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Anthropologist studies garden snobs

By Hilary waldman, The Hartford Courant
For a group of folks with dirt under their fingernails, gardeners have become a bunch of snobs.

So says cultural anthropologist Jane Nadel-Klein, a Trinity College professor who is making the modern-day garden and its rubber-clogged inhabitants the subjects of her latest research.

A hobby as common and universal as gardening might seem an odd province for a social scientist who, until now, has devoted her life's work to documenting the demise of fishing in Scottish coastal villages.

But to Nadel-Klein, an avid gardener, an examination of the garden-club lady can contribute to our understanding of humankind in much the same way that studies of isolated civilizations in New Guinea can.

"The more we know about the history of a human practice, the more we know what we share," says Nadel-Klein, speaking in her comfortable office on the Trinity campus. Nadel-Klein's assessment of gardeners as elitists might sound a bit harsh. But her observation comes not from the ivory tower of academia but from visits to garden shows and garden club meetings and from years of reading garden magazines simply to indulge her own passion.

At the flower and garden show in Hartford, Conn., last winter, Nadel-Klein noticed a T-shirt for sale emblazoned with the message: "Friends don't let friends buy annuals." She laughed at first. But then she wondered why people who plant pansies and petunias are not considered real gardeners.

"It has a definite class bias," she says. "Annuals are not associated with serious gardeners."

Then she thought about her hometown of Bloomfield, Conn., where every summer day, she admires front-yard landscapes and flower beds that no garden club would ever include on its annual garden tour. She remembered her neighbor across the street, a man from the Caribbean who filled his front yard with a tangle of mismatched flowers and vegetable plants from castor beans to petunias. It was beautiful, Nadel-Klein recalls.

"It was a riot of color; everything clashed," Nadel-Klein says. "But the garden club would drive right by his house." With a grant from Trinity, Nadel-Klein plans to spend the next several months visiting garden shows, studying horticulture magazine content and interviewing gardeners to formalize her observations.

She will travel to England, long a mecca for the serious gardener, to compare British gardening traditions with those in the U.S. She wants to know where our idea of a good garden originated. Reference.

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