Rachel Laudan

Farming or Gardening? What’s the Difference?

On Sunday 16th April, the Austin American-Statesman, our local paper, featured a story on an ex-banker who has converted “what was once grass into farmland,” describing how on half an acre (half a football field) she has grown 195 types of herbs, edible flowers and vegetables.

Now language changes all the time, and if people want to call the very small-scale cultivation of vegetables “farming” and the cultivator a “farmer” they are entitled to do so.  It does, however, further blur city dwellers’ already distant understanding of food production.

Farming and gardening are different and complementary ways of producing food (even though the boundaries are fluid and constantly shifting, a point I will come back to).

To run farming and gardening together misses what is unique and important about each.

Moreover, running them together means missing out on some very intriguing and important ideas about how food history interacts with the history of population and of civilization.

So first, three differences between gardening and farming.  Note that none of these are about productivity.  Gardening can be at least as productive as farming, or more so.

The digging stick and the plough

Gardens, by and large, are cultivated using a digging stick or one of its offspring.  A digging stick is just that, a stick for digging holes in the ground.  You can slip seeds, cuttings, corms, or rhizomes into those holes.  Then when the plant matures, you can dig it out with that same digging stick. (It’s also handy for a hundred and one other tasks. The offspring of digging sticks may have a bent end (a hoe), a widened end (a spade), or a row of spikes (a fork) all of them still in use in gardens.

Farms, by and large, are cultivated using a plough.  The earliest ploughs were also glorified sticks, but in these circumstances they were dragged along the ground to break up the surface or create a furrow. They evolved into more complicated tools in which the plough share acted as a knife to cut the furrow. (This is an oversimplification. The Society of Ploughmen have a good short history of the plough, one of many on the web).

Samuel Krauss, Talmudische Archaologie, vol. 2, Leipzig 1911, page 171

Planting and harvesting

Gardens, by and large, are planted seed by seed (or pinch of seed by pinch of seed), cutting by cutting, tuber by tuber. They are often harvested sequentially as the pods or the roots are ready.

Farms, by and large, are planted on a larger scale, the seed broadcast on the ground or (now) drilled into the furrow.  Similarly a given field is harvested all at once, so that it is important that all the plants are ready at the same time.

Farming, particularly with machinery, is less labor intensive than gardening. Hence affordable vegetables usually mean that someone has figured out how to farm them, not grow them in gardens. To do this, the plants usually become more standardized (California lettuce).

Gardened crops like Hawaiian taro remain expensive luxuries. Over at the invaluable Food and Farm Discussion Lab on Facebook (consider signing up if you haven’t already) Marc Brazeau links to his tweet storm about the dim future he sees for urban gardening as a serious source of food, some of which has to do with these issues.


Because plants are dealt with as individuals, gardens lend themselves to the selection of plants that have desired features (resist insects, survive drought, produce good-tasting edible parts).  In other words, gardens are good for introducing plants to new environments and to breeding new varieties.

That’s why (or one reason why) from the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, even farming societies have had botanical gardens.  That’s why even today the breeders who develop new varieties of one of the oldest farmed plants, wheat, work on a garden scale, inspecting each and every plant, and cooing over the most vigorous.

Wheat breeders

Sanjaya Rajaram with Hans Braun, both of CIMMYT, in small wheat breeding plots separated by paths in Sinaloa, Mexico

Intriguing and important ideas that follow from the differences between gardening and farming

Gardening was the main way much of the world produced its food well into the twentieth century. Toward the end of a long and productive life, the German botanist, ethnologist, and geographer Emil Werth published Grabstock, Hacke und Pflug (Digging Stick, Hoe and Plough) in 1954 with this map of the extent of hoe cultivation (gardening).

European intellectuals, raised in areas of plough cultivation (farming) sat up and took notice. The distinguished French historian, Fernand Braudel reprinted the map (shown here) in the first volume of his Civilization and Capitalism published in French in 1967 (revised English translation 1981).

The Danish economist, Esther Boserup, who worked for the UN, used hoe cultivation in her influential theory of intensification.  In opposition to Malthus, who argued that growing population on a given area of land would lead to famine and death, Boserup argued that growing population would encourage people to cultivate more intensively, thus producing economic growth. She published her theory in The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure (1965).

In the mid 1960s, economists were much taken up with agriculture and development (I’ve just been reviewing a book on this, so another post will come along sometime).  Suffice it now to say that Boserup’s theory was very important in discussions about how to encourage development in poorer parts of the world.

It was work in the hoe agricultural area of the South Pacific that led Jacques Barrau, French ethnobotanist, to put together his important synthesis Les Hommes et leurs Aliments in 1983, shortly before his death.  This was important for French scholars studying food, such as Jean-Francois Revel, Claude Fischler, and Francois Sabban, distinguished historian of Chinese food, who reviews Barrau’s work here in 1985 near the start of her career. His work also influenced those working in the South Pacific, such as the New Zealand anthropologist, Helen Leach in her 1,000 Years of Gardening in New Zealand in which she sees a certain continuity between Maori and European vegetable gardening.

Hoe agriculture came up again recently in a paper by the Harvard economists, Alberto Alesini et al who want to link hoe agriculture to gender roles.  That is they want to argue that women are more likely to work outside the home in areas of the world where gardening predominates. To me, this has a whiff of publicity seeking.

However I am more sympathetic to the commentary by Steve Sailer who wants to link plough agriculture (farming)  to civilizational achievement.

From Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas (1960s), excerpted in http://isteve.blogspot.com/2010/12/plow-cultures-v-hoe-cultures.html (the high concentration in north-west America is an artifact of the data).

Plough agriculture is highly correlated with grains, particularly with wheat (less so with maize and rice). As I construe the cities and empires of plough farming areas, this is a matter of logistics, not cultural superiority. I have argued in Cuisine and Empire that it is the superior transportability, storability, nutritiousness, and culinary flexibility of wheat that has made it so central to most of the world’s most important empires.  Which brings us back to development again.

In Closing

Gardening and farming have both been important historically. They are good for different kinds of plants, grains lending themselves to farming, fruits and vegetables to gardening. Gardening is better for the naturalization and breeding of plants, farming for feeding large numbers of people who are not themselves working in agriculture. This in turn means that farming has tended to underpin urban societies and large states.

So there are lots of reasons it might be better not to confuse gardening and farming.

Edit. Isn’t the difference that farmers grow to sell for profit and gardeners grow for themselves?

Several readers have posed this alternative, both in the comments here and on Facebook or Twitter.

I don’t believe that is the basic difference. No one just grew maize or taro or other garden-style crops for themselves alone. There was always either something they needed to exchange or buy (salt, nails) or somebody who demanded taxes or tribute (chief, landowner, etc). In farming areas, there were always those gardeners who grew commercially. They are called market gardeners in England and used to be called truck farmers in the United States.

You can have hobby farmers and hobby gardeners who work for the pleasure of it, gaining the income that allows them to survive elsewhere. Nothing wrong with that.  And you have commercial farmers and commercial gardeners who are both necessary to feeding us today.

And by the way, the assumption that is often made today, namely that if you farm to sell you are somehow soulless and disconnected from the land whereas if you grow for sustenance you are caring and sustaining, doesn’t hold water for one minute. No profit, no money even to keep the farm going, let alone buy food you can’t produce, clothing, housing and everything else you need.



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5 thoughts on “Farming or Gardening? What’s the Difference?

  1. Augusta Umanski

    Another possible way to differentiate between gardening and farming would be to define gardening as what supplies enough food for the gardener and family to be self-sufficient, and farming, that which provides a surplus which can be sold or traded for a profit.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Augusta, thanks for the comments. This is a very tempting way to see the difference. However I don’t think in the end that it works. I have edited my post to explain why.

  2. Pingback: Farming or Gardening? What’s the Difference? – Food and Farm Discussion Lab

  3. davschorr

    Sorry for commenting so late: Your analysis seems to be focused on ground crops and grasses or cereals. What about trees? I assume that in even a very large fruit farm or palm plantation trees would have been planted by hand, and harvested all at once.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hello Dave, right that trees are another category. I wondered about including them, then decided it would confuse the issue. Yes, hand planting like roots and annual vegetables. Yes, more or less simultaneous harvesting like cereals, though with many exceptions. And of course breeding is infinitely more difficult than with annuals, whether cereals or roots, or vegetables.

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