Class and the Food Movement: The Pretty Ugly Garden

When Michelle Obama announced that part of the White House lawn was going to be devoted to food production, a lot of things came up. First, of course, were the racist watermelon jokes, but then there were the discussions about how production gardens are ugly, and how the White House has beautiful historic ornamental gardens that would be marred by the presence of vegetables, despite the fact that the history of production gardens at the White House is actually pretty old. Some presidents even kept livestock on the grounds, like Taft’s cow Pauline.

A bed of lettuce in the White House vegetable garden

(Photo of the White House vegetable garden by Carly Lesser and Art Drauglis)

But of course, Michelle was only part of a huge tradition not just at the White House but across the US of small vegetable gardens, a tradition recently becoming prominent as people take up backyard gardening or urban farming or whatever they want to call it. It seems like everyone’s trying to grow produce at home these days, which I am all for, whether they have a few containers on the fire escape or an actual yard to grow things in.

And, of course, hard on the heels of this movement comes the inevitable classism as cities start cracking down. I’ve discussed some of the access issues involved with backyard gardening before; things like contaminated soil, time to garden, training when it comes to learning how to grow things. And I’ve talked, as have many others, about how it reflects an appropriation of very old traditions without recognising and honouring their roots.

But today I wanted to drill down to a specific attitude about edible gardens, which is the belief that they’re not pretty. Because this is having some serious real-world consequences as cities try to claim that such gardens should be more tightly regulated, and in some cases, it’s even resulted in cities removing edible gardens and landscaping against the will of the tenant or property owner on the grounds that it’s a ‘nuisance.’

Growing food is a nuisance? What’s going on here?

Some production gardens are gorgeous. The White House gardeners, for example, have access to a lot of funds and creative talent so they can lay out a beautiful garden with high quality materials and they have staff to be be on it constantly with weeding, harvesting, and maintenance. Even a small production garden takes a lot of work and energy both to produce, and to look neat and pretty.

Others are more functional, but still quite pretty. Sure, there might be some empty beds resting after harvest, some crops getting a little straggly as they wait for seed collection, some beds that need weeding. Some production gardeners like to create amazing swooping, creative, elegant pretty beds, planting them in lush, colourful patterns and using a variety of cultivars to break up the monotony of looking at a uniform garden. Rather than just having one kind of kale, for example, a gardener might plant a rainbow of varieties and organise them in color blocks that will be both attractive and easy to harvest.

Some people are primarily focused on function, though. Their gardens are organised in the way that will yield the maximum crop with the least amount of labour. They may not be able to dedicate themselves full time to garden maintenance, so there are times when the garden might not look amazing. Even though it’s still producing food, which is awesome, and even though it’s featuring glorious plants that actually do something instead of just sucking up water and looking pretty.

These gardens might be less likely to feature edible flowers and other plants that cross the edible/ornamental divide. They can be more of a hassle to maintain, they can take up space the gardener wants to use for more high-calorie crops (because the focus, remember, is the production of food, the creation of nourishment), or the gardener might just not be into them. Some people don’t like eating flowers. When they are planting their food gardens, a dislike of eating flowers is a legit reason not to plant them.

But all of these gardens are contributing something valuable to the grower and the community, even if they look different. And all of them have a right to exist, whether it’s in a front yard where everyone can see it, a back yard sheltered from the elements, on a stoop, tucked into a fire escape. All of these gardens serve a multitude of important functions, helping people feed themselves, achieve food independence, connect with food systems, access fresh produce, and provide a demonstration to their communities.

Yet, cities tend to crack down on ‘ugly’ gardens, those with plants going to seed because gardeners can’t keep up (or are legitimately seed saving), those with empty beds, those with more weeds, those that aren’t always impeccably watered and trimmed and maintained. Those where the plants are grown in old plastic containers and cobbled-together boxes. Those where peas are trellised on awkward piles of junk rather than neatly-made (or storebought) lattice trellises that fairly sparkle in the light. Those where the beans sprawl everywhere.

These gardens still produce food, sometimes quite efficiently for their size. They’re important to their owners. And they tend to be owned primarily by people in the lower classes, because they’re the ones who can’t afford a major investment in planting supplies, in maintenance. They don’t have the time to be on the garden constantly, but they still care for it as best they can and extract as much food as they can.

And when cities start labeling some edible gardens ‘nuisances’ while praising others for looking pretty, they set up a clear class dichotomy and send an unmistakable message. One type of garden is allowed, preferred, welcomed as an example of how hip and progressive the city is. Another type of garden, like its owners, like its community, is gross and unpleasant and should be hidden away and never spoken of.

This is one of the many things we talk about when we talk about class war, the endless small ways in which the upper classes and elite push out members of the lower class, marginalise their lives, and treat them as worthless. It’s not just a garden.