Gardening and Culture: Are Food Gardens Just for the Poor?

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.

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.

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.  Our 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 about her assumption.  Also, gardening and chicken coop building is not all that 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 view 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 are 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.  Their cultures are 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 I.D. when visiting his family in California.

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.  It’s likely that she was brought up seeing the immigrant families planting gardens, while her family never did.  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?

Categories: Community, Garden, Recommended Reading, Sustainability | Tags: , , , | 21 Comments

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21 thoughts on “Gardening and Culture: Are Food Gardens Just for the Poor?

  1. Very insightful post! Our community has a lot of first-generation and many-generations-removed immigrants. I think the weird looks I get from folks when I talk about gardening, composting, chickens and the like aren’t so much thoughts about our bank account but instead our priorities…I get the sense that they’re befuddled as to why we would put so much of our time and resources into growing our own when it’s easier to buy at the grocery store (organic, even) and/or at the farmer’s market. For them, there would be no pleasure or pride in doing it yourself (just as there would be no pleasure/pride in making their own Starbucks rip-off at home or hanging your clothes on the line). Is it laziness? I think that’s part of it. But I also think it’s partly due to ignorance. They have no idea how much their choices are *really* costing them.

  2. Anisa

    I agree Michelle – I often think that ignorance of what our choices really cost us plays a big part. We too have gotten the “wow! That’s so much work!” type comments. 😉

  3. My friends used to think I’m cheap…but then when they begin asking questions, they began to realize where our priorities were. That we loved the ideas behind it, the savings, the health of it, the educational concepts, teaching our children work ethic, patience, and hope. They are beginning to understand that we love the process of life, not just the instant gratification that today’s society demands.

    • Anisa

      I love the way you put that – loving “the process of life, not just the instant gratification that today’s society demands.” SO true for us too!

  4. As soon as you posed the question, I knew the answer! People do still see gardening as a poor man’s ‘hobby’ – I suppose this is the generation that thinks that if you can pay someone to do it – why do it yourself…of course I know for you (and for me too) that IS the pleasure! It is a choice to put gardening up there – all the other homesteading activities too – I am right there with you! Love your blog.

    • Anisa

      Thanks Jenny – “poor man’s hobby” great way to put it. 😉

  5. Aunt Betty from the "Garden State"

    I am 75. I was raised in the South. Gardens were normal back then. I would rather buy from a local farmer than any where else. That when you know where your food comes from. I would take my kids to the farm to pick our own vegetables. It was a great bonding event that they still remember and now share with their children. I am very proud to Anisa my grand niece. I certainly will try to continue to spread the word. We would all be better off if more people did as you guys are doing. God bless you.

  6. Anisa

    Thanks Aunt Betty – it means a lot to me that you read! I’m glad we’ve been able to stay in touch! ❤

  7. Very interesting food for thought. I do think that there’s a prevailing line of thought that once you reach a certain socio-economic status it’s a sign of how wealthy you are that you don’t need to grow your own food. Like some of the other comments, I’ve come to realize (after many years) that just because something is advanced, new, or fast doesn’t make it better, that there is a place in this world for slowness and contemplation and savoring.

  8. Mom B

    I remember my grandfather’s garden in his backyard, he would take me out to pick a fresh home grown tomato and he would pick one too. The smell of the tomatos was so amazing! We’d wash them off with the garden hose and sit on the back porch swing eating them together. Something shared, a time just for him and me. A much treasured memory. A different mindset ~ a richer mindset. I am so proud of what you are doing and what you are giving and teaching your children

  9. My dad is a first generation American to Italian immigrants. The family always had a garden when I was growing up, but in my town, gardens were very plentiful despite socioeconomic status. I talk about gardening a lot, especially at work. The people who know I have a garden find it interesting, ask questions from time to time, and love it when I have extra food to bring in, but I have never gotten the feeling that they think I do it because I’m poor. If anything, they are intrigued with what I can produce and view it as a hobby.

    • Anisa

      I had a similar experience when I worked in an office. In fact I have a couple of gardening converts from my last job. But, do you think because you are sharing with coworkers, they know a bit more about your economic status – they probably assume you make around the same money they do. That’s why they find it interesting and see it as a hobby? What about people who don’t know you as well or what you do for a living?

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  11. juliaskinner

    This is a great post! I could never live anywhere with an HOA, not only because I don’t agree with their restrictions but to me it symbolizes a lifestyle built on impressing others rather than a lifestyle built on doing what makes one happy! We never planted veggies in the front yard when I lived in my mom’s old house (where there was an HOA) and I’ve made a point to live in neighborhoods that suit me a bit better since then. Our current house has food growing in the side garden, but I’ll be adding a lot to the fruit plants in the front next year too. Not sure how the rest of the neighborhood feels about it, but the folks directly next to us love the garden!

  12. Memories of my childhood include helping mom in the garden, both planting and harvest … and Daddy did the potatoes and corn, so he was also involved. There was a companionship and a learning process going on at the same time when you are side by side working. I learned there are “edible weeds” (and yes, I have harvested 2 kinds!) … and I learned how what I ate grew and got to the table (tho I preferred to eat most garden produce raw!). I remember a garden at each of the neighbors … and my aunt … oh how wonderful … she had STRAWBERRIES … every day!!

    Flower gardening, of course is always approved … it is more acceptable because it beautifies the neighborhood. In my “village” … it is common to see some flowers in most of the yards … either in beds, pots on decks, hanging baskets or all of the above! Gardens for food are fewer, but certainly not unheard of … and most people think it is “neat” … “quaint” … “fine for someone else” … “a lot of work” …!!!

    250 miles away in the great metropolis of the “Twin cities” of Minneapolis/St Paul, urbanites have been allowed to have a few chickens (not sure what else) … but out here in “rural” MN (population under 700), ordinances were passed against any kind of livestock, lest we be judged to be (heaven forbid) “Too rural” … we have to prove that we are “above that low life style” … or something like that!! I find it both funny and frustrating, as I would love to have a few chickens in my yard …

    My neighbor across the street is always the first to get a garden in every spring, and it is meticulously weeded and harvested … and sometimes I have been jealous! They are watched and marveled at by all and sundry …

    Last winter I got interested in “straw bale gardening” and had a lot of fun with that this year! I also put some potatoes on the surface of the ground (but IN sod!) and covered all with a 5-6 inch layer of flax straw … other than watering them when it was dry, I did nothing else until I harvested with a rake! Now I am digging up the area where flax straw helped to kill off the sod, and most of that will be flowerbed next year …

    Garden for food? Still in the planning stage … but I do it because it tastes better, I know there have been no chemicals on it … and it is good stress relief to get “back to my roots” …

    Thanks for spreading the word … “gardening is good for you” … I love browsing through your facebook posts, and hope to have time this winter to give more time to reading your blogs!!

  13. Great post. Yes, I have seen this, which is odd because I live in the land of the Urban Garden. But, our neighbor was thinking of putting in veggie beds and had a hard time convincing her husband to site them in their huge south-west facing full sun front yard because he’s from Texas, and in Texas “only the Mexicans have gardens in the front.”

    I hasten to say my neighbors are fantastic people, and as far as I’ve encountered not racist or bigoted or prejudiced….it’s just that those old feelings of “appropriateness” based on how you were raised can be hard to shake.

  14. lazyrunner

    My neighbor across the street just got told to pull up her front yard garden. Our HOA does not specifically ban vegetable gardens. She was told that homeowners were required to maintain the landscaping and colonial look intendged by the builders/planners. She had her vegetable garden in the front yard (southern exposure) because it was the only place that got sun. She’s been doing this for over 10 years in the same spot. It was always small 3×5 and kept very neat. We have other folks in the neighborhood who last year tore up enough yard (landscapting) to add an additional parking spot to their driveway. Other neighbors, inclduing myself, have torn up existing grass/plantings to plant self sustaining/native plants. I’m waiting for the letter from the HOA now. They were going to charge her $50 a day for every day she left the garden in. What kind of country are we living in that neighbors can tell naighbors to not plant their own vegetables. I had to grow my own when I lost my job. I’m working, but will continue to grow mine. I am lucky that the sun is in the back of my house (backyard veggie garden allowed by HOA). My neighbor has pulled up her already beutiful garden and transplanted most of it to pots that sit on her front porch. I’m hoping to save enough money to be able to move out of this HOA and never live in another one. Sick sick sick indivduals on the HOA board here in CT.

  15. Peggie

    Interesting thing about the “colonial look”. Historically, colonists kept small kitchen gardens near the house – front, back, side, wherever worked. They also kept a small henhouse and pig pen. Seems to me your neighbor is much more “colonial” than the rest.

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