The Agricultural Aesthetic

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roof garden with rock-edged pond at Madison Children's Museum, Madison, Wisconsin

Partly edible and mostly beautiful… the Children's Museum rooftop garden in Madison, Wisconsin

   Most vegetable gardens look utilitarian at best, but more often they're likely to be downright messy, often even ugly… and this is a big problem. Here's why: Most places in the US cannot nourish their inhabitants from nearby fields and waters because we've sprawled cheek-to-jowl across the landscape in such a way that dedicated farmlands are often miles away. So without a lot of building demolition, the best hope for becoming Nourishable rests in embedding edible gardens within the urban fabric of the neighborhoods.

washer & dryer

most people think vegetable gardens are about as lovable as a

laundry room: a "utility garden," if you will, meant for nothing

more than raising things to eat

   If those edible gardens were lovable, they would be easy to embed because many people would want them. But if they're unlovable, then they're not so much of a good neighbor, and more likely to be shunned or outright banned, like this Oak Park, Michigan garden. To be fair, the Oak Park garden isn't downright ugly… but it's not beautiful, either, and that's just enough to bring out the opposition.

   So what do we need to do? Currently, most places in the US have no living traditions of beautiful edible gardens, so we need to create new traditions. A living tradition begins with a single insight by one person. That person creates an ideal version of something based on their insight. If that person has enough passion, they can transform their insight into a personal cause. If that cause is compelling enough, it can spread to other people in the same locality or distributed hive, and the ideal gets replicated by these other people. If the ideal and its progeny is a good enough fit for regional conditions, climate, and culture, the cause spreads to the culture at large and becomes a movement. If that movement travels across generations, it becomes a living tradition. Check out this post which describes in greater detail the transformation from insight to living tradition.

strawberries & flowers in Madison Children's Museum roof garden

bed edge trimmings taking root and sprouting

   We're clearly at the beginning of this process right now, and more of us need to be thinking of ways to make edible gardens lovable. I  had one insight recently which I believe can help: we need to create an "agricultural aesthetic" that can guide lovable garden design.

   In the early years of the Modernist movement in architecture, the pioneers spoke early and often about the "machine aesthetic." Simply put, they wanted to make buildings look like they were products of the assembly line, and they wanted to do it artfully. This ideal guided the first several decades of Modernism.

   The Agricultural Aesthetic is based on a parallel question: how can we take the common artifacts of edible gardens and compose them artfully to create gardens that are lovable? The images in this blog post aren't the final product; they're merely the toolkit of raw elements from which we might create an Agricultural Aesthetic. Here's how some of these elements might be used:

Sticks & Twine

sticks & twine used as fence at Madison Children's Museum roof garden

sticks & twine make cheapest possible structure

   These elements have traditionally been used to create light structures for vining vegetables. They also are occasionally used as shown here, to build a very light "honor system" fence. I'm seeing the same uses, but more artfully considered, especially with the twine. Beautiful twine web-work could be woven quickly if not too complex, and the materials are quite inexpensive, so there's no heavy penalty for using a lot of twine.

Terra Cotta Pots

terra cotta pot with plants against wood fence at Huntsville Botanical Garden

a single huge terra cotta pot

   Gardeners have started plants in terra cotta pots probably for centuries, and most herbs are small enough to spend their entire lives in them. Terra cotta is colored similarly to most gourds, but the unadorned pots have a more matte surface. Simple pots are rounded like gourds, but tapering into a truncated cone, and are more regularly-shaped than gourds. My first thought is that they, too, would benefit from composition in larger quantities than usual. And because they have flat bottoms, they stay put, unlike gourds. Consider a wall of herbs in terra cotta pots, each tipped a bit by whatever sort of bracket it's hung from. They also could be stacked up to form the steep outer wall of an embankment. And once they're broken, their shards could be used as paving material set lightly into the earth from which they came.


stone obelisk monument at Mount Laurel, Birmingham, Alabama

a monument built of stone

   Gardens in most places are planted on land that is at least somewhat rocky, and stones can turn up while tilling or cultivating even after many years of gardening. They could be discarded, but why not use them in the garden? The can make excellent walls, from a simple dry-stack farm wall to a thin mortared serpentine wall. They also can be stacked into markers or monuments, like the one shown here. They can also be used to build the walls of the water channels we'll discuss in a moment. These elements have all been built in gardens for centuries, usually in utilitarian fashion. But it's easy to imagine a stone wall taking many artful forms. And if stone is considered to be a candidate material for different art forms, then the possibilities expand dramatically. Just look at what the Japanese have done with small stones and gravel in their gardens.


gourds drying on fence at Janna's Food Farm, Rogersville, Alabama

gourds drying on a fence

   Dried gourds have many uses in the garden. They are most often seen in homemade martin houses, as these voracious bug-eating birds love to nest in the dry and secure confines of a hollowed-out gourd. They also make good ladles, and are useful for storing many small items, provided that the surface they're sitting on doesn't allow them to tip over. But how do you treat them artfully? Their shapes are soft and slightly unique, with a bit of surface sheen. I'm thinking that an artful composition of gourds needs greater quantities than the dozen or less that normally make up a martin house.

Vines & Branches

bed edging made of bent branch trimmings at Madison Children's Museum roof garden

bed edging made of bent branch trimmings

   Fruit trees and grape vines can be much more fruitful if pruned vigorously. This generates a lot of vine and branch clippings. They are often discarded or shredded into mulch, but there are much better uses. Vines and branches that are supple enough can be woven into a dense fabric that us useful for many things, including fence panels. Woven more loosely, they can be used as a sun screen on an arbor. Somewhat thicker vines and branches can be used to construct a lattice suitable for training beans, peas, or other vining vegetables. The thickest branches have a number of potential uses, including as arbor purlins. All of these uses are arguably artful in their current form, owing to the beautiful textures of the vines and branches. But think for a moment of the possibilities if they were consciously elevated to an art form!


Tower of Wind & Water in SmartDwelling I

SmartDwelling I channeled all rainwater from the roof to two

scuppers at the Tower of Wind & Water where it tumbled into the

open for a moment before falling into the Rain Pool and then

being pumped up into the cistern to be stored for irrigation

   Water is the life-blood of the garden, but at some seasons of the year, it may also need to be carried away as well. Hoses and sprinklers can do the former job, and simple site grading can do the latter, but those methods are so boring. What if the act of bringing water to the garden or taking it away was celebrated? Both supply and drainage might begin with a network of water channels through the garden. Water channels have been used to great effect in wonderful gardens in many parts of the world. But the real celebration might come somewhere between the channel and the plants. There might, for example, be some place where the water emerges from the channels, glittering in the light and burbling softly, before disappearing again into a funnel leading to the soaker hoses. Or maybe you have an entirely different idea. In any case, water has a long history of celebrated use in ornamental gardens… why not celebrate water that much in an edible garden as well?

   Maybe that's enough for now… let's discuss these possibilities and see what else we can come up with. What do you think?

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013