the odd clockIRREGULAR TIMES

The murderous garden

Josephine Cook, Irregular Times assistant editor

People often ask me what I like about gardening. Usually, I respond by telling them what I like to think about gardening and about myself. I like to think of myself as a gardener-healer. I like to think that my love of gardening is based upon a love of life. I like to think that when I garden, I create a sanctuary for plants, animals, and myself to live in peace.

I like to lie to myself. When it comes to what I like to think of gardening, I am a fraud.

The Dark Truth About Gardening

The truth that I do not like to admit to is that gardening is an inherently destructive, violent, even murderous activity.

In my vegetable garden, I grow plants with the intention of eating them, With some, I break off and eat their leaves, the parts of their bodies they use to obtain the energy they need to grow. I leave these crippled, to regrow their missing parts using what energy they have left. Potatoes and onions I dig up and rip up for their roots, killing them absolutely. I use most of the plants in my vegetable gardens for their fruit, which I pick and devour before without giving them the chance to do what they were intended to do: provide protection and nutrients for the seeds inside so that offspring can grow. Oh, yes, it's true that most fruits have evolved to be eaten, so that their seeds are widely distributed. I don't redistribute the seeds from the fruit I eat. They either go into the septic tank deep underground, the compose pile where they rot, or the trash can from where they will soon be taken to be buried under mountains of disposable diapers.

Even with those plants that I do not eat, killing is the rule. I dead head flowers so that I can keep the display looking as I want it to look. Weeds (meaning plants that are not where I want them to be) are ripped out and left in a big pile to wither in the sun.

Murder in the garden is often as much a matter of exclusion as direct slaughter. I have found a foolproof way to keep deer, woodchucks, raccoons and rabbits from eating what I consider to be my vegetables. Of course, the high caloric content of those vegetables may pull through many young animals in such an extremely hot and dry year such as this one. It's no matter. I'm a gardener, so I don't want to share.

I'm an organic gardener, so I flatter myself that I kill less than other gardeners. Others use herbicides against plants that they do not regard as worthy of their gardens. They spray pesticides to kill whatever insects happen to cross their paths. They use fungicide to kill... well, you get the idea.

Of course, the difference between an organic gardener and a non-organic gardener is like the difference between a Nazi death camp doctor who vivisects prisoners with sterile equipment and a Nazi death camp doctor who does not bother to wash his scalpel before slicing prisoners apart. All gardens are full of killing -- the difference is just a matter of degree. If I find a caterpillar eating my lettuce, I throw it to the ground and smash it into the earth under my boot. What difference does it make to the caterpillar whether I also spray it with DDT?

As much as people like to think of gardens as tranquil havens, the truth is that they reflect the central conundrum of life: that in order to live, we must inflict death on countless others. We all kill to eat. Those of us who garden are just closer to this brutal fact of life than other people, who might pick up a package of strawberries in the Whole Foods natural food store not knowing the tremendous loss of life they support with their purchase.

The garden confronts us with the awful truth that to live is to be guilty. We come up with metaphorical stories of all sorts to try to understand this guilt. The legends of vampires, beasts who must drink the blood of unwilling victims in order to survive, are surely part of this death-guilt genre. We are vampires ourselves, sucking the life energy out of as much of the tasty life around us as possible.

A Call for Dark Gardening Literature

I've had it with the sugary optimistic junk that passes for gardening literature these days. Garden writers celebrate the goodness of pansies and the elegance of roses even as they brutalize the inhabitants of their gardens in order to make room for these plants. Religious writers use the garden as a symbol of rebirth, but hack and slash and smash just like every other gardener as they attempt to give their garden sanctuaries just the right look. Different camps of gardeners, from organic to permiculturalist, do battle on the page over which one of them is the most humane with the earth, when all of them slice it open and feed it with the corpses of their victims.

Don't get me wrong. I love gardening, and I love to read about gardening. I'm just tired of the self-righteous pretense that gardening is a constructive activity. I want to see a garden writer step out of the sunlight and explore the dark side of the gardener. I'm calling for submissions to Irregular Growth by any and all garden writers who have the courage to defy the unwritten laws of garden literature and tell it like it is.

Go ahead and send your submissions to me at, and if they're sufficiently brutal in their honesty about gardening, I'll put them up in the Irregular Growth section. In the meantime, remember: I wear green on the outside because I feel green on the inside.

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