Is gardening ‘elitist’?

A discussion on a Facebook group had me mulling this over while I cleaned out the chook shed this weekend.

Australians are currently paying a great deal more for our fresh produce. This has led some to promote the idea of “growing your own produce.” Some have argued that this suggestion is ‘elitist.’

This caused a stir on one of the Facebook gardening groups I lurk in. I tend not to comment or share in these groups often. I prefer to look at the pretty pictures of roses and homegrown produce, and let others advise about whether that fungus is black spot or rust. I save my blathering on for this blog.

The ‘elitist’ post had upset quite a few people. They were outraged that someone could suggest that gardening is elitist. They fumed that of course gardening isn’t elitist, they aren’t wealthy, and so on…and so on.

I thought about my big backyard, my chickens in their coop, the money I spend on my gardening hobby. To some people, my mucking about in the backyard each weekend is the height of privilege.

Part of my backyard veggie patch in the height of Summer

So I did something I rarely do, and commented, something to the effect that I could see how, to some people, suggesting people grow their own to offset the cost of fresh produce could be elitist. It did not spark a conversation.

But you, gentle reader, choose to read my ramblings…

Gardening while renting

I’ve always had a garden. While renting, while a student, while broke. Always.

We bought our home relatively recently (about seven years ago). Prior to that, we rented our whole adult life. So I know what it feels like to really want to have your very own patch of dirt, and to be stuck keeping someone else’s yard looking nice.

And yet we still had a garden, through twenty years of renting.

But we did not successfully “grow our own” (by which I mean, at least 50% of our own fresh food) until we owned our own home.

I’m definitely not saying you can’t grow a lot of your own fresh produce while renting. There are ways you can do it, for example by growing in containers and carefully choosing the type of produce you grow. You can also try joining a community garden. We did all of those things.

But I do believe the limited control you have while renting often limits your ability to grow a productive garden to the extent that you really want to. For example, you can’t really improve the soil as much as you wish to or may need. You can’t easily plant fruit trees or perennials (like certain herbs), unless in pots, where they do not produce as well. You can’t install useful structures, like permanent trellising or irrigation systems. If you do decide to go ahead and do that anyway, if you have to leave, you can’t easily take them with you. And of course, you have to seek permission for everything you do.

While we were renting, we had gardens, and we grew some of our fresh produce. But if we were renting now, having a garden would not offset the inflated cost of fresh produce. We spent 20 years renting and gardening, and I can say from experience, that while it was a fun hobby, it never filled our fridge.

Gardening to save cash

I’ve written about this before. Gardening does not save money. Gardening is a great hobby. I love it. As a hobby, it is relatively cheap. But as a way to save money on fresh produce, it is not a great option. At best, you will break even. Even with prices as high as they are, my view stands. I have recently written about some veggies you can grow in containers, that will be good value. But you still need spare cash to buy the containers, potting mix, and seeds or plants. You still need money to set up a garden. If you don’t have spare money, then the advice to “grow your own” does sound tone deaf – and could come across as ‘elitist.’

If you do want to save some cash, grow lettuce from seed! If you have a small space or are renting, grow it in containers.

Time = money

There’s a reason I’m The Part-time Gardener: I work (actually, I run my own small business). If I want cash to spend on my hobby of gardening (as well as pay my mortgage, food, and heat), I need to work during the week – and sometimes on weekends. If I want to garden to “grow my own” I have to actively quarantine about 4 hours of my weekend, minimum, to achieve that. Realistically, I have to set aside more time in peak growing season.

There are plenty of people that work longer hours than I do, or that work more than one job. There are sole parents, or people with chronic health issues or disability, for whom working 4-6 hours a week in a veggie patch is a pretty laughable concept. Time and wellness is a precious commodity in their lives. “Grow your own” is not always an option if you don’t have the time, due to your caring responsibilities, work, or health considerations.

Once you’ve grown your own, it also takes more time to prepare and cook. I have a bucket of root veggies sitting outside that I picked yesterday. I still have to clean and prep them, before they can be cooked. They are beautiful and fresh – but also, kind of a hassle. I have to make the time to prep them. During the week, I do not have that time. It’s strictly a weekend thing.

I love that people want to turn to productive gardening as a way to offset modern challenges. Gardening is awesome. It’s my second favourite thing to do. But many people do not have access to the things needed to grow fruit and veggies successfully: land, good soil, some financial resources, and time.

There’s nothing wrong with being nudged to check your privilege sometimes. It’s not offensive – it’s a helpful reminder that our assumptions and opinions aren’t necessarily facts. When gardeners with land, good soil, some financial resources, and time, tell people without those things to “grow your own,” it does sound elitist. Because it is.

8 thoughts on “Is gardening ‘elitist’?

  1. For several years I gardened an elderly person’s yard. I split veg with her. I was vetted by her daughter. Single mom, lots of hours at work. Still, my son stayed with me, it was like a part time job not requiring childcare. A few years later I bought a ratty old house to fix up. With a big yard. Now a five acre native food forest and retired, no mortgage. I don’t live in NYC or LA or SF or Seattle, so don’t feel “elite”. I couldn’t afford those absurd prices. Podunk is good enough for me.

    Many folks feel entitled to elite housing in congested cities without the income to support it. I bought a small fixer upper and fixed it up without running the bars, vacations, etc. A modest life.

    When I see “grow your own” I think of the 44 million gardens in the US… about 1 per 7 people, and our potential to provide more fresh food for ourselves and others. The just in time global system requires both foreign slave labor and cheap energy. I guess in my 20s I was slave labor and cheap energy for the old gal down the street. Plus me and my 3 year old. It improved three lives.

    After 60, I built 2′ raised beds, much easier. Every winter I grow microgreens in pots indoors. I made a salad wall.

  2. Just wanted to say, the google news feed image accompanying this piece was low key hilarious, as I’m sure you didn’t mean to use marijuana seedlings to promote the story. Anyway, thanks for the chuckle 😆

    1. Hi Chris – definitely no photos of marijuana seedlings there! Just lettuce, carrots, and my garden (no pot in there). Not sure which images you are referring to – if Google has posted something else I am not sure where those images have come from! Thanks for reading and commenting though!

  3. Good article. I would say you don’t have to please these people who yak on about privilege and judge you without knowing you. You’ll always be doing something wrong in their book. You’ll be growing the wrong alfalfa, or killing the polar bears by drinking cow milk. Theyre highly conflicted, live messy chaotic city lives and just like to spew bile over anyone. Bad vibes!

    … They’re exactly the kind of people I took up gardening to avoid!

    Anyone who’s interested getting to know and love the earth and plants is doing good. You’re always learning and you’re coming into harmony with life and ecosystems.

    Also I would say gardening can and does pay over the long term and doesn’t have to be so intensive. Think of fruit trees for instance if you can. This year we’ll have hundreds of apples. Zero maintenance whatsoever. Except for picking and preserving. Same with an apricot and fig tree in Spain. Just hack it back a bit sometimes too. Again hundreds of fresh fruit. Zero transport costs. And more pie fillings, preserves, jams, jars, chutneys than you’ll know what to do with. Plus you can provide to visiting friends family and neighbours.

    If you look at where people have planted food forests and improved the soil. Or had compost heaps generating their own compost. Equally seeds are free every year once you’re established. That can keep the costs down and low. It increases the circularity of your garden.

    Of course it works best when you own your own property or land. But the issue of it being eliteist probably has more to do with issues around housing – mortgages, banks, population growth… Than it has to do with gardening.

    There are places which have cheap housing with gardens and it’s possible to live and grow a lot. You may have to live somewhere more rural or remote.

    In any case, breaking a sweat, digging, planting, picking, maintaining and processing your own food – is hardly elite. It’s incredibly earthy.

    Anyone claiming that you’re elite or privileged to be growing lettuces – really ought to try it out so they can empty their head of that Twitterati nonsense.

    Amen!

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for reading! I agree that gardening is earthy, healthy and one of the best hobbies ever (my favourite thing to do). Land is often very expensive. I guess for that reason, having space to grow your own could seem like a luxury. We have always gardened, but having our own place has really made it possible to grow so much more. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment.

  4. I personally live on a Half acre nice piece of property with chickens ducks compost bin worms food garden citrus pollinator garden and I’m on the poverty line honey not all gardeners are elitist oh by the way I live in a 42 year old crappy mobile home

    1. Hi Teresa, thanks for reading and commenting. It sounds like you have a lovely garden – very similar to my own set up (I don’t have ducks though). I didn’t say all gardeners are elitist, or even that gardening as a hobby is an elitist activity. I don’t think that. I said that telling people to ‘grow their own’ as a way to combat inflation and rising food costs could be seen or felt to be elitist to people without the space, money, time, or health to be able to ‘grow their own’ – and I stand by that.

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