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GREENFILE: Time to change what we call ourselves

Who are the gardeners?
Who are the gardeners?

Take a moment to pull the snapshot that is in your head of a gorgeous garden. It is in your mental hard drive somewhere. Got it? For some this is a brilliant, blowsy place full of colour and for others it may be a large expanse of lawn or even a golf course fairway. Chances are the image that you currently have stuck in your head is different from that of everyone else who has made the effort to find their image.

Now think about a gardener. What does she look like? What does she do? Is a gardener simply a farmer on a small scale? Or is a gardener a designer, an artist with skills like that of a painter?

Truth is, a ‘gardener’ as we knew it for several generations is no longer the person we once thought. In the 20th century, a gardener cut grass, trimmed hedges, planted plants in large mono-chromatic schemes and generally controlled what nature threw at her or him. We planted rose gardens, collected peonies and planted impatiens by the bucket-load: wide sweeps of the things bloomed en masse at the front of many suburban homes.

Gone. All of this is out the window.

The incoming generation of ‘gardeners’ is changing our concept of Canada’s most popular outdoor activity in dramatic fashion. The field of gardening is looking much less ‘field-like’ and more ‘condo-balcony’.

Eco Gardening

Take the environment for example. Foremost in the minds of millennials are native plants that attract pollinators. The decline of the honeybee is on their radar as are the declining populations of bats, snakes, frogs and many bird species. All of these are connected to the new gardening experience as we slowly come to the realization that our activity in the yard and garden has an impact on the universe within blocks of our home.

Think of the hummingbird that drinks nectar from your salvia. Then flits over the fence to bathe in your neighbour’s birdbath then on to the public park down the road to build a nest, lay some eggs and create another generation. When that hummingbird comes to your salvia, the furthest thought from its tiny little brain is that this is your space, your property and that you hold the deed and legal right to it. Hummingbirds couldn’t care less.

Our activity in the garden provides many health benefits to us, the gardeners. And for those who choose to just sit and view the results of our handiwork, there are benefits for them too. Gardeners figured that out generations ago.

What is dawning on everyone who loves to garden is that we are connected through our activity in the yard and our interest in creating beautiful and productive (as in food gardening) outdoor spaces with the broad natural world around us.

Gardeners are birders

Gardeners are conservationists.

Gardeners are hikers, walkers, often bikers and gawkers.

We spend a lot of time absorbing the environment in which we do our best work.

It is time then to consider another word to describe who we are and what we do.

The word needs to connect us to nature and good food.

We are earth-bound naturalists (not necessarily naturists or nudists, though we could be).

We are eco-implementers and designers.

We are water savers, air purifiers, earth rangers (that one is taken) and wildlife habitat builders.

We are food providers and hunger destroyers. We provide the raw material for the most amazing meals on the planet.

We are sustainable thinkers.

We are social connectors and community builders.  

We are artists whose work evolves as nature demands it: our work is never done.

We are solid citizens. We plant hope.

Prosperity is not measured in monetary terms in our world. Wealth creation happens when we partner with nature to create beauty.

The results of our work are dynamic, ever changing.

People and animals are welcome here.


Eleven years ago I journeyed to Giverny, France to see the 2 acre garden of Monet, the famous Impressionist painter. It has been beautifully restored and stands out for me personally as the greatest garden I have ever visited. I have returned twice since then and I have used many of Claude Monet’s design principles in my own 10 acre garden.

It was Monet who said, “The richness that I achieve comes from nature, my source of inspiration.”

It was during my first visit to his garden that it dawned on me that gardening is a multi-dimensional activity. It is far more complex than the common image of dirty knees and overalls, wellington boots and a rusty shovel.

Monet’s garden stands out not for what it is so much as what it inspired: a lifetime of extraordinary artistic achievement.

Perhaps a new word to describe gardeners is not necessary after all. Instead we need to continue to work at our image of the gardener: a sower of hope and a harvester of a better quality of life for all.

- Mark Cullen is an expert gardener, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at Look for his new best seller, ‘The New Canadian Garden' published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.

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