May 24, 2023
How Gardening Transcends Political Divides (Yes, Even in Texas)
In the Simpsons episode “Lemon of Troy,” we learn that the founding of the city of Springfield was commemorated with the planting of a lemon tree—lemons being the sweetest fruit available at the time.
In the Simpsons episode “Lemon of Troy,” we learn that the founding of the city of Springfield was commemorated with the planting of a lemon tree—lemons being the sweetest fruit available at the time. Much like that fictional city, I too can trace the origins of my adult personality to the planting of a lemon tree. But unlike in the show, in which the lemon tree is at the center of a conflict between the residents of Springfield and those of its rival, Shelbyville, my own tale is one of surprising camaraderie.
In 2018, I’d just moved from a town house in Houston’s Third Ward to a large lot near Rice University that happened to have a generously sized backyard. I’d dabbled in gardening before, growing a few Japanese eggplants in pots on the town house’s rooftop, but I hadn’t given the hobby much thought other than that. The idea to plant a Meyer lemon tree came from an unexpected place: Ryan Patrick, a Republican who was a criminal district judge at the time.
Back when I was on the Houston Chronicle editorial board, I met Patrick for lunch at a downtown hipster coffee shop that no longer exists. I was in charge of the Chronicle’s election endorsements, which are primarily focused on judicial elections, and meeting Patrick seemed like a prime opportunity to get some insight into the issues facing Harris County courts. Also, his dad is our state’s lieutenant governor, and I figured he’d be a good guy to know. Our conversation was light and cordial, focusing on courtroom anecdotes and friendly chitchat. But, toward the end of our lunch, Patrick noted that we’d had a delightful time even though we probably didn’t agree on much politically, and he offered me a piece of advice that would change my life forever.
“Get a Meyer lemon tree,” he said, explaining how his family enjoyed a king’s ransom of lemons every fall from just one tree.
So, among the volunteer loquat trees that already dotted my yard, I heeded Patrick’s advice and planted a Meyer lemon tree. And then a satsuma tree. Soon I had a fig tree, two apple trees, an orange tree, a banana tree, a pawpaw tree, a papaya tree, a blackberry bush, strawberries, prickly pear, and—as of this writing—eight varietals of tomato, three different types of eggplant, three kinds of bell pepper, and a smattering of basil, mint, thyme, rosemary, lavender, and various perennial flowers and host plants intended to attract local butterflies.
My garden is now a tropical paradise pic.twitter.com/19CcwPe1V3
I swear it’s not an obsession—just a hobby.
But it’s a hobby that, starting with my lunch with Patrick, has allowed me to make friendly conversation with Texans from across the political spectrum. In fact, at a time when even professional sports and domestic beer have been caught up in larger culture wars, gardening remains delightfully, refreshingly apolitical.
Posting a garden pic to the site formerly known as Twitter—typically a hellscape of bad intentions—elicits friendly comments from folks I’m likely to disagree with on anything else. I have bookmarked with pride a response from the official account of the Collin County GOP that says: “Tolerate the liberal views to see great garden pictures, lol. Good job sir!” I’m smiling right now just typing that.
Please admire my three large children pic.twitter.com/a90ddyejaL
There’s just something about gardening that seems to overcome otherwise insurmountable partisan lines. We live in a time when MAGA types care about organic foods and democratic socialists will praise the horticultural expertise of Texas A&M. Even the typically divisive Texas House was able to unite around a bill protecting the right of homeowners to garden in their own yards (it died in the Senate). As bitter partisan fights strike formerly apolitical institutions like professional sports, the Texas State Historical Association, and Bud Light, gardening still seems blissfully immune. Why is this? First of all, you have to go outside. Gardening literally requires logging off and touching grass. Planting a tree, pruning a bush, or picking hornworms off a Big Daddy tomato means you’re dealing with something right in front of your face. You’re not reacting to scenes from a town you’ve never heard of or some Instagram figure you never knew about, as framed by some red-faced cable-news host or social media algorithm expertly designed to stimulate an emotional response. Gardening requires you to interact with the real world—its blooms and bruises, green shoots and rotting roots. Even Sid Miller’s Department of Agriculture can speak to the reality of climate change when it means changes to the usual growing patterns.
Far too many keyboard warriors try to practice politics without engaging with their actual neighborhood. If you never leave the comfort of a glowing rectangle for the hard work of block walking to turn out or sway voters, good luck even trying to understand what the other side actually believes. Instead, many Texans are fed a curated feed of the world, Plato’s shadows dancing on a wall. Gardeners must engage with the world as it actually exists. We’re forced to climb out of the cave into the sunshine. After all, that’s where the garden is.
Secondly, there’s no cultural segregation in gardening. Growing a cucumber means taking part in a mass shared culture—it’s the equivalent of the Super Bowl, summer blockbusters, NBC’s “Must See TV,” or church. But all of that is on the decline, as Americans hunker down in their silos. The media class obsesses over Succession while Yellowstone dominates the Nielsen ratings. The dang youths give millions of views to YouTube and TikTok celebrities I’ve never heard of. Even Harry Potter is politically controversial.
When you garden, though, everyone is working with the same sun, the same weather, the same soil. And, specifically, you’re working with the Texas sun, weather, and soil. Gardeners know we inherently have more in common with our fellow Texans than with any like-minded partisans. Try reading a growing guide out of Connecticut or Florida and you’ll find it’s best used as mulch. My sister, who lives in Brooklyn, recently gave me a very thoughtful gift of a cookbook titled Six Seasons, by a chef and a food editor from the Pacific Northwest. The recipes are great, but the premise—that you should cook with fresh fruits and veggies during their appropriate seasons—reads like a joke from anywhere in the Lone Star State. Sorry, Joshua McFadden and Martha Holmberg, but any tomatoes still in my garden come late summer have already been organically cooked under a Harris County heat dome into marinara primavera. I’ll take seasonably appropriate recipes from a Moms for Liberty book banner before I get them from north of the Red River.
Finally, gardening requires some actual physical labor and skill. Much of partisan fighting these days feels like men and women in search of purpose—in need of some kind of struggle to justify their lives in an age of ascendant hedonism and email jobs. Tending to a garden—creating life from the soil—feeds a sense of purpose, one that you can trace back all the way to the Bible. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it,” to quote Genesis. I also think of Aristotle’s concept of eudaemonia, a term variously defined as flourishing or fulfilling our reason for being. For me, there’s no better way to achieve that state than by getting out into the soil, planting seeds, and helping them grow.
Gardening also allows the building of skills and mastery unrelated to paid labor—something that posting on social media or binging on Netflix doesn’t exactly facilitate. Meanwhile, many of the once traditional hobbies that past generations used to fill their free time, such as tinkering with cars, darkroom photography, or ham radios, have been upended by technology.
“Automobiles have become hulking mobile computers that often can be repaired only by manufacturer-approved dealerships; anyone with a smartphone can now take high-quality pictures; no one needs limited-frequency radio bands anymore to talk with people on the other side of the world,” Matthew Walter, editor of The Lamp, a Catholic literary journal, wrote in the New York Times. Instead, he speculates, the desire to pursue mastery and refinement has driven far too many Americans to obsess over firearms, notably the endlessly customizable AR-15, and create a culture that facilitates easy access to weapons of mass murder.
I have nothing but respect and admiration for my friends and neighbors who hold steady, hit their targets, and treat gun ownership with the respect and caution it deserves—but I’ll just say that there’s a reason why the magazine of Southern culture is titled Garden & Gun, not Garden or Gun.
So please, if you’re worried about the political divide in our country, start a garden. Grow a tree. Plant a seed. Put some toothpicks in an avocado pit and stick it in a cup of water on your windowsill. No doubt there are big debates to be had about the future of our state. But before we can change the world, as Voltaire wrote in Candide, first we must tend to our garden.