FROM A SELFISH perspective, this hot, quarrelsome month has brought two great joys to your columnist. It gave him his first opportunity to take part in American democracy, in the form of a local election for which his foreign citizenship was no bar. (The contest was also fiery, of which more shortly.) And it was the first June in which he has overseen a vegetable garden ripening at New World pace. Zucchini seedlings planted in late May provided their first sleek squashes to Lexington’s table this week. Tomato seedlings that went in at the same time are now heavy with green fruit. This is nothing like gardening in cloudy England.
Your columnist is not alone in growing more veg this year. The coronavirus lockdown has inspired a surge in gardening not seen since the second world war. Seed firms have struggled to keep up. Even the 144-year-old Burpee company, a fabled name in American horticulture, briefly stopped taking individual orders. On Memorial Day, a traditional marker for planting tomatoes along the east coast, many garden centres had no seedlings available. “In 40 years in this business, I’ve never seen anything like it,” marvelled Ian Baldwin, a Sacramento-based expert (who kindly shared a picture of his enviable potato bed).
To this day vegetable patches, clotheslines and other non-lawn deviances are often forbidden in the suburbs. Yet America is vast and contradictory. The 1950s also saw J.I. Rodale’s pioneering experiments in organic farming. The 1970s brought a revival of community gardens in many cities. America’s continental scale (it has 13 growing zones to Britain’s four) kept regional horticultural traditions alive. And over the past decade these tendrils have become interwoven in the many gardening blogs, chat-rooms and YouTube stars that have blossomed online. If America still lacks a national gardening culture, it has a diverse and organic one.
America digs digging
This has led to an intense neighbourly exchange of seedlings, observations and advice. (And commiseration, after the rapacious chipmunks strike.) Great as it is to eat a home-grown squash, cultivating vegetables in a modern economy is fundamentally about such things, not producing calories. It is a useful activity, a blissful therapy, an adjunct to community. It is liberating and equalising. No wonder Thomas Jefferson ranked his best horticultural innovations alongside the Declaration of Independence. In returning to veg-growing, America is rediscovering its better self.■