The Garden as Art, Hobby, and the Good Life

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  • 1 Department of Agricultural Economics, Oklahoma State University, 308 Agricultural Hall, Stillwater, OK 74078

Gardening is a popular practice despite the abundant and affordable food at the grocery store, suggesting gardening is more than just a way to obtain food. The purpose of this article is to explore these other motivations. Evolutionary and pragmatic motivations are first explored, and then discarded, in favor of a values-driven approach. Gardening is depicted as both a form of art and a hobby. As an art form, the writings of iconic philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Martin Heidegger—as well as modern philosophers—are used to articulate the meaning of gardening as an aesthetic experience. As a hobby, gardening is a socially approved form of leisure and productive play. The conclusion is that, in addition to obvious physiological benefits such as food and exercise, gardening helps us acquire higher needs, such as self-actualization and transcendence. Why do we garden? No simple answer can suffice. Gardening, like many interests, is performed both for an end product and for the process itself. Gardeners can hardly be expected to be able to articulate their reasons, just as sports fans would have difficulty articulating why they watch football, or music lovers explaining why songs mesmerize them. When pressed, their answers will be mostly a tautology (e.g., I simply like it). However, this does not mean we cannot make progress in understanding the motivations for gardening. Gardening is a form of exercise, it is a hobby, and is performed for aesthetic pleasure, and research on motivations for all three of these exist—especially that regarding aesthetics.


Gardening is a popular practice despite the abundant and affordable food at the grocery store, suggesting gardening is more than just a way to obtain food. The purpose of this article is to explore these other motivations. Evolutionary and pragmatic motivations are first explored, and then discarded, in favor of a values-driven approach. Gardening is depicted as both a form of art and a hobby. As an art form, the writings of iconic philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Martin Heidegger—as well as modern philosophers—are used to articulate the meaning of gardening as an aesthetic experience. As a hobby, gardening is a socially approved form of leisure and productive play. The conclusion is that, in addition to obvious physiological benefits such as food and exercise, gardening helps us acquire higher needs, such as self-actualization and transcendence. Why do we garden? No simple answer can suffice. Gardening, like many interests, is performed both for an end product and for the process itself. Gardeners can hardly be expected to be able to articulate their reasons, just as sports fans would have difficulty articulating why they watch football, or music lovers explaining why songs mesmerize them. When pressed, their answers will be mostly a tautology (e.g., I simply like it). However, this does not mean we cannot make progress in understanding the motivations for gardening. Gardening is a form of exercise, it is a hobby, and is performed for aesthetic pleasure, and research on motivations for all three of these exist—especially that regarding aesthetics.

The question of why we garden is more than an intellectual curiosity. Gardening is an enormously popular practice that generates billions of dollars in plant sales in the United States (HortiDaily, 2020). According to one survey, 42% of American households grow some of their own food and 75% participate in some form of lawn or garden activity (National Gardening Association, 2021). Another survey found that Americans are increasingly interested in establishing a friendly habitat for pollinators and native plants, indicating that gardens are more than just a source of food and visual beauty, but also a connection to nature. That survey also showed that gardening is surprisingly popular among the younger generation (Ordóñez-Lancet, 2020). In the United Kingdom, gardening is considered “cool” by 18- to 34-year-olds, and 54% of them would rather spend time in a garden center than dance in a nightclub (Knight, 2021).

Let us quickly dispel the notion that people garden simply for cheaper or higher quality food. In some cases this motivation is at play. Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) are often better when ripened on the vine in the backyard garden. In some areas with poor access to retail food, gardens may be relied upon as a food source, but anyone who has gardened will testify that it is not cheaper to grow food oneself, at least not in developed countries. Campbell (2019) argues that even if cost or quality is named as the motivation for gardening, if you could prove to gardeners they are wrong, they are likely to continue gardening anyway. Bell peppers (Capsicum annuum) grown for food, purple coneflowers (Echinacea angustifolia) grown for pollinators, crabapple trees (Malus sylvestris) planted for beauty—these are activities performed for aesthetic reasons, for the joy of the process and its nourishment of the body.

To understand why we garden is to gain profound insights into human nature. After all, gardens are ubiquitous scenes in the pageantry of human history, serving myriad purposes. Epicurus gathered his students in his garden to explain why the gods do not exist (or if they did, why they were indifferent to humans). Catholics erect Mary gardens to honor the mother of their god. Victorian English would boast of their gardens, containing flora of all the nations the British Empire had conquered, whereas Native Americans today nurture native gardens to preserve the varieties of maize (Zea mays) almost driven to extinction by European settlers (Campbell, 2019). Although a totem pole or an Islamic prayer rug is specific to a certain culture, gardens play a role in all cultures and time periods, making gardens objects of material culture (Mukerji, 2013) from which we can better understand ourselves.

The objective of this study was to explore the human motivations for gardening to help horticultural academic departments better understand the reasons for their existence, and to aid the horticultural industry in understanding its customers. Human motivations are first described as a set of terminal values/goals identified by modern psychology. The question of how gardening achieves some of these values is then addressed by viewing gardening as the product of human evolution, as an aesthetic experience, and as a hobby. The article concludes that horticulture is unique in that it not only provides basic physiological needs such as food and exercise, but also helps one reach higher goals such as self-actualization and transcendence.

Platonic forms and terminal values

Asking a big question such as “why we garden” requires us to develop conceptual models of human nature. This article uses a variety of studies from the fields of history, psychology, and philosophy. It does not attempt to identify the single major motivation, but instead seeks a synthesis for why people spend time and money growing plants for pleasure.

If gardens are more than just an alternative source of food, what exactly is the gardener attempting to achieve? It must be something more subtle, something that makes gardens less a means to an end and closer to the end itself. The general goals humans pursue in life are referred to by psychologists as terminal values, and research suggests a standard list of 18 universal terminal values: 1) true friendship, 2) mature love, 3) self-respect, 4) happiness, 5) inner harmony, 6) equality, 7) freedom, 8) pleasure, 9) social recognition, 10) wisdom, 11) salvation, 12) family security, 13) national security, 14) a sense of accomplishment, 15) a world of beauty, 16) a world at peace, 17) a comfortable life, and 18) an exciting life (Rokeach, 1973).

In philosophy, such terminal values can be approached as platonic forms, reaching back to the writings of Plato and his idea that a flower may be beautiful, but beauty is itself a “thing” that exists independently of that flower. An effective garden is one that is in harmony with nature, and “harmony” also exists separately and transcendent of a harmonious garden. When Plato described the “highest” or “one” god, he named it the Demiurge, and explained the Demiurge used the template of the beauty-form to create beautiful objects, and the template of the harmony-form to craft a natural world in balance (Plato, 1977). When humans seek happiness, tranquility, and meaning, they are reaching for singular goals that seem to exist above and beyond the world of natural objects. They are yearning to encounter platonic forms.

It is easy to see how gardening can provide a connection to many—perhaps all—of these terminal values. Being able to grow one’s own food elicits self-respect, freedom, and family security. Victory gardens during World War II aimed at national security. Less affluent communities today establish community gardens as a way of acquiring the same fruits and vegetables as the more affluent, achieving a semblance of equality (Norwood and Mix, 2019). Learning how to prune tomatoes properly instills a sense of sagacity, achieving wisdom. In a Mary garden, salvation can be sought; the exercise gardening provides can be pleasurable; and a well-maintained garden certainly provides a feeling of a world of beauty, a world at peace (Campbell, 2019).

Although these terminal values are useful concepts, explaining that gardens achieve outcomes like “a world of beauty” still does not tell us much. It begs the question of what “beauty” is. Asking these questions requires some sort of conceptual framework in how we encounter the world, and this article adopts Roger Scruton’s (2014) cognitive dualism. Scruton contends that humans experience the world through two distinct approaches: 1) the physical laws of the world and 2) interpersonal relationships and meaning.

Consider the first approach. A pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis) can certainly be described in terms of the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation reflected off the tree and entering the human eye, just as a song can be described by the frequencies of its audio waves. The tree’s growth and fruit are driven by biological processes, just as a poem (and any human activity) has evolutionary origins. These physical laws are important when considering evolutionary motives for gardening, but alone they provide only disappointing answers to our question of “why we garden,” so consider the second approach, where landscapes and music are understood by humans’ relationship to each other, the world, and to platonic forms. If that pecan tree has belonged to the same family for multiple generations, it is a character in the family’s saga, and this character’s role is better described by interpersonal human relationships than waves of electromagnetic radiation. If the tree falls during a thunderstorm, the loss is more than just a reduction in future pecans or a change in scenery. A part of the family itself is gone, and stories about the tree will be told.

In what follows, this article first considers the motivations for gardening that might derive from evolutionary forces (Scruton’s first approach to life). That discussion, however, can only take us so far, inducing us to turn to Scruton’s second component of cognitive duality. The article then considers the meaning that gardening provides in a person’s life. There we will see that gardening, whether considered a work of art or a hobby, is a profound act of artistic expression and personal virtue.

The evolutionary approach

The pleasure of gardening can be explained in part by evolutionary pressures, much like the joy of sex and food. Researchers have suggested that artistic endeavors such as gardening may have emanated from behavioral tendencies that have already evolved (Tiege et al., 2021). For example, an appreciation for nutritious food and the desire to set such foods apart from dangerous foods may have led to a desire for separation in landscapes that led to the cultivation of vegetable gardens. The appeal for such separation might then be extended to make other types of gardens seem aesthetically pleasing, like rose (Rosa) gardens or even poison gardens (i.e., gardens containing only poisonous plants).

Researchers have documented a wide array of similarities in preferences for landscapes that suggest an innate yearning to garden. For example, when describing the type of art people prefer, it tends to include blue skies and a mixture of climbable trees and savannahs/prairies. An evolutionary explanation for this is the desire for “prospect and refuge,” where there is enough visibility to scout for predators and prey, but also enough cover to escape from predators (Dutton, 2009). We like such scenes in paintings, and we like them in our yards. Just as our craving for salt can be explained by its necessity for biological functioning and its rarity in nature, and just as that evolutionary pressure is manifest in our diets despite today’s ample salt supplies, our positive emotional response to certain landscapes is a logical explanation for the pictures we hang on our walls and the way we landscape our yards.

There is indeed something about gardening that appeals to human biological functions, suggesting the desire is innate—so much so that it is a successful treatment for mental health issues (Clatworthy et al., 2013). However, it is unclear exactly which aspects of gardens improve biological functioning: the exercise, interaction with plants, fresh air, or all of the above? Gardeners do often enjoy their encounter with nature (Kaplan, 1973), and encounters with nature have restorative properties that reduce stress and improve mood (Korpela et al., 2008). It is also a legitimate form of exercise, leading to improvements in both physiology and psychology (Wang and MacMillan, 2012). This, of course, does not prove the link between evolution and the love for gardening, but it suggests an atavistic relationship that points toward evolution.

Explaining the desire for gardens as a product of evolution might technically be true, but then any biologically normal behavior [normal as defined by Wachbroit (1994)] can be explained by evolutionary pressure. Some behaviors are obviously a manifestation of evolution, but other behaviors, such as our love of music, are more of a by-product of other evolutionary pressures, in that music did not evolve with the objective of causing us pleasure, but for some other reason, such as facilitating group cohesion or enhancing communication, both of which can increase a group’s relative acquisition of resources (Malloch and Trevarthen, 2010).

This article first paid homage to the evolutionary foundations of garden motivations as they fulfill Scruton’s first component of cognitive duality—namely, our understanding of the world as a manifestation of the natural laws that govern it. This homage was brief, though, as however true the evolutionary explanation may be, it does not describe the meaning of gardens as humans perceive it.

The philosophical approach

To the extent that gardens serve as aesthetic pleasures, the philosophical approach to why we garden might be the most useful. Gardens have been a focus of philosophical ruminations for centuries, as shown in the following sections, where writings from 1790 to 2008 are discussed.

Immanuel Kant

The modern philosophy of aesthetics begins with Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), who sees a paradox in aesthetics. In one sense, what constitutes an aesthetically desirable garden is subjective, and yet we make judgments about “proper” gardens as if they are objective in nature. (Do we not judge each other’s lawns?) This paradox is resolved in part by remarking that what is considered “good taste” is determined by the objects themselves, giving the semblance of, if not the fact of, objectivity.

Kant’s distinction between mere pleasure and aesthetics is particularly important for us. To enjoy a garden simply for the immediate feelings it provides is what he calls pleasure; but to really appreciate the garden for what it is, makes it an aesthetic experience. Sex is pleasure, unless sex is explored through poetry, in which it becomes aesthetics; likewise, enjoying a garden is one thing, but contemplating the garden makes it art. To remove one’s personal interest from the aesthetic calculation and value the aspects of a garden as it is—appraising the garden in a way that seems independent of the appraiser—is to engage in aesthetic enjoyment.

Kant seems to have a particular reverence for gardens when discussing beauty. He sees an analogy for the regulated natural world and the sense of order reflected by rational human minds, and thus he particularly reveres nature. There is an order to the human mind, and there is an order to the natural world. Kant’s obsession with the rational ordering of the human mind usually has objectivity as its goal, and seeing the reflection of this order in nature lends the aesthetic experience a further sense of objectivity.

The aesthetic experience does not stop there though. The recognized harmony between our rational faculties and nature constitutes what Kant describes as “beauty.” When we go one step further and contemplate how nature has more mysteries than the human mind can apprehend, and that it can never be completely controlled by humans, we then experience what Kant calls the sublime (Kant, 1790; Scruton, 2001). The importance of mystery in the aesthetic experience will return as we explore the writings of Martin Heidegger.

For now, what is important is that Kant’s philosophy suggests gardening might provide the benefit of taking us beyond our mundane daily living and connect us to something more profound. The garden is pointing to platonic forms, where we look at an object of beauty and contemplate not just the object, but beauty itself. We see living objects and contemplate life; we see what is good in the garden and contemplate goodness. This may sound rather lovely, but it can be taken down a macabre path, and to demonstrate this let us now turn to Arthur Schopenhauer.

Arthur Schopenhauer

The idea of aesthetic enjoyment arising from a detached appreciation of objects—an appreciation pointed at platonic forms—played a large role in Schopenhauer’s (1788–1860) theory of aesthetic pleasure. This peculiar philosopher possessed an ambition exceeded only by his pessimism, for he crafted a holistic theory of the world that explained everything from the movement of dust to the emotions of humans, and this theory depicted a world of mostly suffering—from which aesthetic pleasure provides only a temporary (but important) reprieve. The universe in his theory is driven by two basic forces, one of which is particularly relevant to aesthetics: the will, a universal force leading to life and striving.

The will is what causes humans to desire some things and avoid others. It is what animates inanimate matter into plant growth. It is even the mother of causation itself, and all the laws of physics that mediate causation. Rather than having a grand design for the flourishing of life, the will is indifferent to pain or pleasure, seeking only a “striving for life” and consequently producing mostly suffering in sentient beings. When professors neglect their personal life to obtain tenure and, unsatisfied with tenure, seek greater recognition from their peers, finding only momentary satisfaction but ceaseless desiring, that is the will.

Aesthetics is then seen by Schopenhauer as a temporary release from the will’s grasp. Appreciating an aesthetic object such as a garden entails thinking of the object in relation to 1) platonic forms and 2) oneself as a pure will-less subject of knowledge. It provides a unique perspective of oneself and the world. In terms of gardening, the garden itself is thought of in terms of beauty itself (the platonic form), and gardeners recognize that they appreciate the garden in an objective manner (the will-less subjects who contend the garden is beautiful even if they have never seen it). Given a reprieve from the will, the person achieves a unique form of pleasure, and that for the person is the source of joy in the arts.

In addition to writing about aesthetics generally, Schopenhauer takes on the appeal of gardening specifically. Unlike Kant, gardens are ranked low in his hierarchy of arts. Music is the ultimate aesthetic experience because it is the closest thing to a platonic form. Architecture is the lowest aesthetic experience because it represents little more than the victory of friction over gravity. Gardening accompanies architecture in the lower rung of aesthetic experiences, for objectifying the plant world is more profound than objectifying the laws of physics, but humans’ limited ability to control plants creates a chasm between the garden and platonic forms.

Within Schopenhauer’s theory of the world, we can retrieve some basic motivations for gardening—some reasonable narratives for why a curated world of plants provides a sense of peace. First, unlike architecture and music, both of which require natural talents, attractive gardens are relatively easy for humans to create. Second, active gardening can rarely be seen as the sole product of the will, and is thus a context in which humans can contemplate higher ideals and see themselves as something of the detached-yet-tranquil philosopher. The “world,” ruled by the will, is temporarily exiled (Schopenhauer, 1995).

Philosophers not in the Schopenhauer school echo similar sentiments about the garden as a refuge. Scruton, a prominent leader in the philosophy of aesthetics, describes how the garden does not serve a merely utilitarian purpose. When we enter it, we leave our “purposes” behind. In the spirit of Kant, Scruton explains that leaving our purposes behind does not make us devoid of purpose, but elevates us beyond purpose (Scruton, 2014), where we leave the world of striving behind and embrace platonic forms. We become dissolved into something greater.

Martin Heidegger

Heidegger is a particularly difficult philosopher to study for two reasons. First, he was an unrepentant Nazi, and yet his philosophy is deeply compelling, creating discomfort for any reader with a conscience. Second, his writing is frustratingly confusing, his thoughts enigmatic, and it is not clear that anyone—including Heidegger himself—truly understands his philosophy. Although his philosophy of aesthetics begins in a very different place than Kant and Schopenhauer, ultimately his conclusions are not (at least by this article’s interpretation) vastly different, making his writings worth exploring.

Heidegger’s philosophy is a form of phenomenology, which can be thought of as the study of conscious experience. This is a different approach to philosophy, one created by his mentor Edmund Husserl but revolutionized by Heidegger himself. It is different in that, in phenomenology, we are not asking about the world as it exists objectively, but how the world is experienced by humans (Sokolowski, 2000).

To understand Heidegger’s view on aesthetics, we must first understand his conception of truth. The common notion of truth concerns whether a statement conforms to facts about the world. Heidegger is pursuing a different form of truth, something more primordial. Instead of asking whether a statement is true, Heidegger’s “truth” concerns the decision of which statements we choose to evaluate and which aspects of the world we consider facts to begin with. Truth for Heidegger also has a dual nature, in that when it reveals, it also conceals.

To illustrate, consider the following. A physics experiment validating the impenetrability of a bullet-proof vest conceals the fact that the vest actually consists of mostly open space (atoms are mostly open space). An experiment shooting photons through the vest will reveal it is mostly empty space, but that experiment conceals the fact that it stops bullets. A person who lies about why they cannot attend your party is revealing two truths within his lie: 1) that he did not want to attend your party and 2) something prevented him from telling you the real reason why. Every revealing of the world always affirms one set of truths and hides another.

Because there is a limited number of ways in which our world can be revealed, there will always be a portion of truths that is concealed to us, and what is concealed is referred to as “earth.” This choice of terminology is unfortunate for an article on gardening, so earth in italics refers to Heidegger’s earth. Our existence combines both the world (the part intelligible to us) and earth (the portion that is not). We are aware of both world and earth because we are aware of what we understand and we are also aware that mysteries remain. When something makes us aware of earth, it becomes, from Heidegger’s viewpoint, holy or sublime. He further contends that earth, as it is revealed in mystery, projects moral authority (Blattner, 2006; Heidegger, 1962, 1971, 1977; Young, 2001, 2002).

Remember, Heidegger is not describing scientific truths, but truth as it is experienced by a conscious person. A few examples will help. Catholics worship the god whose earthly life they literally deem a mystery in their liturgies. Rather than convincing soldiers that a battle should be fought on a particular day through evidence and logic, ancient Romans justified their war strategy to soldiers based on the random behavior of sacred chickens. Not to understand something reminds us of our physical and cognitive limitations, making what we do not understand seem greater, and thus often worthy of authority.

An aesthetic experience for Heidegger is the joining of world to earth. It can be thought of as earth “protruding” through world, or “strife” between the two (Heidegger, 1977; Young, 2001). An illustration may help. Consider someone new to gardening who purchases a hardy hibiscus (Hibiscus moscheutos) plant for her backyard. All summer she marvels at its large pink flowers, and the bees seem to like it even more. In winter, it dies, and she laments its departure but plans to buy a new plant in the spring. To her surprise, in spring it begins to grow again from its base. This is unexpected. Being new to gardening, she does not know a plant can do such a thing. Yes, her trees grow dormant in winter, but they do not lose their trunk and branches. The gardener develops a different understanding of how plants can behave, and now when she buys a plant, she checks whether it is an annual or a perennial, a question she did not know to ask the previous year.

Something she did not understand (earth) rose from the ground and into her world. Throughout the summer she not only enjoys the hibiscus flowers’ appearance, but also views that plant as something sublime, because it both changed her perspective on how plants can behave, but also gave her a new understanding of nature’s indomitability. That plant is something of a sage to her, an oracle of nature’s wonders. What she did not understand revealed itself in her world, dispensing some truths but also concealing others, and she not only develops a new understanding of plants, but adopts a more reverent attitude toward the natural world. That, to Heidegger, is an aesthetic experience.

It is an idea similar to Kant’s encounter with the mysteriously sublime and Schopenhauer’s contemplation of platonic forms. As Kant sees in nature a logical process that mirrors logical truths, Heidegger sees in art an unveiling of truth and authority. Despite the vast differences in the philosophies held by Kant, Schopenhauer, and Heidegger, all three see art—and thus gardens—as something that is great in and of itself, but also something that a thoughtful person pursues.

Indeed, throughout his career, Heidegger increasingly turned toward poetry (in the broad sense) as the best means of describing conscious experiences. He may be the most difficult philosopher to understand, but he is also among the most influential. Existentialist philosophy would be impossible without him—a philosophy that has been used by psychologists for explaining the behavior of adolescents (Bilsker, 1992) and identifying strategies for effective psychological therapy (Koole et al., 2006; Temple and Gall, 2016). However esoteric his writings may be, they are not the polemic of a mad Nazi, but the entrance to an entirely new perspective of a human’s place in the world that many find productive. Indeed, we will see that the most extensive investigation into the philosophy of why we garden uses the Heidegger perspective.

David Cooper

The discussion thus far largely concerns aesthetics in general and gardens as one among many aesthetic pleasures. Fortunately, one philosopher has addressed gardens exclusively, seeking to understand the special place of gardens in human culture. In A Philosophy of Gardens, Cooper (2008) explores a wealth of writing on gardening to provide a succinct, profound, and compelling explanation for why we garden. This explanation comes packed with one “modest” proposal (his words) and one “further” proposal.

The modest proposal is, “The Garden exemplifies the massive, but often unrecognized dependence of the human creative activity upon the co-operation of the natural world … exemplifying the degree to which, more subtly, experience of natural environment depends upon human creativity. When combined, the two themes deliver the idea of The Garden as embodying a unity between human beings and the natural world, an intimate co-dependence” (Cooper, 2008, p. 135). Seeing that a garden depends on the cooperation of nature may seem obvious, but in what sense does the natural world need the cooperation of humans?

Though Cooper calls it a modest proposal, it is still a deep insight that takes some unpacking. Certainly, nature can, and for most of history has, operated without the assistance of humans. Although domesticated plants do often require human care, this is not the only aspect of cooperation that Cooper is considering. Humans provide nature something it cannot achieve on its own. The act of gardening—and contemplating that garden—bestows nature with a recognition—a life—it cannot achieve on its own; it invites nature into the human world. Though nature itself is not sentient to this gift, it certainly seems that way to humans, and just as Kant argued that aesthetics seems—but is not—objective, humans seem to give back to nature even if nature is oblivious.

If that is the modest proposal, what is Cooper’s immodest proposal? It is that the “meaning” of a garden is ultimately posited as “an epiphany of man’s relationship to mystery” (Cooper, 2008, p. 145). Understanding this requires us to revisit Heidegger’s philosophy of truth. There is a truth revealed in the grocery store, such as the truth that people are willing to sell broccoli (Brassica oleracea var. italica) at a certain price. Such a truth is practically useful but imparts little meaning. It is not art. Raising a broccoli plant unveils an entirely different set of truths that is typically ignored in the normal course of life. There are all sorts of insects that like to chew on broccoli leaves. The plant will die if its roots remain completely soaked and will die if the roots remain completely dry. The plant grows well in the heat but tastes better when grown in cooler weather. If you do not harvest the broccoli in time, the head bolts and transforms into many lovely little flowers.

These are just facts, so what is the mystery? In ancient Greece the word mystery referred not just to an unknown, but also to a revealing, and this is how Heidegger thinks about it. The broccoli plant began as a wild B. oleracea that was hardly a coveted food, and it still grows today along the banks of the English Channel. After domestication and careful breeding, it led to cabbage (B. oleracea var. capitata), kale (B. oleracea var. sabellica), cauliflower (B. oleracea var. botrytis), and broccoli. Even if gardeners are not aware of this, they are somewhat aware the plant has a long history and has been handled and consumed by countless people.

Behind all this, though, is nature itself, by which is meant both the natural world and the ancient definition, which includes physical forces. Even after all we now understand about evolution and the genetics of the broccoli plant specifically, there remains a sense of wonder that out of all the endless possibilities, we arrived at this plant. It did not have to be this way, so there is reason for gratitude. Like the gambler who prays for luck and receives the ideal card, humans have prayed for nutrition and beauty. The gambler thanks the source of his luck and humans (well, adults at least) thank the source of their broccoli.

There was a whole world with a set of preconditions that led to the broccoli plant, and this world and its preconditions are also responsible for everything around us. From human consciousness to messenger RNA, the world we encounter is one that is seen as a gift of things we cannot fully fathom. It is a mystery, but it is partly revealed in broccoli, and so in raising that plant we are going on the very intellectual quest Plato challenged us to assume.

How does this mystery impart authority, though? Authority here refers to a sense of a moral direction. The world and its forces that produced the broccoli plant also produced the amino acids comprising RNA, the conditions for consciousness, and existence itself. It is the basis for everything, so how can it not exert authority in what “should be?” If that world is what gave us life, the rules of that world portend what we need to do to preserve life. Thus, we embrace those natural forces not just for the inviolate rules they are, but as normative rules on how life should be lived. The garden thus teaches us how life should be lived; it is a modern-day Socrates asking us to examine and improve our lives, and that is Cooper’s (2008) final explanation of why we garden: it is a blueprint for the good life, where all the virtues that make a good garden also make a good life. We return to this idea when we consider gardening not as art, but as a hobby.

Art or hobby?

Most thought on why we garden treats the garden as a work of art, but many would consider it more of a hobby. Although art can, of course, be a hobby, the two words cast gardening in a different light. As art, it is a serious intellectual endeavor in pursuit of the profound. Referring to something as a hobby suggests it is merely a pleasant way to pass the time. Does our answer to why we garden change if it is considered a hobby?

Referring to something as a hobby seems to trivialize it; after all, the word hobby comes from the analogy of riding a hobby horse (Olmsted, 1993). Scholars of hobbies do depict it as something akin to play, but they do not consider this “play” trivial. In fact, they link it to some of the philosophical insights previously mentioned when considering the garden as a work of art.

Rachel Maines (2009) notes that hobbies are unique in that it is the process of producing the object, not the object itself, that provides the most value. There is some truth to this, but it understates the significance of the objects produced by hobbies. Heidegger (1962) points out that tools used in work are not the salient item of focus. A carpenter rarely thinks about the attributes of her hammer. She just uses it. But, if she is building furniture as a hobby, the objects produced are indeed valued and are contemplated for their specialness. The Adirondack chairs she builds are admired for their own sake in a personal way, whereas a professional furniture maker sees the chairs largely as a means to acquire money. It is thus more accurate to say that hobbies provide value for the process of producing the objects as well as the objects themselves, but the objects are valued for their intrinsic qualities, and not just the extrinsic value placed on them by other people.

The activities involved in gardening and other hobbies have characteristics of “play” (Eberle, 2014), in that they contain anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and poise. Maines (2009) rightly observes that gardening also resembles Geertz’s (1973) anthropological concept of “deep play.” The term deep play originates with Jeremy Bentham (1780), who described it as a form of play that is (ostensibly) irrational in terms of the monetary benefits and costs. Gardening can be seen as irrational in one sense, in that it is performed not exclusively for the goods it produces. Why raise sweet corn (Z. mays) when it can be cheaper and of higher quality in the grocery store? The answer is that it is really done for an alternative reason, something … deeper. Maines (2009) notes that the motivation for hobbies involves both pleasure and the productive virtue it signifies. Gardening and recreational drug use may provide pleasure, but the former is associated with virtuous people whereas the latter is not. This echoes Cooper’s assertion that gardening is partly a component of living “the good life.” It may be “play,” yes, but not trivial play; it is deep play, where the deepness reflects its sacred qualities articulated by Heidegger (Ackerman, 1999).

Historian Steven Gelber (1999) describes hobbies, whether they be gardening, fishing, or stamp collecting, as activities that received social approval beginning around 1880. Humans have always had interests they explored for fun, but it is around this period that hobbies as we think of them today became part of living the good life. As industrialization split ordinary life into work and leisure, a threat loomed—that in leisure, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” With increasing amounts of leisure loomed a threat of hedonistic sin, and so hobbies became a way to derive pleasure from socially admirable activities. Gelber (1999) describes hobbies as disguised affirmation in that they reaffirm the value of being productive, but do so in the context of leisure. When given time off from productive work, virtuous people would then engage in some other productive endeavor that fulfills personal aspirations the workplace does not. They are still working—no idle hands here—but they are working for their own personal goals.

When writing about hobbies, both Maines (2009) and Gelber (1999) list gardening as one of the most popular, and their explanation of hobbies as a reflection of deeply held values testifies that we should not dismiss gardening as a trivial way to expend leisure, but a manifestation of the terminal values espoused by psychologists. Maines (2009) further notes the long history of gardening as a hobby, providing statistics on the rise in garden supply retail stores during the past century, as well as the many publications dedicated to gardening (1255 titles between 1500 and 1800). So even when referring to gardening as a hobby, researchers link the activity to virtue—the good life—and contend this link is not new.

Gardens and the good life

Nothing mentioned in this article about why we garden should be a surprise to the reader. How could it? The reader is also a human with hobbies and an appreciation for the arts, so if the explanations did not resonate they surely could not be accurate. Why, then, seek an answer at all? Because the desire for gardening is a large driver of the horticultural industry, and because it is an important part of many people’s lives. Not to contemplate continually the reason why an industry exists would seem odd.

Consider two quotations that do not refer explicitly to gardening, but reflect the general spirit of why we garden: Willa Cather’s, “that is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great” (Cather, 1918, p. 20) and Thomas Tracy Clark’s, “Everyone should have three hobbies: a physical hobby, an intellectual hobby, and a spiritual hobby,” (M.R., 1905, p. 1). Cather refers to our deepest personal desires—happiness and meaning—and Clark refers to what one should do to live the good life.

Cather (1918) posits happiness as something everyone wishes to acquire, and then describes a general strategy for achieving it. The word dissolves suggests the individual and their daily worldly concerns fade into the background. This is how Kant, Schopenhauer, and Scruton describe the appeal of art. The notion of being connected with something “complete and great” reflects much of Heidegger’s philosophy of art, where the temporal greets the sacred. It also testifies to Kant’s desire for transcendence through art and Schopenhauer’s contemplation of platonic forms.

Clark’s quotation (M.R., 1905) provides practical direction on how to achieve this happiness through hobbies, and it is important to note that gardening is simultaneously a physical, spiritual, and intellectual hobby, allowing one to accomplish the three objectives simultaneously. No wonder gardening is so popular. If a person considered gardening a waste of time, other people would question that person’s outlook on life. Clark’s advice was not offered as a way of achieving a short-term hedonistic happiness, but a long-term flourishing of the self. He is pointing the way to the good life, addressing the perennial question that began with Plato and continues to be asked today. The spiritual aspect of gardening reflects Cather’s reach for completeness and greatness. The physical aspect tends to the bodily needs of exercise and fresh air, providing physiological benefits that reach back to the evolutionary origins of our love of gardening.

Is it also an intellectual hobby? Any gardener will point to the intellectual challenges of gardening, the learning required to garden successfully, and the continual learning that gardening provides. Gardening is a challenge for both the amateur and the professional. Mother Nature never ceases presenting obstacles, from variable weather to pernicious pests. One cannot be a successful gardener without continually learning new things, and that too is part of the good life: always asking questions, finding answers, developing new questions, and never achieving perfection, but pursuing it anyway.

Horticulture: a unique field

The previous sections have explored a wide variety of sources concerning why we garden, concluding that gardening helps us acquire basic physiological needs such as food and exercise, but also provides us with “higher” needs, such as intellectual stimulation and aesthetic experiences. Gardening is, hence, a laudable activity, one supported by the scientific field of horticulture, which concerns how we garden, and the horticultural industry, which sells us goods and services to help us garden. The question of why we garden can then be used to explain why horticultural academic departments and the horticultural industry exist, and this “why” is articulated next using the concepts of hierarchical value maps and Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Agribusiness researchers often use a tool called means–end chain analysis to study consumer preferences for goods (Kambua et al., 2006; Makatouni, 2002). This is an interview technique during which consumers are first asked about the attributes they seek in a good and are then queried about why those attributes are valued. Just as psychologists are depicted as repeatedly asking, “And how does that make you feel?” means–end chain analysis repeatedly involves the question “And why is that important to you”? The end goal of the analysis is a hierarchical value map showing the 1) attributes of the good, 2) the consequences of those attributes, and 3) the terminal values that give those attributes meaning. The map always flows upward, with attributes at the bottom, consequences in the middle, and terminal values at the top, signifying the ultimate motivations driving consumer purchases. Arrows point from the attributes to their consequences, from one consequence to another consequence, and finally from consequences to terminal values. Although used primarily for consumer goods, these maps can be used in other applications, such as the question of what makes a great teacher (Wilson et al., 2010).

The concept of a hierarchical value map could be used to understand why various departments in an agricultural college exist. This would involve articulating the kinds of knowledge a department nurtures (attributes), the uses of the knowledge (consequences), and the terminal values giving those consequences meaning. For most departments, there will be a long line of consequences between the attributes and the terminal values. Agronomy is studied to better produce food and fiber inputs, which are inputs into a long supply chain before the final product is consumed. That consumption is undertaken partly for its own sake, but also for the physiological health needed to accomplish more important things in life. Agribusiness is studied to help people manage profitable businesses, with those profits desired not for the intrinsic value of the cotton and linen the dollar bills are made of, but for the goods and services they can purchase. These goods and services (and most agricultural departments) are important but instrumental in that their value resides in their ability to produce other outcomes, and less for their own sake. The attributes of the knowledge and the terminal values that provide them meaning are mediated by a long list of consequences.

Horticulture is unique in that the part concerning how to garden is valued almost for its own sake. The attributes and knowledge are mediated by one consequence: a plant. The knowledge of how to raise roses is valued by the gardener for the roses themselves. The rose itself provides terminal values such as a world of beauty. The hobby gardener enjoys the sweat and the dirt because the act of gardening is valued for itself, providing terminal values such as self-respect and inner harmony. This article has also argued that gardening is part of living the good life, something Socrates taught us is worth drinking hemlock for—a terminal value if there ever was one.

For a more familiar model of human motivations, consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Figure 1 shows a more elaborate hierarchy than the one most are accustomed to seeing, the one Maslow specified later in his career and the one that better reflects modern psychology (Kaufman, 2018). These needs are listed as a hierarchy in the sense that humans typically first seek needs in the lower part of the triangle before reaching for the higher parts. A person starving without shelter will not be very concerned with having aesthetic experiences or seeking transcendence, but one with plentiful food and shelter will not be satisfied with that alone. A full life occurs when one experiences all components of the hierarchy. Most of agriculture—including parts of horticulture—is aimed at the physiological needs: food and fiber. Though a life acquiring only these needs is far from ideal, without these needs the others cannot be acquired.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

An illustration of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Posits that humans first seek needs listed at the lower portion of the hierarchy before needs at the higher portion are sought. Adapted from Kaufman (2018).

Citation: HortTechnology 32, 3; 10.21273/HORTTECH05026-22

Horticulture goes a step further by also helping people acquire the higher needs. Maintaining an attractive lawn allows one to obtain esteem, both by oneself and others. Gardening is a hobby anyone can undertake, but also allows ever-increasing challenges, allowing people to obtain their cognitive needs. It is obvious that gardens provide aesthetic experiences. Gardening as a hobby and as part of the good life also facilitates self-actualization. Finally, there is transcendence. This article has gone to considerable lengths to articulate the many philosophical writings arguing how gardens provide such transcendence. In Kant and Schopenhauer, this transcendence is described as a connection to platonic forms. Cooper adopts the poetic philosophy of Heidegger to describe the garden’s unveiling of truth and connection to mystery. The garden is of this world in that it is driven by biological forces and provides important physiological needs, but also takes us “out of this world” in ways akin to poetry, spirituality—things difficult for a normal person to put into words. People of a specific genius have been able to translate these experiences into words though, and in the process, the garden has served as a muse to some of the greatest writers.

Damon Young (2020), in Philosophy in the Garden, describes the intimate relationship between gardens and literary masters such as Jane Austen, Marcel Proust, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, François-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire), and Jean-Paul Sartre. In these stories about the relationship between great thinkers and the garden, Young provides eloquent and convincing arguments that the garden is one of the few things able to help humans obtain every level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs simultaneously. It both provides us with the physiological needs to live in this world and the transcendent needs to see above this world, and in the process become a complete person. What Young praises of the garden can be said for horticulture, and one can see this in the everyday life in an agricultural college. Not being a member of a horticulture department, I probably pay more attention to their differences than most of its faculty members, and this is what I see. I see a department of plant scientists that is often joined with landscape architecture, a field with journals that do include discussions of aesthetics (van Etteger et al., 2016; van Zyl and van Etteger, 2021). The instructor of our Introduction to Horticulture class not only teaches properties of plant growth, but also has his students create artwork from plant seeds, and these works grace the halls of the teaching greenhouse. In this one department, you have both art and science.

What can be said of a department of horticulture can be said of the industry it serves—an industry that generates more than $14 billion in plant sales in the United States (HortiDaily, 2020), $21 billion in purchases of garden and lawn care services, and $19 billion in purchases of lawn and garden supplies (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). Although the businesses themselves may exist mostly to generate profits, their consumers are buying flowers, vines, and seeds to become Maslow’s complete person. This does not make the horticultural industry better than an industry that seeks only to provide the physiological needs of food and fiber, but it does make it qualitatively different. This difference is often overlooked by my horticultural friends, and the purpose of this article is to remind them of the important role they play in human flourishing.

Literature cited

Contributor Notes

I thank Bruce Dunn for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.

F.B.N. is the corresponding author. E-mail:

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    An illustration of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Posits that humans first seek needs listed at the lower portion of the hierarchy before needs at the higher portion are sought. Adapted from Kaufman (2018).

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