Participating in an Art Research Project on the History of American Gardens — Summer 2015

Ready to plant on St. Patrick's Day.

Ready to plant on St. Patrick’s Day.

The Garden Project — Connecting today’s gardeners with history.  This Spring, I responded to a Facebook post by a Smith alumna looking for gardeners to participate in a research project.   The prospect sounded great so I immediately contacted Lee Fearnside, a Smith grad and art professor at Tiffin University in Ohio, and offered to participate.  I also thought being part of a documentary/art research project might be something fun to talk about!   After exchanging several emails, I was in!   The first step was to select an heirloom vegetable to grow this season, photograph it, share the photos and report on it.   I chose to grow Tom Thumb peas which I’ve planted many times in the past.   I received a package of seeds, a contract and a t-shirt in the mail just a few days before my annual St. Patrick’s Day pea planting. At the time, I hadn’t read the fine print in the contract so I thought the focus of the study was what gardeners like me and others around the country might be growing.   I later learned that our testimony and photos would supplement historical research on American gardeners from the past and be part of a multimedia presentation including a short documentary film, a website, an art exhibit and possibly, academic papers and presentations.

Planting day!

Planting day!

By late Spring, I had planted the peas at home and in my community plots, photographed the stages and harvested what hail and rabbits had not damaged.  This summer, Professor Fearnside and I have been trying to find a time to Skype so she can interview me. Between busy schedules, technological difficulties and young children under foot, the interview has not yet occurred.   We have an appointment scheduled for next week which I hope will finally work out.   I hope to be able to tell her about my experience with the Tom Thumb peas and my reflections on the two questions she forwarded to me:

  • Why do you garden?
  • What do you learn from gardening?    

I am still contemplating how I will answer these questions without talking for hours about my decades as a gardener.   Without these questions to reflect upon,  however, I worried that all I might have to talk about were the problems I had had with my peas.    My crop had been fairly dismal due two massive hail storms in June which shredded the protective netting I used to protest the peas from the rabbits.   The 2-3 ft tall pea plants were pummeled at my community garden and only some survived.   At home, a lone bunny managed to circumvent my netting to eat the peas while stuck.    Unfortunately, the bunny was later eaten by another animal and I was treated to a bloody bunny head entangled in the net hovering above the row of  mowed down pea shoots.


Peas are planted — March 2015. Onions on both sides to deter rabbits.

Protecting the peas from the becoming the bunny buffet.

Protecting the peas from the becoming the bunny buffet.


Late May, the peas are growing next to onions and underneath a tulle net. So far, so good.

Post hail storm -- protective net shredded and some pea plants still standing.

Post hail storm — protective net shredded and some pea plants still standing.


Surviving peas nestled under the damaged netting. So far, the rabbits aren’t eating them.

Here is the description of the research project in the contract I signed:


The Garden Project

Description of Research Study and Research Question:   This project examines the social uses of personal gardens by researching both different historical periods in the US (specifically late 17th/early 18th colonial farming practices, late 19th century upper-middle-class gardens, and Victory gardens promoted during World War I and II) and comparing that research to the responses of contemporary gardeners.   the purpose of this research is to explore why people have personal gardens, and how the practices and attitudes of personal gardens function in periods of intense social change.   this research will involve interviews of scholars, archival research, as well as participation through interviews and photographs of contemporary gardeners and their gardens.   The project is a multimedia art project, meaning that it will have several interdisciplinary manifestations, including a website, a photography books and a short documentary video, as well as possible academic papers or presentations.

I’ll share more about the project as it develops.   For more information, check out the project website:

The Garden Project t-shirt.

The Garden Project t-shirt.


By late June, the peas are drying up and the harvest is pretty much done. I will clip the pea plants at the surface and the leave the roots in the ground to add nitrogen to the soil.


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