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Gardening is not just a pleasant thing to do on a Saturday afternoon, or a way to reduce one's supermarket bill - gardening is a human activity that engages with core philosophical questions concerning, among other things, human wellbeing, wisdom, the nature of time, political power and ideas, home, aesthetic experience, metaphysics, and religion. That is what the contributors to this volume aim to show, and we hope that the gardener will find rumination on these questions rewarding and illuminating, either at the end of a hard day's digging or as something to think about while deadheading the sweet peas.

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There they will find this characteristically human practice of cultivating plants for their beauty, arranging them in varying degrees of formality, and accompanying the show with similarly ordered or not so ordered herbs, fruit, and vegetables. Perhaps the first thing to notice about this activity is that a terrific amount of hard work seemed to go into growing, say, those basil plants. There was the disinfecting of the greenhouse, the transportation of compost, and the purchase, planting, and watering of seed. The potting on followed ... all looked good, but then the seedlings started to wilt. Thinning them out and pinching the stems back did not lead, as the book said it would, to luscious, bushy Mediterranean plants. Nevertheless the gardener - well, this was me earlier this summer - seemed pleased with the handful of leaves he clutched on the way back to the kitchen. The spaghetti in pesto was delicious. But, the philosopher wonders, why on earth all the effort? A jar of pesto would have cost very little and taken ten minutes to buy. Why do people go through all this effort? In short, why do they garden? The reader will find various answers to this question in these pages.

 Happiness in the Garden of Epicurus

A first, hedonistic, thought is that gardening makes us happy, and that is why we do it for the same reason that we lie in the sun or eat ice cream. At odds with such a view, however, are the all-too-common frustrations and physical trials of gardening. Double digging the vegetable plot is not fun, nor is keeping the viciously spined blackberry bush under control, nor are one's battles with bindweed. There are of course great pleasures - the clematis in bloom, the taste of a fresh ripe tomato, and the fragrance of the rosemary bush as you brush past it - but given their generally fleeting nature it is not entirely obvious whether one is happier through gardening than through alternative weekend activities such as watching movies or going to the gym. You can visit our website to know more.


Here, though, we are thinking of happiness purely in terms of pleasurable feelings, in terms of the sensual pleasure of ice cream as opposed to the pain of digging, and we are attempting to explain our urge to garden in terms of such feelings. There is, though, an older notion of living a good life -as opposed to a pleasurable one- and philosophical issues relating to this notion have been discussed since Ancient Greek and Roman times. Living a good life amounts to living a virtuous life and doing so brings with it, not hedonistic pleasures, but a kind of tranquility - the kind of state of mind that philosophers from Epicurus to Hume have seen as the goal of life. What we see as virtuous may to some extent have changed over the centuries - the actions of a chivalrous knight may not be as commendable as they once were - but many of our ideas concerning virtue have remained constant: it is good, for example, to persevere in a task rather than give up at the first obstacle, and it is good to be patient. The good life, then, is one that promotes such traits in an individual, and it is very plausible that gardening does just that. In learning to the garden one must, for example, learn to cope with defeat by cabbage fly and slug. One must acquire a certain level of stoicism, a trait that is plausibly a virtue. Gardening, then, can be seen as contributing to a good life, one interspersed with moments of tranquility that have their source in virtuous activity.

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Gardening, however, is more than just a means to acquire virtue and the associated tranquility that comes from its exercise; a dogged, ever-patient digger, hoer, and pruner would not be gardening well unless there was a further aspect to her activity. Gardening would seem to require an artistic element; some sense of the aesthetic appreciation of one's work is required, whatever the garden - from the arranging of a few pots in a backyard to the creation of a great estate. It's not clear that a piece of land would be a garden if no thought went into how it looked (even though it might function as one's vegetable plot, yard, or place to play football). Works of art naturally fall into certain categories and, following the philosopher Immanuel Kant, there is a temptation to see gardening as visual art and gardeners as artists working with a pallet of terracotta pots, plants, and trees. This is certainly something that a gardener sometimes sees herself as doing. The pot there is wrong; it takes one's eye away from the bed of hostas; it should be moved instead next to the low wall, and the garish hanging basket display needs to be toned down. Looking through seed catalogs and browsing at the garden center one can be seen as shopping for artistic materials. We have, then, a picture of the gardener, living a good life, a life that is further enriched by the artistic nature of their activity.

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Further, even though the activity of the suburban basil grower may, to some - those silly people who buy ready-made pesto! - appear to be a rather idiosyncratic route to a tasty supper, gardens fill the Earth and have done so since the first civilizations. And, looking at gardening through time and across cultures, there are patterns there to be seen, and sociological, political, and philosophical conclusions to be drawn from what we find. On a local scale, we can see this at home, at the allotment show, and in neighborly competition Plants or cuttings are taken with us when we move house, providing a link with homes past or family past. I can look out at the creeping geraniums, originally taken as cuttings from where I grew up, and at the myrtle bush that was bought from a street market as a seedling to place proudly in my first proper (backyard) garden. Flower and vegetable competitions across the country can be more than temporary diversions. They are taken very seriously and the size of a gardener's leeks confers a certain elevated status on the grower. If one has not been to an allotment show, one should! The prize-winning produce has an unearthly, almost magical, air about it. These growers are not like us: we are not worthy! And, as we shall see later in the volume, these psychological and sociological aspects of gardening are also played out on a global, political scale.

Various garden writers have also noted how great gardens reflect the philosophical predilections of an era. Digging up clods of earth, raking up leaves, and ripping out bindweed are not, one might think, activities that promote meditation on the big metaphysical questions.