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.
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