Everybody's a Critic

Yardening is not a word

But then, neither was blog.

This site got some nice publicity from a Detroit News columnist yesterday in a report on gardening blogs.

We’re happy to be characterized as “offer[ing] criticism of national affairs, events or policies that affect gardeners,” but I have to nibble just a bit at the hand that feeds us after clicking over to the dual-purpose website mentioned by the columnist, Jeff Ball, who is the “yardener” of the blog Gardening and Yardening and also maintains another yardening site. Both of these sites seem to offer useful information (albeit with more recommendations of herbicides and pesticides than I usually see).

My question is this: when did the term “yardening” come into use? It seems to me that grass, trees, and shrubs are plants too, so wouldn’t the care of grass and trees count as gardening? Do we need another word? And, if so, why? As a cranky editor and probably one of the last people in the world who cares about serial commas, the improper use of “begging the question,” and unnecessary apostrophes, I had to look into it.

“Yardening” does not appear in any dictionary I own, and it is not recognized by dictionary.com. Nonetheless, it has been in use in the industry and gardening press since at least 1993. Jeff Ball, who seems to be largely responsible for popularizing the term, defined yardeners (in a 1993 Columbus Dispatch article), as “homeowners with trees, shrubs and lawns to maintain but no interest in gardening as a hobby. They want convenience, information, low maintenance and foolproof products.”

And according the writers of the newsletter for Black Lake Organic, a Washington State nursery, a new word is necessary because:

When I hear the word “garden”, I think of cabbages, beans, tomatoes, etc. Others think of roses and petunias. Still others think of grass lawns, trees and hedges. We really do need some distinguishing terms for classifying different general subcategories of gardening. We need better-defined terms in order to get us all closer to the same wavelength and discussing the art and science of growing and caring for the myriad kinds of cultivated plants lumped under gardening. To my mind “yardening” fills the bill for non-food producing areas and activities and includes lawn care and decorative landscaping with
flowers, shrubs, and trees.

This certainly sounds reasonable, but in the end, I don’t think segregating different types of gardening, and—in particular—separating food growing and ornamental growing does any of us that much good. Good practices should be shared across as broad a spectrum as possible, no matter what we grow. This is especially important if such a segregation creates a situation where vegetable gardeners are advised to learn more about the effect of chemicals, while those who have lawns aren’t supposed to worry about such things, as seems to be the case across much of this country.

As for defining gardeners only as those who have a serious interest in gardening as a hobby, I readily accept that many property owners don’t want to put a lot of time and effort into maintaining their domestic landscape. Others, like us, enthusiastically pour every free daylight hour into our gardens—as well as every spare dollar into the very industry that’s promoting “carefree” gardening. But should the “yardeners” or those who sell them products be exempt from thinking about the consequences of what they’re putting into the ground? An insistence that everything should be easy and convenient seems to imply such an exemption. It’s always easier not to think.

If those who aim at “yardeners” as an audience help them make informed and healthy choices as well as easy ones, I’m all for it. But I’d rather focus on the similarities between those who garden obsessively and those who only want to maintain a reasonably attractive front yard: we’re all interested in beauty, we all realize that growing healthy plants will surround us with beauty, and we’re all living on the same planet.

Finally, this is what Google will ask you when you enter “yardening:”

Did you mean “gardening?”

Works for me.

Posted by on April 29, 2007 at 5:00 am, in the category Everybody's a Critic.
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13 Responses to “Yardening is not a word”

  1. susan harris says:

    Very thought-provoking, Eliz. And when I’m in Buffalo let’s exchange editorial quirks and pet peeves – it’ll be fun!
    But guess what – I love the term yardening, esp when coupled with the word gardening in Jeff’s blog name. It perfectly captures reality, esp different approaches in so many couples. I bet it’s true that most men who venture into the landscape do it as yardeners and most women as gardeners.

    With that, I’ll be nervously following the comments.

  2. Heather Fitzgerald says:

    My friend in England took great offense when I commented how beautiful her “back yard” was — for in England, yards are industrial places of waste. She said that all places in and around the house are called the “garden”, whether or not it is tended to.

  3. Marte says:

    Wonderful topic and post, Elizabeth. Although I must admit that I have on occasion felt slightly guilty for “only” growing flowers, I will continue to call myself a gardener. Those little sprouts of lettuce or nice red tomatoes would be no match for the many “varmints” (rabbits, squirrels) that run freely in this suburb. Fence, what fence?
    Also, my second passion is fishing and in our brief Northern gardening season, I am gone at least three weeks every summer at the lake. For some reason I don’t feel as guilty leaving the coneflowers as I would the cauliflower. And since I refuse to use any chemicals at all, I think insects would get whatever foodstuffs the varmints would leave behind. (I must also admit to a sister-in-law on the farm with a bountiful garden and a generous spirit.)But I don’t think it would be fair to call me a yardener because I only grow flowers — and shrubs and trees, and, oh yes —- herbs.

  4. Peter Hoh says:

    Elizabeth, you can add me too you’re club of them what respect the cereal comma. Common righting errors drive me nuts, I try to avoid them like the plaque. Whenever I’m laying around the garden, I keep my Strunk and White handy. Its good for swatting flies. And as a coaster for my ice tea.

  5. firefly says:

    Funny, the terminology that seems natural … When I first started the garden I thought the word “yardener” was appropriate because it took up the whole yard behind the house. Now I use the words “back yard” and “garden” interchangeably, because the only lawn in back is paths between garden beds.

    But somewhere in there my sense of “yardener” changed — my neighbor, who I talked into planting a dogwood tree, and who treats his lawn like an extension of the living room carpet, is a “yardener” in the sense used here. I don’t think he wants to be a gardener; his interests lie elsewhere.

    This year I was able to persuade him to prune the boundary hedge so the bottom half would grow in. I also have ambitions of talking him out of the yearly rope off/Grub-X/reseed/water madly routine, which he’s going to need again because the “carpet” on the front lawn isn’t greening up this spring.

    I don’t, however, think he’ll ever even consider letting a garden “eat up” lawn space, which is what I’m hoping to do with the northwest portion of our front yard in the next couple of months.

  6. eliz says:

    Well, in the description on the G&Y blog list (a long one) we’re described as ranting and raving.

    So I’m going to rave on–that’s what I’m here for. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s a beautiful day and I have to *arden.

  7. This is the first time that I have heard the term ‘ yardening’ and I must say, that it conjures up images of a toothless overall clad hillbilly neglecting his weed filled yard that is full of cast off old truck tires and mosquito fish ponds made from discarded old toilet bowls.

    This word connotes a kind of lack of understanding of the all inclusive term ‘ garden’.

    If one chooses to cultivate an outdoor space with perennials and flowering shrubs is this any less of a garden than if one that chooses to employ low maintenance shrubbery or well place hardscaped geometry ?

    Look to the work of Isamu Noguchi , Andy Goldsworthy, Maya Lin , Martha Schwartz, Topher Delaney or Lawrence Halprin whose garden palettes are often void of any floriferous displays and tell me that these spaces are not gardens with a deep sense of introspection and contemplation.

    One of my favorite ‘ all season gardens’ is located on the north campus of Harvard University infront of the science building .
    It was designed by Peter Walker and is an excellent example of a bold minimalist garden .

    http://www.pwpla.com/prj_project_details.php?prjid=44

    Walker set approximately 150 native New England granite boulders in a 60 foot wide circle.
    Depending on the time of year either clouds of warm steam or cool fine foggy mists of water spray up from the ground to shroud the garden and the garden revellers.

    Sitting on a boulder in this garden on a hot muggy New England summer day with the fine cool mist floating down around your head and shoulders is like a cool gift from heaven.

    Me thinks that Jeff Ball might enjoy an elementary introductory course on garden history before he starts making up words that segregates the masses into unequal social groups.

    Michelle

  8. Stuart says:

    I like your distinction Susan. I think I might start a new blog – Yardening Tips ‘n’ Ideas which will be aimed at the blokes (Aussie colloquialism for ‘men’)

  9. Georgia Master Gardener says:

    If someone asks me if I am a gardener or if I garden, I always respond affirmatively. But if asked if I have a garden, I respond “no.” There’s a large distinction in most minds, I believe.
    I do have ten floral bedding borders and one central-lawn bed but I don’t consider these “gardens” per se. It’s just not worth it to try to grow vegetables in my area because you can’t shoot the armadillos and raccoons, it’s costly to spread slug bait by the pound, you’d have to dig out two feet of clay and kaolin, and replace it with good soil (forget amending–you have to spade up a horrendous area) and one can’t erect a 7-foot fence because the covenant wouldn’t permit that across the front footage anyway.
    So I can see why some folks might lean toward “yardening” as a needed term.
    It all depends on the question one is asked.

  10. Sally says:

    Well, the first time I ever heard the word “yarden” used was from Jerry Baker. *ahem*

  11. Jeff Ball says:

    Okay, here is the real story; dull but true. I started garden writing in the early 70′s and was a major Bob Rodale groupie. My first six books were for Rodale Press. I was in a meeting at Rodale, I think to discuss one of the books and someone used the word yardening.

    It struck a note for me because by that time I had been giving talks to groups for maybe five or six years and I was constantly (and still am) amazed at the ignorance of so many people owning property that needs some periodic care. I was married to Liz Ball in those days and being a high school English teacher and my major editor, she put together a comparison of who would be the gardener and who might be the yardener.

    E.g. Gardeners care for plants for fun; Yardeners care for plants because it is part of the responsibility for owning a house

    I’ve been a garden writer now for 26 years and have focused exclusively on the yardener for almost twenty of those years. I guess I am the only one. Jerry Baker did use the term, but since I own the trademark, he was convinced to drop it.

    Yardeners do not know what roots do. They do not know the difference between an insecticide and an herbicide. They do not know that some plants prefer shade and some prefer sun and you can’t mix them. Most yardeners are thirsty for information, but garden books and garden columns do not serve that need for them.

    I believe that 70% of the money spent in retail lawn and garden outlets is spent by yardeners. Yet, all garden centers assume all their customers are gardeners and so all signage is written for gardeners. Yardeners make many purchasing mistakes.

    It takes a while, but many yardeners are very happy to adopt a greener approach to their yard care, but they really don’t know how to start. For them “organic” means it is very safe but does not work very well.

    My partner in life is Nancy Szerlag, the gardening columnist for the Detroit News for 14 years. I started my column on yardening in the Detroit News about two years ago. Within months I was getting almost as many e-mails as Nancy, and she has a tremendous following. I had found an audience. So many of them compliment me for giving them information in simple terms that they can understand. I believe most yardeners have the position – Just tell me what to do and when to do it. I will do it. I give talks at Home and Garden shows and I often lead with my definition of a gardener and then my definition of a yardener. Then I ask how many yardeners do we have in this audience. I have never had less than 60 to 70% in the group putting up their hands and smiling as they did it.

    I obviously believe there are gardeners and then there are yardeners and they are not in the same group.

  12. Eliz says:

    Hi Jeff,

    Thanks very much for stepping in to comment and giving us the history of this term. I guess I’m idealistic and would like all to be gardeners, but that’s not the reality, and I certainly see exactly what you are talking about.

    As I said, my main concern is that the yardeners don’t think they’re off the hook when it comes to trying to adopt a safer, greener approach to whatever they do.

    Again, thanks for your gracious and informative response!

  13. Jeff, I did a post last summer on another blog that I titled “Cool Yards, Uncool Plants” about the kind of simple, chic landscaping that flatters a house without requiring a gardener’s intense interest in the rare and the unusual and the heretofore never purchased. (That post is since removed to to the ether, after a friend warned me that if I kept posting photos of my neighbors’ yards without permission, I’d wind up whacked.)

    The honest truth is that I think many of these yards look better than mine–at least more coherent. Plant just a few different things and plant them with conviction, and you wind up with an impressive yard–albeit one that would be no fun to an incorrigible tinkerer like me.

    So I approve of yardening, highly approve of it! If there were more confident yardeners, America would be a much more beautiful place.

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