The Epicurean Vegetable Garden

Growing vegetables is, for me, neither a hobby nor strictly speaking a necessity. Rather I see it as an aesthetic, political and philosophical statement which attempts to follow in the tradition of poet-gardeners of the eighteenth century whose practices were revived in the twentieth century by the poet-gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay in his Scottish garden, Little Sparta. Placing suburban vegetable growing within this grand tradition may seem heresy but I believe to do so is to adopt the tactics of transgression that in Noel Carroll’s words indicate, “the artist’s conception of what must be done in order to rectify or reform … pre-existing practices.” It is an attempt to transfigure our commonplace existence in which ecological degradation and food security are becoming increasingly pressing issues.

In expensive cities such as Sydney real estate prices demand that houses are accompanied by slickly designed ‘rooms outside’ with expensive pavers and the odd specimen plant in a pot beside the pool.

Epicurean01Meanwhile the middle-class owners of these unsustainable paved yards pay high prices for organic vegetables in order to eat what was once more or less freely available to everyone. These newly created luxuries are simply commodified versions of what Ivan Illich referred to as the vernacular. Yet to bring about a return to the vernacular without being dismissed as unrealistically romantic, a luddite, or out of touch with the realities of the economy and the property market requires rethinking the vegetable garden as a creative, artistic space far removed from the stereotype of poverty and scraggly rows of cabbages that was a common sight in post WW II suburbia.

I’m not going to deal here with gardening practicalities – What I’m concerned are our social obligations to restore backyards to health and wholeness through artistic, political and philosophical creativity. I’ll start by taking a brief look at the eighteenth century landscape garden as background before examining Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta as a model for how a suburban vegetable garden might function in Susan Stewart’s words to “question historical knowledge as a model for virtuous action [even] as it asserts the necessity of historical knowledge as a model for virtuous action.”

Traditionally, poets, artists and scholars have created gardens. From the Renaissance on, in Britain and Europe poets often sought what Alexander Pope referred to as a ‘place to stand’ by creating a garden. Within this domain the poet-gardeners established a counter-order so that they came to be seen not as amateur horticulturalists but as social thinkers distilling ethical values through the transformation of landscape. The eighteenth century landscape gardens of poets such as Pope and Shenstone placed classical content within gardens that cultivated an untamed, natural appearance and it was this mix of the classical and the natural that haunted the English garden.


Gardens such as Cobham’s at Stowe did not simply express the idea of freedom by their less contrived scenery. They also included emblems of freedom, justice or goodness, which invoked classical prototypes. The Elysian Fields at Stowe, for example, represent an allegory of good and bad government. John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis write of these gardens: “the assimilation of Classical ideas was not merely a matter of imitation … but of registering the difficulties as well as the opportunities of cultural obligations.”

Gardener-poets such as Pope understood that the two disparate forms of classicism and the natural in fact had much in common. Instead of defining nature as political territory dominated by man, the neoclassical and landscape garden aimed to give voice to natural order. Meanwhile the inscriptions and citations returned to a classical, mythological landscape that was rendered present without being real. It is this use of written words, of emblems and iconographical signposts that Finlay revised in his Little Sparta.


It is impossible to do justice to t he range and complexity of Finlay’s garden practices here but a starting point is that his decision to place poems and quotations in a natural environment resulted from his need to reflect on the conjunction between the aesthetics of power in the modern world and the power of aesthetics.

Finlay saw classical antiquity as a means whereby he could make a poetic statement not just on the decline and death of great civilisations but on human life itself. His garden, like those of the eighteenth century poet-gardeners functions as a garden of ideas. He revived essential concepts about the relationship of garden spaces to the outside world through emblems and quotations.

His fascination with inscriptions clearly emerges out of his earlier work in concrete poetry and he commented in the early 1960s that ‘concrete’ by its very limitations offers a tangible image of goodness and sanity; … “It is a model, of order, even if set in a space which is full of doubt.

Finlay referred to his use of classical vocabulary as a ‘rearmament programme’ with which to analyse human conflict. “Certain gardens,” he commented, are described as retreats when really they are attacks.” This manifesto is represented in the inscription on his garden temple. It reads,

“To Apollo: His Music, His Missiles, His Muses.” Apollo patron of the muses is the archer who dispatches messages of death yet at the same time he is the lyre-player offering messages of music.


In a similar vein, he designed fountains and bird tables as aircraft carriers, carved stone hand grenades as finials and a statue of Apollo clutching a machine gun. Miles Orvell writes of Finlay’s use of militaristic themes such as warships: “On the one hand the domestication of armaments within an ordered space implicitly mocks their power over our lives. But the playful reduction does not remove the charge of violence from the objects. Rather, it is the special order imposed on instruments of violent disorder that creates the tensions and paradox in Finlay’s armament works.”

Radical suburban vegetable gardening provides a counterpoint to Finlay’s rearmament. It takes as its classical forebear not Apollo but Epicurus.


It replaces Apollo’s arrows and music with an Epicurean understanding of pleasure. By doing so it attempts to create a special order that also critiques the instruments of violent disorder in contemporary society and it comments not just on the decline of human life but all life on the planet. Today we not only have the warship as temple but the mining industry, coal fired power stations and giant corporations such as Monsanto dominating the market with pesticides and hybridised seeds. The Epicurean backyard provides a small space on which to stand, a space which enables us to both attempt to offset the forces that bring about death of non-human species and to ponder the forces of destruction such as global capitalism and the commodification of food.

The vegetable garden confronts us with necessary violence: that we must destroy in order to survive; that harvesting and eating what we have nurtured requires imposing a special order on our backyard microcosm that cannot but include the use of power. As the eighteenth century landscape garden sought to give voice to a natural order so the Epicurean backyard seeks to partake of an ecosystem while interrogating the misuse of power.

Finlay examined a somewhat different heritage and his garden is dominated by the notion of terror in Arcady, represented by a tank in an idyllic setting. In contrast the Epicurean backyard places less emphasis on terror as a useful strategy. Without disavowing the reality of terror, it instead regards the room outside as a sterile, dead arcadia that fails to offer a convivial space for plants, insects, birds and animals; that fails to provide nourishment for any of these species including the human.

The notion of garden attacks does, however, continue to have some purchase and has provided valuable twenty-first century precursors to the Epicurean backyard. One example is Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates, or replacing front lawns with vegetable gardens. Described as an attack on lawns, Haeg states, “We used ecological values to challenge traditional aesthetic values, and [the lawn] a socially treasured object became suspect. … Ecological thinking has transformed how we see the lawn, and our concept of beauty has been transformed with it.”


The effectiveness of such attacks seems to fly in the face of Epicurean pronouncements about retreating into the backyard to grow vegetables. However, this is precisely what Epicurus did. He chose not to become a revolutionary and instead retreated from the political turmoil of his time into a garden that, through the communal participation of all involved, blossomed into one of the most vital and life-affirming schools of the ancient world. Although he sought refuge in his garden he never ceased to acknowledge the reality from which he was taking flight. To adopt Epicureanism as a gardening model is to return to a philosophy that was specifically developed in conjunction with a vegetable garden, a garden that was a place in which reality could be reconceived. It was an attack in the sense that it was a place where possibilities could be re-imagined. It was a place where social virtues could re-flourish under carefully husbanded circumstances.

Epicureanism provides an overarching outlook in which the human shares the fate of whatever grows and perishes on and in the earth. Epicurus’ fundamental belief was that there was a direct correspondence between human moral, spiritual and intellectual cultivation and organic cultivation of a garden.

As well as providing physical nourishment, Epicurus believed pleasure was the most precious fruit of the garden. However, his understanding of pleasure had nothing to do with the gratification of appetites. In fact, he repeatedly condemned excessive indulgence of any sort. Nothing could be more antithetical to Epicurus’ ethic of cultivation than today’s unbridled consumption. But to describe this garden as an attack is not wholly accurate. Although he would undoubtedly have denounced our so-called age of entitlement his garden school did not presume to come to the world’s rescue. And today, there is of course no guarantee that small steps will lead to large ones. The Epicurean backyard’s ambition is far more modest and hopefully, like Epicurus’ garden finally far more efficacious: to make room for all life to flourish in dark times by giving it soil in which to grow.

The solutions offered by the Epicurean backyard include that branch of philosophy that understands all animate life as founded in vegetal life. It offers the possibilities of plant-like subjectivities that broaden relational ways of being in the world. Politically it works to establish the suburban vegetable garden as a modern Arcadia that replaces the deathly room outside and for its aesthetic inspiration it looks to the classical past as well as to present-day eco-art.

Politically, the Epicurean backyard is an attempt to refuse to regulate the human relation to plants. From genetically modified seeds that do not yield renewable crops to artificially induced scarcity to maintain high market prices, the capitalist agro-scientific complex militates against vegetal life and ethics alike. The Epicurean backyard calls upon us to care, to nurture endangered ecosystems and to practice an ongoing co-creativity with plants, insects, animals, soil and weather. It seeks to transfigure our shared commonplace existence rather than dominate and commodify it. Its aim is to relinquish control in favour of consecration.

Aesthetically, by assimilating classical ideas the Epicurean backyard does not merely imitate but registers the difficulties inherent in transforming pre-existing practices. The aesthetics of power are clearly evident in the expectations of the real estate market which looks to the room outside to enhance market prices. Yet an Epicurean attack on this sterile environment is today a cultural obligation and the power of aesthetics is beginning to make itself felt in such ventures as the Edible estates and the prize winning garden Future Feast in the Garden of Flow/Accumulation designed by Suzanne Briggs and Patrick Picard. Briggs states: “My belief is that the root cause of global warming and unsustainable practices is accumulation.” She symbolises deforestation with charred wood rising from a lifeless under-story of slash; extinction with fossils in a sea of sterile dirt and stones. In contrast to channels of “accumulation” are channels of “flow” symbolized by oak seedlings—hope to restore the depleted forests; plants that attract insects, bees and butterflies—hope to guard against continued extinction.

In the centre of the garden is the symbol of hope – the Future Feast table resting on local reclaimed redwood legs and using the technology of green roofs for its living surface.

So what might the tentative beginnings of an Epicurean Backyard look like? Firstly, unlike the eighteenth century landscape garden, which was an exclusive Arcadia for the elite, the Epicurean backyard has a domestic scale – it provides a contemporary Arcadia for anyone and everyone. It would of course continue the tradition of the garden of ideas by producing not only physical food but food for the mind – poetic statements on the state of western culture in this age of the Anthropocene. It would see vegetable growing as inextricably linked to ideas of power and control, personal control over the basic requirements of life and power to attempt to transform the deathly forces of capital; power to relinquish ways of life that set the human outside ecosystems.


The Epicurean vegetable garden is a place to dwell creatively; it is both serious and playful, philosophical and aesthetic, productive and attractive. Drawing on Epicurus and extending through Goethe, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty it might use quotations such as Heidegger’s statements on dwelling poetically or Goethe’s understanding of plant metamorphosis in which the leaf is primary.

It might playfully find ways to grow vegetables in tiny spaces proving yet again that small is beautiful. Or it might draw on eco-artists who have created habitat sculptures or reclamation projects.

Epicurean08The ephemeral works of artists such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy bring attention to human responsibility for the environmental crisis, to what Agnes Denes describes as, “mismanagement, waste, world hunger, and ecological concerns.” Lynne Hull writes of her habitat sculptures, “My sculpture and installations provide shelter, food, water or space for wildlife, as ecoatonement for their loss of habitat to human encroachment.”

In addition the Epicurean backyard might explore the origin of words such as the emblem, which was of Greek origin but in classical Latin was used to refer to mosaics. Emblem also had a figurative meaning: speech studded with citations used as rhetorical ornaments. Mosaics might then be studded with vegetable plants as rhetorical ornaments that provide ready-to-hand salads.


On a general level, a garden feeds us on many levels and the more disconnected we become from the garden, the more reckless we become with the way we occupy the planet. To create vegetable gardens as art is to return to the creative practices of the vernacular; it is to follow in the footsteps of the poet-gardeners who established a counter-order to transform the landscape; and it is to follow Epicurus’ example and recognise our obligation to make room for all life to flourish in dark times by giving it soil in which to grow.


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