The term gardening is an inclusive one, meaning both ornamental gardening and vegetable gardening. In American popular culture, however, a reference to a garden more often than not means a vegetable garden. And though horticulture and gardening mean the same thing, horticulture is generally used to refer to ornamental gardening. Ornamental gardening is an important part of American culture, but it is the vegetable garden that is the major preoccupation of many Americans.
Gardening is a topic of conversation almost as popular as the weather. In the fall, individuals ask, "Is your garden ploughed?" In the winter, gardeners discuss seed catalogs. And in the early spring they begin to till the soil and plant seeds. And though the fundamental purpose of a garden is utilitarian--to grow food--in American culture gardening is more nearly a recreation. It is one of the major sporting propositions in this country.
Gardening is especially suited to Americans. It permits American individualism and self-reliance to thrive, and it also allows for creativity. Producing a successful, well-arranged garden is artistry. But because gardening is the ultimate challenge, it remains popular because it satisfies the American desire to compete. The competition works on levels from the spiritual to the frivolous. A gardener competes with the mystery of birth. A seed is planted in the dark soil, appearing at its own secretly appointed time, beginning anew the cycle of the seasons and philosophically the cycle of birth, growth, death, and growth again. The gardener competes with the elements and unpredictable weather conditions. Both drought and excessive rain can damage a crop; hail storms can beat plants into the ground; strong winds can bend and break plants. The gardener is at the mercy of insects and plant diseases, competing by means of the miracle of chemicals or age-old methods of outwitting his adversaries. And the gardener competes with himself--with his accomplishments in last season's garden.
Gardening in the Americas began with the Indians in North, Central, and South America. Three of the most popular garden items in the United States are indigenous to Central and South America: corn, called maize by the American Indians; tomatoes, called tomatl or xtomatl by the Mayans 8 and potatoes, called papas by the pre-Inca Indians of the Andes mountains. 9 North American settlers, beginning with the Pilgrims, brought European seeds and cultivation methods with them, but gardening began here long before their arrival, and it began elsewhere in the world long before that.
Gardening as people currently define it has a long ancestry, reaching back to the Middle East, where the first plots of what can be called cultivations appeared. According to Anthony Huxley in An Illustrated History of Gardening, the earliest cultivators apparently lived around Jericho in Palestine about 8000 B.C. The cultivation of such plots seems to have evolved both from the wild grains, which grew in the area, and from seeds and pits casually spat out or dropped by persons having eaten wild fruits. These seeds eventually reappeared as trees, growing within the areas of habitation and leading finally to selected planting of grains and fruit trees as well as seeds collected from wild plants. Gardens then moved throughout the Middle East and eventually to Europe through Greece. Huxley approximates the dates for organized cultivation in Greece at sometime before 6000 B.C.; in Egypt and Crete, 5000 B.C.; China, 5000 B.C., and in South America, 2500 B.C.
Gardening even has its own folklore and its own heroes, such as Johnny Appleseed, Luther Burbank, George Washington Carver, and Euell Gibbons, to name a few.
Most newspapers, even weeklies, have a regular gardening column, and many general interest magazines also feature gardening articles. But when a subject is on both video and audio, its time in popular culture has come.