Obviously, a garden and a vegetable garden are different things, even if the Latin word “hortus”, meaning a fenced-in area used for the cultivation of plants, potentially describes both. Indeed in the past, the distinction was not especially clear. The vegetable garden arguably reached its peak during the Medieval period, thanks to the influence of Persian gardens, which formed a vital part of the symbolic and literary imagination of the time. In Italy, the first urban vegetable gardenssprang up around religious houses: it was the Benedictine monks in particular who surrounded their monasteries with green areas, which they dedicated to growing vegetables and herbs. In part, this was a way of flexing the productive and pharmaceutical muscles of the monastery in question.
Later, even at times of crisis like the two world wars, urban vegetable gardens played a hugely important role. Here in Italy, the Fascist regime formed the Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (the national after-work project) to promote the cultivation of vegetable gardens: obviously, this was a piece of propaganda in the name of national self-sufficiency. Then, with the culture shift in the 1970s, the idea of urban horticulture was reborn not only as an environmental idea, but also for the social opportunities that such places offered. Vegetable gardens no longer facilitated a war effort; they were now places of peace.
It was estimated that in 2013 there were 2.7 million vegetable growers in Italy; by 2017, that number had soared to around 20 million. 20 million people who, in one way or another, approached gardens, terraces, any kind of space with a bit of passion for nature, an urge not to waste, and a desire for clean, genuine produce on the table. Even if people often throw themselves into growing fruits and vegetables with more than a touch of naivety, it’s a way of reaffirming our bond with nature in a world that we are all too eagerly concreting over.
But to truly understand the potential of do-it-yourself horticulture, you have to look at the macro-social implications. Growing one’s own produce doesn’t only benefit the grower: the benefits extend throughout society, touching the economic sphere as well as that of urban development. What has been seen as a fleeting fashion trend has become an indispensable production model in the fight against the world’s economic, environmental and social challenges.
Many agricultural and horticultural models have been adapted to cities around the globe, whether for recreational or commercial reasons, or simply to produce food. Urban agriculture helps promote sustainable and ecological practices, such as the production and distribution of zero-mile fruit and vegetables, which of course saves tremendously on energy. It raises awareness among consumers and helps them get involved in the food production chain and environmental education. And that’s before we even consider the benefits to the cityscape. Urban agriculture brings greenery to the most barren areas of concrete, sometimes changing entire districts and very often lending very real support to developing places where food provisions are a prime necessity.
As they have always done, urban vegetable gardens unite the concepts of gardening and producing. They are spaces both beautiful and functional, in the heart of our towns, and therefore help to blur the boundaries between town and country. Above all, they honor the old adage of “what you sow today you will reap tomorrow”.