Pied Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Agriculture or Horticulture?

Farming or gardening?  What's the difference and does it even matter?  Merriam-Webster defines agriculture (and farming, for that matter) as "the science, art or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock..."  Horticulture's definition is very similar: "the science and art of growing fruits, vegetables, flowers or ornamental plants."  The definition of garden added herbs to the mix.  The difference seems to be whether or not the endeavor is commercial.  Plants for sale = farming.  Plants for pleasure = gardening.  This small semantic difference means a great deal in practice for me.  No matter how we love it, there's an optional air to gardening that doesn't exist for farming.

Public Library of Science, source here.

I think we plant people have erred when we try to apply the same principles across the board to both agriculture and horticulture. I think many gardeners now understand that vegetables can in fact be grown tucked into flowerbeds and patio containers.  I know lots of vegetable gardeners and not a single one of them has a 100-foot row.  Tilling every season is another practice, borrowed from agriculture, that is out of place in the ornamental garden.  (There's a bit of discussion out there now about whether it needs to be a part of agricultural practice at all, but that's for another time.)  And I, for one, am a little bit unsure whether chemical products tested in an agriculture environment will behave in the same way at home.  Mainly because I don't think gardeners behave the same way as farmers do.  Another discussion for later.

What concerns me today is what happens, though, when we try to apply good gardening techniques to farming.  I don't think it's appropriate to proclaim that one's own personal gardening preferences are suitable for agriculture as a whole.  For example, I don't use Roundup™ in my garden at home.  My yard is small and it's really just as easy for me to just pull a weed as it is to cook up some herbicide.  But I don't think it's out of line for farmers to use it.  As pesticides go, Roundup™ is on the low end of the toxicity scale.  It should be used responsibly and sparingly, but it's generally an environmental improvement over herbicides developed prior to 1971.

In 1850, 75% of American slaves were involved in the production of cotton.

Maybe I'm more sensitive to it because I garden in the South.  But I'm very much aware of what agriculture is like when farmers don't rely on certain beneficial chemicals.  I live in an area that was, in my lifetime, primarily cotton and sugar cane fields.  When these crops were introduced to Southeast Texas, they were only economically viable because some degree of forced labor existed.  First it was Native American labor, conscripted by Spanish missionaries.  Then it was slave labor.  Finally, prison farm labor provided the necessary manpower.  And guess what?  For most of that time, farmers used purely organic methods.  I'm not saying that organic gardeners favor slavery.  I am saying that some gardeners fail to look at the bigger picture.  For example, if cotton is not defoliated using certain chemicals, it must be hand-picked.  And picking cotton is no romantic, back-to-Nature experience.

Marinated cucumbers, organically grown

I'm not opposed to organic food, either.  I grow it, I buy it, I cook it, I eat it.  But I'm a person with the resources and the inclination to do it.  And I think it's short-sighted for us as a plant-community to insist that organically grown produce is the solution to the food production problems we have today.  I don't use much in the way of pesticides, organic or otherwise, in my garden.   But I do think it's possible to grow healthy, affordable food using non-organic (conventional) methods. 

Black spot
I don't think it's fair to claim that what's good for me in my little tiny less-than-a-quarter-acre garden will work for a subsistence-level farmer.  If I get black spot on my roses, I just put up with it.  If a farmer loses his crop to an insect pest, that's an entirely different thing.  Let's all step back a bit and try to see a bigger picture before we go around making rules that apply to the whole wide world.


  1. Elizabeth's logic applies to many more things than just gardening/agriculture, such as politics, religion and economics for starters. But that's for another time and another blog!

  2. I love all your thoughts.
    I've always considered myself a gardener, not farmer, because I put creativity into my garden. And I like your thoughts on organic agriculture. It's good, but isn't the answer for everything.

  3. interesting points about the type of labor required to grow organic food.