30 April 2011

Digging in the Archives… ‘Idlers Hard at Work’

Spring has been slow about its arrival in Wisconsin this year. But, at last, today and yesterday have been beautiful. And even though there is a storm on its way this evening, it’s OK because it’s a spring storm unlike the wintery storms of the past week.

What’s the difference? Storms in the spring smell good.

With this in mind, I thought I would dig up something fitting the change in season. The following is a revised version of an article I wrote last semester for a magazine writing course in which I researched and wrote about gardening in Wisconsin.


* * *

I am an unapologetic idler. This is why, several years ago, my wife gave me a copy of Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle as a gift. This is also why, several years later, I have yet to finish reading it. I pick it up every few months, read a chapter or two, and then put it away for an unspecified length of time. This is as it should be. For the true idler, the greatest joy is doing what you wish, when you wish, and how you wish.

Let’s get one thing straight, though. Idlers are not lazy slobs. Well, most of us are not lazy slobs. We do not wish to wallow in disarray or avoid accomplishment. For example, idlers don’t like a mess. “Mess ends up stealing time from you,” Hodgkinson explains. “One lets things descend into chaos because one can’t be bothered to clean up, but then wastes hours trying to find socks…. to be truly idle, you also have to be efficient.”

We, the idlers, simply wish to command our own time and activities. We seek to free ourselves from the botherers who schedule 7am working breakfasts and develop ad campaigns that instruct us to ‘Just Do It.’

No. You do it. I’m doing my own thing over here.

An Idle Gardener in the Midwest

I have enjoyed gardening for a long time. When I was young, I spent Saturday mornings with my Dad at various home centers. Armed with donut-shop coffee, we would stock up for weekend projects and I always found a way to talk him into a new six-pack of impatiens or begonias and some terra cotta containers. I liked to joke that I was a pretty talented pot gardener. Nothing escapes the penetrating wit of a fifteen year old.

My gardening habits waned through the later years of high school (girlfriends) and college (hangovers). But, slowly, I returned to gardening. When my wife and I relocated to Madison from San Francisco, we teamed up with neighbors to cultivate a vegetable garden behind our apartment building. I loved it. It was far more gratifying than writing term papers or reading the assigned texts for graduate seminars. Gardening was a way for me, in true idler fashion, to reclaim my time and tend the projects that actually kept me interested week after week.

With the arrival of our son in 2009 we had less time and energy for summer gardening, but I still managed to pull in some cabbage and potatoes. Then, last summer, we moved to a more baby-friendly apartment on Madison’s far west side and had to leave our garden plot behind. Despite this horticultural hiatus, I have kept in contact with gardening by vicariously planting and harvesting through friends, reading the newsletters from our CSA farm in Viroqua, and watching home and garden shows on public television.

Having taken a step back from actively gardening has been an opportunity to examine not just how we garden but why. This is how I discovered that many gardeners (even the ever-toiling, meticulous ones) are ultimately idlers just like me. I know it sounds strange but let me explain.

In the Midwest, the biggest hurdle to finding idlers is the fact that everyone is, well, a Midwesterner.

Between the Lutheran duty and Catholic guilt, it is nearly impossible for folks around here to just… you know… sit. Plus, there’s winter. Snow and ice sequester people indoors from December to April and this produces a backlog of restless energy that busts out like a bottle rocket at the first sight of spring. (Of course, some of us emerge from winter a little less bunched-up and restless than others, but we also have children with summer birthdays.) Put simply, people in this part of the world work hard, get their hands dirty, and feel pretty darn good about it. And yet, despite the outward appearance of laborers with a never-ending to do list, all the gardeners I know are staging small, personal revolts against the deadlines and dictates of jobs, school, and modern life.

It is the idler’s revolt. But, around here, folks simply call it independence.

Potayto, Potahto.

Independence Tastes Better

Mark and Fran Krause (Krau-see) are semi-retired and living in Horicon, about an hour east of Madison. They are Wisconsin natives who spent many years living in southern California. When retirement arrived, they were eager to sell their suburban tract home, return to the Midwest, and build a life on a big chunk of rural property. And build they have.

Ever since construction began on the house, Fran and Mark have been working non-stop to manage their land, small lake, and sizeable garden. Last year, they self-provisioned a hundred chickens; a dozen turkeys; grapes; hundreds of pounds of vegetables and berries; and an orchard of peaches, pears, plums, apples, cherries, and apricots. This, of course, is in addition to the hundreds of gallons of honey that come from the bees they keep.

Why!? Why on earth would sane people work so hard in retirement?

Well, it’s the way they want to do things. Plus, since Fran grew up on a dairy farm in Princeton, Wisconsin and Mark spent his career with a number of corporate giants in the American food industry, neither land cultivation nor food is new for them. They planned from the beginning to grow most of their own food when they retired. “It’s strange for a guy coming out of the food industry to say it,” says Mark, “because I think we have the best food chain in the world – hands down.” But, he explains, there is a lot to be gained from doing it yourself.

First, it’s more nutritious. “In order to get food to the consumer in a condition they’re willing to eat it, you have to do stuff to it [preservatives, pre-cooking, etc.] that we don’t have to do here. So, for us, if we can grow it, we know right off the bat that we’re starting out in better shape.” Second, they can control what happens during the growing cycle. “We know exactly what we’re putting on it for chemicals. In our case, it’s virtually nothing.” And third, it’s delicious. “Buy apple sauce in the store and try it. Then eat some apple sauce that you made. It’s like a different product!”

Better for you. Better quality control. Better taste. The man has a point.

The Krauses ‘garden’ on a scale that borders on farming. And a vast majority of people will not have the opportunity or inclination to take on the work they embrace. But their intent and dedication stem from the same ideals heard from many other gardeners, especially people who work with fruits and vegetables...

No, thank you. I’m not interested in your pre-boiled, re-hydrated, artificially fortified, conveyor-belt astronaut meal. I think, rather, I will eat food. My food.

Gardening Never Gets Old

Retiring to seventy-five acres in central Wisconsin offers Mark and Fran a unique opportunity for rebellion against retail food. And retirees definitely make up a major segment of the gardening population. But gardeners of all ages have their independent-minded reasons for working in the yard.

Bob Tomesh, Educational Director for the statewide Wisconsin Master Gardener Program, works with hundreds of diverse gardeners each year. Wisconsinites from Ashland to Platteville enroll in UW Extension programs to earn or renew their Master Gardener certification. Some of them are interested in fruit trees and bell peppers and others want to improve their luck with shrubs and ornamentals. But almost everyone – young and not-so-young – is motivated by a desire to do something on their own terms, to assert some personal influence on their environment.

That being said, age and life-stage impact the way gardeners approach their work. Over the years, Tomesh has noticed that people in or nearing retirement want to reclaim their time, after years of professional and familial obligations, and put it toward a satisfying project like home gardening or beautifying local parks. On the other hand, a younger crop of gardeners, many of them parents, wants to grow and preserve their own food for their families – sometimes for health reasons (like the Krauses), sometimes for philosophic, sometimes for economic reasons, and sometimes all three.

Ed Lyon, Director of the Allen Centennial Gardens on the UW-Madison campus, has observed similar trends. A former dairyman with nearly a decade of experience in a specialty nursery, Lyon has a lot to say about the habits and motives of today’s gardeners. “Each generation has its own sets of values,” he explains, “and gardening goes right along with that.”

Baby-boomers, who are now migrating into retirement, have been turning to gardening as their kids leave home. As children, this generation watched mothers or grandmothers garden and put up canned produce for the winter; but 50-something gardeners don’t necessarily plant strawberry patches and tomatoes. In fact, this generation has, according to Lyon, been at the front of the high-end specialty market with labor-intensive perennial gardens. But, the difference is simply a matter of style. Even though their return to gardening has not mirrored the gardens of their youth, they are still establishing a connection with their childhood, their home, and (now that the kids are gone) their sense of self.

Young gardeners also seek a sense of connection and the opportunity to assert themselves. “In the last few years we’ve seen an amazing amount of people who would fall into the ‘student’ category that come to our gardens and want to volunteer,” Lyon says. But, for these young people, “It’s back on an individual level – thinking ‘There’s something we can do to help….’” Their interests include home-grown, organic food. But they are also thinking about big-picture efforts in urban gardening and landscape architecture. They are seizing an opportunity to shape their lives and environment for the better.

Whether retirees are trying to take back the weekend or college kids are hoping to stave off ecological collapse, everyone seems to want to reclaim their time, assert their influence, and simply pursue what they care about.

Men & Women in the Yard

Generational differences are the first thing people mention when asked about how and why people garden. But it’s not hard, with a little prodding, to get folks talking about another difference: men versus women.

We all know the stereotypes. Men are control freaks and women are nurturers. Blah, blah blah.

But the fact is, men and women do tend to garden differently. Most flower gardeners, for example, are women. Karen Johannson, of Johannson’s Greenhouse in Madison, has no illusions about the female overrepresentation in her store. “Most the men who come in here,” she says with a chuckle, “are under duress.” And, while Bob Tomesh notes that a lot of men dabble in vegetables and fruit trees, the fellas are generally drawn to soil maintenance, pest control, and beating back the weeds. Similarly, Ed Lyon estimates that a lecture on ornamental gardening will draw a hundred women and “maybe six men.” “Male gardening, overall, is the lawn,” he says.

It’s true. The battles and competitions for a perfect, crisp law are the epitome of a guy thing. “But,” Lyon says, “you’re still gardening…. You’re still tending it. You’re watering it. You’re keeping the insects and diseases out.” Men and women just tend to do things differently. For example, Lisa Johnson, UW Extension Horticulture Educator for Dane County, is often struck by rural homes that are surrounded by two or three macho acres of uninterrupted, monochromatic Kentucky Bluegrass. “You see the guy going across it with his riding mower…” her voice trails off a bit as she shakes her with gentle bemusement. “But, maybe that’s his time.” Her colleague, Master Gardener Ann Munson, adds. “He probably likes riding the mower. It’s very meditative, I bet.”

I can see it now… ‘John Deere: The day spa for dudes.’

Even at the Krause’s house, where everyone – including the grandkids – puts in work, Mark and Fran definitely have their own preferences and specialties. Fran tends the garden through the summer and leads the canning and freezing campaigns each fall. Mark, who has a collection of power tools and heavy equipment that most weekend warriors dream about, is the driving force behind the beekeeping, towing the chicken coop, and trellising the grape vines.

Here’s the thing. The work men and women gravitate toward in the yard may look different, but it all aims for and contributes to the much-deserved freedom and self-determination that comes to the dedicated gardener. Hard work, fresh food, and feeling good are co-ed.

The Garden Rebellion

“There’s lots of reasons people garden,” Karen Johannson says. But “the biggest reason is because they work in a six-by-eight cube all day and they want to see something green…. A lot of people – depending on what you do for a living – don’t have a lot of control over what happens and don’t get a lot of good feedback.”

Amen, Sister. Amen.

Independents and idlers everywhere know that there will always be noisy, hurried botherers who want to be in charge and tell us what is best. There is no escaping them. Fortunately, we have a plan and it comes down to this….

You can have your rules. You can have your meetings and membership dues. And we will suffer, more than we should, the intrusive loud-mouths who want to set our schedules and sell us mass-produced junk as seen on TV. We, however, will undermine you at every possible chance. We will find a way around your dictates and demands. We won’t big scene or and chances are we won’t get much attention. We’re OK with that. The less we have to deal with you and your nonsense the better. The important thing is – some way or another – we’re gonna keep doin’ things our way.

This spring, the garden will be one of the battlefields in the idlers’ quiet rebellion for independence. We are a disparate, rag-tag gang of rebs. We differ in age, gender, and methods. But we are determined. We have a shared goal and our spirit will not be broken. We will work at our own pace and tend the land that is ours – be it measured by acres or window boxes. We will know the pleasure of personal triumphs and self-governance. We will put our values and priorities into practice. We will do it on our time and according to our tastes. And we will have the freshest, best tasting tomatoes in town.


  1. Thanks, Sarah. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. As a person who can't wait to be back in her garden, I am anxious to feel that sense of having spent a day doing exactly what I have wanted to be doing.