Farming or Gardening? What’s the Difference?


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GUEST AUTHOR: Rachel Laudan | Food historian and author of the prizewinning Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History  || @rachellaudan

This piece previously appeared on Rachel’s website. It appears here by permission of the author.


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.  Doing so, however, further blurs the increasingly distant understanding of food production of city dwellers who are now often several generations removed from direct experience on the land.

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.

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.

Using a digging stick in the Andes. Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala. El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno. (1615/1616)

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.

English: A scene of agricultural work with a man digging herbaceous plants with a spade, among cultivated trees, from a mediaeval Arabic manuscript from Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) Date circa 1200 |  Source

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. This is also the reason why gardened crops like Hawaiian taro remain expensive luxuries. And 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.


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.


Sanjaya Rajaram with Hans Braun, both of CIMMYT, in wheat breeding plots 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  (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).  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. So back to development again.

In Closing

Gardening and farming have both been important historically. They are good for different kinds of plants. 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.

 [Please consider supporting Food and Farm Discussion Lab with an  ongoing contribution of $1, $2, $3, $5 or $10 a month on Patreon. All contributors receive a subscription to our email newsletter the FAFDL Dispatch. ]


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