Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about gardening and different cultures in America. As you know, I’ve been reading City Farmer by Lorraine Johnson. In chapter two of the book, Johnson talks a lot about gardens at the White House. Not only the one planted by Michelle Obama in 2009 in response to the Eat the View petition, but the also the many various gardens planted there throughout the history of the White House, both for the pleasure of the first family and for patriotism. Despite many people’s view that the Obama’s garden is just another exercise in “green-washing” (especially since the President seems to be alright with living in Monsanto’s back pocket), the first lady’s organic garden does seem to be having a positive effect. People are asking how they can do it too. It gives a little ammunition against HOA’s that prevent vegetable gardens, and inspires many people for whom garden would not otherwise be on their radar.
But why would home owners associations ban vegetable gardens to begin with? I wonder that a lot. A few years back as we were digging into our own earth, setting up our first compost bins, and telling people we had chickens in our back yard, we got a lot of funny looks. Urban homesteading was still a relatively unknown concept around these parts (to my mind anyway), and although a lot of people thought what we were doing was cool, most people felt they couldn’t do it themselves. One friend exclaimed “You can have a garden in the city?!” It was our turn to be shocked. Granted, this friend lived in a suburb with strict HOA regulations, and they might not have been allowed to do the same, but our response was, “Sure, you can grow food wherever there is dirt.” So with some people, particularly in our generation, possibly there is just a level of ignorance that is dissipating over time with this issue.
But another friend’s response made me wonder if there is more at work, keeping some people from getting that compost under their fingernails. In the midst of all our learning a few years back I had a friend that would constantly tell me to my face how great she thought everything we were doing was, and even ask me for advice about things. She even got to the point where she bought a huge, expensive composter and a couple cherry tomato plants for her back yard. But I found out that all the while, she assumed that we did the things we did because we were “poor.”
This friend lived in a big, expensive house in a new sub-division on the outskirts of metro-civilazation. She had a Starbucks allowance, a shiny new SUV, a son in Montessori school and her hair and nails were always done. Erica at NWEdible would call her a YuppieHippie. That’s just not the way I roll. I get my hair done when I can no longer stand it anymore (maybe every 6 months?), our SUV is going on 12 years old, is used to haul compost and roadkill and just rolled 140k on the odometer. And the house is small. These are all the same for me now as they were when Rick and I had two incomes. And we were gardening then too. So I was shocked to say the least about her assumption. Also, gardening and chicken coop building is not always cheap. Our CSA share and buying whole, locally raised, organic hogs and beef certainly weren’t either.
I generally think of gardening and self-sustainability as something that informed and educated people do. I think about cities in the Northwest with bike lanes and wind power and wish our state would catch up. I think about solar panels and how much they cost and what they’d save. I guess I viewed urban homesteading as something that you don’t do because you’re poor and have no other choice, but as something you do because you want to make a better choice.
Not that we were rolling in the dough. Far from it. There have been some pretty lean months in the last five years for us. But… hadn’t my friend just bought that $400 compost bin? Certainly she had to know this is not just for the poor, right? This made me think. Why would she assume we were poor (well besides the roadkill )?
Johnson addresses this in her book as well. As many families immigrated to the U.S., they brought seeds and gardening knowledge with them. They planted their gardens where they lived and kept up with the old ways, unaffected by social status and motivated to provide good, fresh food for their family. But their children, who were likely looked at as poor, being recent immigrants, were quick to dump the old ways and buy their food from the supermarkets. In many minds, growing your own food was a sign or symbol of not having the means to buy the same things.
I generally picture people immigrating in centuries past. In Colorado, while we have plenty of immigrants from Mexico and other places, I tend to think about immigration in terms of Ellis Island and my husband’s great-grandparents from Slovakia. His great-grandfather coming to America ten years before this great-grandmother, saving his hard-earned money to get her and their children here. It would never occur to me to think of modern-day immigrants in this way. But in some places, California for example, there are many hispanic families that have lived in the U.S. for generations as well as many recently immigrated Mexican families. And their culture is extremely different. My mom’s husband, though born in San Diego, is often mistaken for a Mexican, to the point where he carries his passport and all his i.d. when visiting his family in California, so he’s not taken for an immigrant or an illegal.
As I sat and thought about my friend’s view of our choices, I realized that she is from a state that is still flush with recent immigrants. And it’s likely that she was brought up seeing the immigrant families planting gardens, while her family never did. And the truth of the matter is that many immigrant families are poor when they get here. Perhaps many of the HOAs in those new, expensive sub-divisions are set up just to keep the images of the poor, front yard veggie gardens separated from the green, water guzzling postage-stamp lawns that symbolize American success.
Have you experienced this? Do you or did you view gardening and self-sustainability as a sign of status or culture? Has anyone made assumptions about your choices based on their views? Is gardening cultural? Does your perception of the culture or status of gardening affect your own efforts towards sustainability? What about HOAs – do you live where one restricts your ability to garden? Should they have the right to do this?