
- The Kat's Garden,
- The Dig-It-Yourself Garden,
- About.com Container Gardening,
- My Northern Garden,
- Terra Mirabilis,
- The Home Garden,
- Gardening in My Rubber Boots.
2 My original reaction to the article was to skim it and conclude that there was nothing relevant to me in it; my initial response to the controversy was bewilderment that anyone was taking it seriously. So many people were reacting so strongly, though, that I took another look.
3 Which is blunt, but I think accurate.
4 This part isn't stated that directly in Ripley's post, of course. But I don't know how else you're supposed to interpret sentences like "When [random unprettiness] happens, I move into action," and "Above all, we pay attention," in context of the rest of the post.
5 This abridged version is a little less accurate and less blunt, because, okay, I was amusing myself a little. But see if you can't find more or less these exact sentiments in the linked post anyway.
6 Because I expect people to object to this particular item more than the others, and to say things like but I never said anybody was lazy or stupid! I didn't even use those words in the post: Ripley says this in the follow-up post:
Our instant gratification society has led some of us to believe that any effort is a good effort and everything should be as easy as pushing a button. I believe we do a disservice to would-be gardeners by perpetuating the myth that they can grow luscious rows of bountiful vegetables without putting in some effort.
Both these sentences are pretty transparent straw man arguments. W/r/t the second sentence, do you know any garden blogger who has ever suggested that vegetable gardening is effortless? Can you even imagine someone doing so without being roundly mocked by all the other garden bloggers? I mean, maybe the occasional marketer will gloss over the less pleasant aspects of growing a garden, but, you know. Fish gotta swim, marketers have to mislead.
The first sentence bothers me quite a bit more, not just because it's a straw man, but also because there's something kind of icky about the psychology there. Any effort is not a good effort, Ripley would have it. Some effort is bad, is insufficient, is failure. This is an interesting perspective. I wonder about the interior life of a person who believes that there's no amusement or learning to be had even from a venture that fails to produce the expected results.
As far as I'm concerned, any effort is a good effort if you get something out of it: maybe you had fun doing it, maybe you learned how to do it better next year, maybe you learned it's not for you. I'd argue they're still valuable even if you can't eat them. By the same token, tremendous effort resulting in an enormous harvest of food isn't a good effort if you hated every second of it or plan to do it all exactly the same way next year, as far as I'm concerned. Would Ripley agree? I have no idea.
7 It's true. Everybody is entitled to their opinions, and to say them if they wish. But sometimes expressing stupid or offensive opinions has negative consequences. Most people have learned this by adulthood, and express or hold back their ideas according to the kinds of consequences they're likely to have. I note here for the record that Ripley herself has not, to my knowledge, tried to defend herself this way, though some of her defenders elsewhere around the net have, which at least tells me that she's smarter than some of her supporters.
8 Though one suspects that now that I've posted this, she wouldn't necessarily be all that nice to me, were we to meet. That's fair, though. Also I wonder about the niceness of anyone who can talk about our "instant gratification society" non-ironically. The phrase was practically invented to dismiss, insult, or claim superiority to whole populations of people, typically either younger people or Americans, for the crime of . . . what? Wanting things to be less frustrating, painful, or time-consuming? Have humans ever not been after instant gratification?
9 The stench of it's all about meeeeeeeeeeee permeating both the original post and the response to its criticism is pretty damn off-putting. We all have moments of thinking that the universe revolves around us (though most of the time people recognize the truth, which is that it revolves around meeeeeeeeeee, Mr_Subjunctive) and I'm tempted to give Ripley a pass on that basis. However, neither the original post nor the defense of the post mention why any of us should care what Robin Ripley thinks of our garden's appearance. I mean, yes, perhaps people would have a better time vegetable gardening if they planned things out first, and maybe people should know ahead of time that it's going to take a lot of work. But Ripley's life is going to be pretty much the same whether the vegetable gardens of the world are visions of heaven on earth or monstrosities that need to be burnt to the ground and covered with concrete so nothing can ever be grown there again. The only points she makes in either post that might pertain to other people in a non-aesthetic way are, one, that abandoned gardens may harbor pests and diseases which could spread to other gardens, and two, some people can't grow vegetables in their front yard because some homeowners associations prohibit them, because abandoned gardens look ugly.
These are both semi-legitimate, but I'm not sure the damage in either case is so severe that it justifies telling people not to try if they're not going to do it right. I mean, one is likely to deal with bugs and diseases regardless of who's gardening near you. Bugs and diseases are part of gardening. And homeowners associations are not static, unchanging facts of nature: they're people, and the opinions of people can be changed. Changing the rules of homeowners associations would be a lot easier if there were a lot more people in your neighborhood who also wanted to garden. If all the people who would stand with you against the homeowners association have been told that they may as well not try planting a garden if they're not going to get it right the first time, then no, you're probably never going to change the minds of your HA, but that's not exactly the fault of people who grow ugly gardens.
10 There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with making your own cheese. We should all be so lucky to have resources and time that permit us to do so. No doubt we'd be a lot happier, eat better, and so forth. The point where making your own cheese crosses a line is when one starts throwing phrases like "instant gratification society" at the people who don't have those resources or time, as though they could make their own cheese but are just too lazy to do so.
11 There's an interesting moment in the original Garden Rant post where Ripley segues subtly from actual things anybody probably should do in a vegetable garden, for best results, like enriching the soil with compost before planting, weeding early and frequently, and designing gardens with paths that will enable them to tend the garden comfortably, into a list of things which are clearly only personal preferences and aren't even necessarily relevant to the aesthetics, like including edible flowers for color, adding artwork and sculpture, and planning for chairs in which to sit and contemplate the garden. I'm sure these things are nice things to have, if they're the sorts of things you like, but they're also a matter of taste and opportunity. Also: we do not all live on "small" (21 acres = "small") Maryland homesteads and consequently do not necessarily have space for some of that crap.
12 Please. They're six. At six years old, half of them think they're going to grow up to be Big Bird, for fuck's sakes. If they truly can't play soccer, they're going to figure it out sooner or later.