I Hope “Ungardening” Never Takes Root in Our Lexicon

On an internet surf earlier today, I came across this article on Yahoo called “Back to the Wild: How ‘Ungardening’ Took Root in America.” 


The article itself was fine, its content uncontroversial.  It profiled a couple of local (DC/Takoma Park) gardeners (ungardeners?) who plant natives, shun pesticides, and let their yards grow a little wilder.  It also touched on the “rewilding” of vacant urban spaces and its benefits for wildlife.

It even gave a shout-out to Sara Stein’s fascinating book Noah’s Garden, which it called a “Bible for the [rewilding] movement.”

My displeasure arose not from the content of the article but from this hideous new term “ungardening.”  Did the writers of the article invent it?  Is it a term that’s trending with Millennials that I’m only now encountering?  Whatever the case, I hope it doesn’t “take root” because it’s simply a terrible word choice for what it purports to describe.

People who strive for a more natural, “wild” look in their yards are still gardeners, and their actions still qualify as gardening.  Selecting plants from a nursery for your garden counts as gardening, even if you’re selecting natives.  Digging a hole for a plant and watering the plant in counts as gardening — doesn’t matter if the plant came from China or if you’re transplanting it from 10 feet away.  Planting flowers for bees instead of just for aesthetics is still gardening. Making a conscious decision to mow your grass at 4 inches and to mow only once a month is more an act of gardening than hiring Mow ‘n’ Blow to scalp your lawn every week.  Choosing to leave seedheads up in the winter?  Chopping up fall leaves to compost in your planting beds?  Also acts of gardening!

I get it, “ungardening” is supposed to be a cute buzzword to draw attention to more ecologically-friendly gardening practices.  I suppose what irks me is that it suggests that the word “garden” — whether as a noun or a verb — has become tainted, when in fact that word, for so many of us, represents our greatest pleasure and passion.

It reminds me of the use of the term “Unschooling”, which became popular awhile back as a “hippie” version of homeschooling.  Presumably, an unschooled child would take no tests, could spend his day doing whatever interested him, and wouldn’t have to study yucky stuff like math until he was good and ready!

Horrifying, right?  The only thing worse than an ungardened yard would be an unschooled child!

Except I’m pretty sure that’s not how it actually works (at least I hope not).  I am sure that most “unschooling” parents don’t sit around and go, “hey honey, Billy is six now. What would you think about keeping him home from school and literally not educating him in any way?  Just to see what happens.”

I suspect that most practitioners of “Unschooling” are just like these practitioners of so-called “Ungardening” — people who see serious flaws in the traditions and institutions of education/horticulture and who are ready to try something different.  Not — as the prefix implies — choosing to do nothing at all.

The “Un-” suggests passivity, whereas these folks are anything but.  There may be some on the fringe who are willing to sit back and watch their house become swallowed in saplings and vines and go, “this is called nature, people.  It’s called ungardening and I think it’s really problematic that you don’t need a machete to get to your front door.”

But creating a Certified Wildlife Habitat is not the opposite of gardening.  No, these people are not “ungardeners.”  Indeed, they are taking responsibility for something very precious, they are actively involved, making choices, and doing it all out of love.  Gardeners.