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Is Gardening Nerdy?

This weekend I found a caterpillar in my garden. My first impulse was “Squish it!” — I don’t use pesticides, bugs are often bad news. Mid-swing I gasped, and dropped my arm.

It was a Monarch.


As many of you know, Monarch butterflies are endangered by the depletion of their natural foodstuff, the milkweed plant. As part of my Retiring To Values plan (I simply mean devoting more time to The Good), I have installed native plants under my oak, and now in my side yard as well. Milkweed features heavily.

When I found the caterpillar, I was excited. As in, all is SO right with the world, exclaiming out loud, heart rate elevated. I posted photos to all my social media feeds in celebration.

And almost immediately wondered if I had become a nerd.

When social anxiety strikes, I want to deconstruct.

Is Gardening Nerdy?

Arguments for Yes

  • Goofy clothes
  • Tendency toward debris in the hair
  • Exhaustive knowledge of arcane terminology and gear
  • Excitement over apparently trivial events
  • Long term fussing with hoses, seeds, and things that stick to your fingers

Definition of “Nerdy”

All of which is fun, but uncovers a need to define the term “nerdy.”

“Nerd” has always meant:

  • Funny-looking, as in not sexually attractive,
  • Funny-sounding, as in saying stuff that’s hard to understand, in a non-sonorous voice,
  • Prone to solitary endeavors,
  • Apt to hang out with others of type,
  • Obsessed with an area of interest, to the point of being unable to carry on standard social conversation. Never say to a nerd, “Some weather we’re having.” It will not be a short conversation.
  • And, which probably should have been first on the list, Not Fighters

In sum, nerds are Not Cool.

I think the concept of a Nerd, at least in Anglo-Saxon culture, carries over from the battlefield. Humankind fought a lot in the olden days. We needed good soldiers. They should be strong of body, terse in speaking, controlled in emotion. Cool. They shouldn’t care too much, about anything. Maybe a family, but a family far away.

We, and here I throw in my lot to Team Nerd, we are not good fighters. We research, we solve, we wax eloquent. But we don’t really want to punch you in the face. Even if you take our stuff. We’d rather talk to you about it thoughtfully; or, develop a drone that can track you down and take everything back in the night.

A Refined Argument for No, Or, Yes, But That’s OK

I hope humanity manages to ratchet down reverence for the fighter. This will of course require that we fight less. I mean no disrespect to our current soldiers. A job well done in the hope it may become unnecessary.

If we can, then, up our faith in the taker of care, in the solver of problems, in the lover of details, gardening and similar hobbies will be treasured. The tenders, venerated. All to the good, if we’re nerdy around our values.

Enthusiasm cannot be overrated.

Here is my gardening hat. Like this.


This is my delphinium.


I grew it from seed. Tough, that. A delphinium wants patience, grows to its own calendar, requires handwatering. We’re turning off our sprinklers here in drought land. I had to move the thing from my back yard to a prima donna location in my front yard. I even have to feed it.

But look up from the delphinium, just overhead, an enthusiastic rose has something to say. Add any caption you like, plants don’t mind handing over the microphone.


Do you have a nerdy hobby? Let us gather, and chat, enthusiastically. I’ll see you one crochet hook and raise you a pair of impermeable gloves.


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90 Responses

  1. According to your nerd definition, painting is actually quite a nerdy quality. I’m always always a mess during the day, and it’s very solitary as well. I also garden and am quite obsessed with a bonsai tree I have that I also feed, water carefully, move around for optimum sun/shade. I have a “kitchen garden” that I tend to myself, but the rest of the garden is left to others to do as I don’t have the time.
    And I’m a grandmother, which is also kind of nerdy, and often means I have a layer of guacamole or something like that over dried paint on my clothing.

    I keep trying to come up with a nerd uniform, so that under it all there is something cool about me?

    1. That’s my at home attire. Was thinking black jeans, black tee shirt and black leather sneakers. Comfortable, easy uniform, yet sleek in feel? And a good backdrop for all the gunk I collect on my body.

    1. Can you see my wardrobe? I totally wear a frayed pair of baggy cotton khakis that belonged to I know not whom. And I have been looking for more similar pairs for donkeys’ years.

  2. Amen from another gardening nerd and non-fighter.
    Here in Ohio there is a push to repopulate the milk weed plants which have been decimated by agricultural practices.
    There is a program spearheaded by the Cincinnati Nature Center which has handed out thousands of packages of milkweed seeds, not only to its members, but to all and any who request them.

    1. @Gardengoddess42, I’ve heard about that program! I bought these plants at a wonderful San Francisco native nursery – I think it’s possible that the monarch eggs came already, um, installed?

  3. Haha! I love it. My response would be, “Nerdy, yes, but who the hell cares!”
    My nerdy hobby was sewing, but I’m desperately in need of a new machine. It’ll happen one of these days because I’ve got a serious post-menopausal desire to create.

  4. I have a very good friend who has just thrown in her lot with a very wealthy art dealer. Now she is finding herself at dinners and openings with people that she at first thought she would have ZERO in common with. Turns out gardening is a very universal subject-it is her go to convo starter when sitting next to Mr. Big Bucks Investor who just happens to have a thing for his roses. Who knew?

  5. Of course gardening is nerdy. Things worth doing are often nerdy. If you look at nerdy from the right angle, it can look sort of sexy.

  6. Congratulations on the monarch and the delphinium! Both are difficult to cultivate.
    My garden uniform is a long sleeved t or turtle neck, an ancient pair of high waisted khakis or retired jeans. My one weakness is glamorous hats. The wider the brim the better. I imagine I’m the grandmother in Prayer for Owen Meany who tended her rose garden in old cocktail dresses.
    Our weather has finally turned. Hyacinths are just peaking through. The clean up commences.
    Your rose is a beauty! What’s her name?

    1. @Linda Pakravan, Yes, I’m by no means across the finish line, either with the delphinium or the caterpillar. And I wish I knew the name of the rose – she was planted long before I had name to get so deeply involved.

  7. Lisa,
    Wasn’t it only a couple weeks back you expressed a perhaps long suppressed yearning to punch that charming GSL in the face?
    High marks to the floppy lid. Books are the passion round here.

  8. When I got back from yoga this morning (is yoga nerdy?) and was pulling my car into the driveway, I noticed that my peach tree had burst forth in showy blossoms. I was beside myself with excitement. My husband told me that just yesterday (I had just returned late last night from out of town), the tree was covered with only buds so this is all brand new. I ran inside to get my cell phone and took a couple of photos which I immediately sent to members of the family. Guess I am just about as nerdy as they get.

    1. @Jane, Yoga is not nerdy unless you get really into the gear, IMHO:). And I bet your peach blossoms are just wonderful.

  9. Can we really classify Ms. Martha Stewart as a nerd?? Whenever I have concerns about my penchant to garden, this is my consideration.

  10. I also knit – definitely nerdy and I commend you for your planting of the milkweed plants. Getting mine tomorrow and planting.

    1. @kathy, Get a lot! In the end I found 2 caterpillars and they ate one little plant in a day or two. One of them didn’t survive the move to a different plant:(. Also, I do not think that painting can count as nerdy when one has shown at Art Basel;)

  11. Yes to being a grandma, yes to high waisted ancient baggy khakis, yes to reading books and sewing, yes to broad brimmed hats (not necessarily floppy although I’m tempted by some that I saw at Costco the other day) and yes to observing nature in the garden. Last summer I was horrified to see a beautiful butterfly suddenly being attacked and eaten by a preying mantis which was cleverly camouflaged. Life and death in nature.

    1. @Jane, One of my caterpillars has already disappeared:(. I like the floppy hat just because if it bumps something it adjusts. I always seem to have my head in some foliage.

  12. There is nothing remotely trivial about finding a caterpillar in one’s garden, and if that makes me a nerd, I’ll wear that hat proudly (alongside my straw gardening one that is!).

    I marvel at the things I’ve dug up recently while weeding the garden of oxalis. My entire family was so fascinated with the dark red pupa unearthed in the soil that we took one inside, housed it in a jar, and waited. Some weeks later, out hatched a beautiful moth to delight us all. We released it on Sunday evening and placed it among the herbs growing in a pot outdoors so it can find its wings and eventually take off. Now that’s nerdy!

    Your statuesque delphinium will be magnificent when in bloom. Well done!

    1. @Chronica Domus, That’s such a sweet story! I have heard from others that small children just love to find, and watch over, the caterpillars in their gardens. I like to think of that habit growing throughout the age groups.

      Thanks for the delphinium love. Those things aren’t kidding around!

  13. Also a garden nerd here and to up the nerdiness factor I’m also a birdwatcher. My outfit of choice for both activities are loose-fitting cotton khaki capris from KMart. They sell these every year and I own a bunch. I call them my Japanese gardener pants. And they have deep pockets. Your posts are a pleasure to read!

  14. I garden, I READ, and oh no, I use a sewing
    machine too.

    I feel that I am so nerdy, I must be cool!

  15. I always love your analyses and deconstructions. Having always been a bit of a nerd (bookworm, horses, sci-fi, art, Renaissance Faire, blogger) I say Yay Us! I think certain types of nerdiness have been elevated to Cool. Someone has to be obsessive enough to drill down, stick with things and push envelopes. It’s the only way the world moves forward.

    1. @déjà pseu, So very well put. Thank you. And I think the recent flush of mobile apps has led to software developers becoming “cool.” Or at least cool-er.

  16. Any pastime that can turn into a passion can be nerdy. It’s all about the attitude. Welcome to the club. ♥

  17. Yes and no. It is nerdy, but certain nerdy things are “cool” these days. Mostly i’m dressed in old, practical clothes in the garden except for in summer when i’ve been known to show off my pins and wear cut off denim shorts a la Daisy Duke.

    Knitting is nerdy, quilting is nerdy, making my own jam is nerdy BUT … I love it!

    1. @Jessica, That’s a good point. The whole hipster thing, pickling, very long beards, black glasses, all at one time or another were signs of “nerd.”

    2. Yes, nerds are cool!

      Back in the ’90s when I was a teen feminist, the band Bikini Kill published a zine with a piece about dorkiness being cool, because it shows you care, and that’s human! Why be aloof when you can be real, and make a connection?

      Here is an excerpt from that fanzine, if you are interested:

  18. Team Nerd here. Grandmother, non-controntationalist, knitter, gardener and needlepointer. Oh yeah, I live in Idaho, which is kind of a nerdy place.

    Decidedly not cool, I even carry Vera Bradley bags.

    Sigh, were my glory college days just nerdvana?

  19. I guess my typical gardening outfit is nerdy. It includes a hat surprisingly similar to yours, and plastic clogs that I keep outside the back door. I usually have a clip-on holster for my Felco pruners so that they are always at my side. The rest of my outfit varies depending on the weather, but is generally pretty ratty.

    1. @AK, I’ve been coveting a pruner holster. Seriously. And my Croc clogs are the color known as “parrot green.;)’

  20. Personally, I think gardening is always very Smart and kind of chic. I’ve been a serious gardener since I was 23 back when none of my friends gardened and I just never saw it as nerdy. Making things beautiful and taming the elements and working with them is pretty amazing. So true that gardening unites people- I did a garden tour with ladies 25 to 30 years my senior and we just clicked. Love this post.

  21. I don’t think gardening is nerdy at all! (I am a gardener from waaay back)
    I do feel that when one get really serious about a hobby and studies up, learns the Latin names of some of the plants…becomes passionate about the care and feeding of plants (roses especially!) and treats their plants as if they were family then one might nudge the borders of nerdism but I like to think “eccentric” is more the term one might use….think Penelope Hobhouse or Gertrude Jeykyll…a straw hat, wellies, gloves and a pair of secateurs. The uniform is not mandatory but it helps get the respect of other gardeners…
    enjoy your potter about!

  22. Lisa – the Cincinnati Nature Center is handing out packets of seeds, not plants – although that would be lovely, especially if they did have a caterpillar already installed! The Monarch lays 300 eggs, but only one egg to one milkweed plant. Apparently each caterpillar will need all the leaves on an indivdual plant before they pupate. We are going to have to plant a lot of the seeds to deal with the shortfall in the number of milkweed plants!
    There is a beautiful movie, The Flight of the Butterflies, which has been shown locally on IMax, which shows the amazing story of the migration of the fourth generation of the Monarchs to their winter hibernation in Mexico. Well worth seeing. (At least, for butterfly nerds!)

  23. Usually a lurker, I cannot resist a post that begins with caterpillar delight and ends with a nerdy hobby survey. I love seeing you edge toward becoming your own Artsy Cousin. As for me: book club, quilting, and lap swimming fly proudly on my nerd flagpole!

    1. @Linda K, I’m coming round to the family traditions, gradually, a little late, but with enthusiasm;) And I’ve seen evidence of your fabric skills – remember my mom’s birthday party!?! My napkins? You’re advanced.:)

  24. I love gardening, too; specifically: working with bonsai trees. It’s an interest that started casually 13 years ago that’s resulted in caring for 30 to 40 trees in varying stages of development. They have to be cared for each day in spring, summer, and fall. I enjoy the creative aspect,as well as the many fine people I’ve met who share this pursuit. It looks like your commenters share similar garb as gardening attire. Mine: Sweatpants and sweatshirts in cold weather and knit cotton capris and men’s extra-large Ts when it’s hot. At times it’s been embarrassing to nip off to run an errand forgetting what I’m wearing. That’s when you run into the snootiest people you know. But so what? I’m a nerd and I don’t care.

    1. @BethF, I guess the good thing about the pants I wear is that they are SO battered I don’t forget to change them for errands:). But my neighbors see me in my flannel PJ bottoms when I go out in the morning to inspect my roses. I’m hoping they’re used to it.

      Bonsai. I bow to you!

  25. Nerdy? I think of gardening as earthy, creative and sensual. And very on trend if you embracing the growing your own food movement . BY the way gardening in Western Australia is very challenging – I can relate to your drought restrictions.

    1. @Mary, I find it all of the above – not growing food at the moment, but thinking about doing vegetables again next spring. Do you have official restrictions on water use?

    2. yes we do have sprinkler restrictions. We can only use sprinklers on certain days. No total hose bans yet but they may happen.

    3. But the other challenge is that we have desert sand instead of soil. Organics and a range of clays must be added to the sand before anything other than native vegetation can even think about putting down roots.

  26. I never felt like a nerd until I got the new young attractive neighbors ( all over the hood) and Sunday I was gardening in floppy canvas hat with a bandage I had cut and carefully positioned over the biopsy wound on my chin.Yes it’s basal cell, removed in two weeks.

    I had on a kelly green tshirt, a brown plaid long sleeve cotton flannel shirt, leggings and old kicks.

    And one by one the neighbors drifted over to visit or help me dig.

    I gratefully accepted the help, enjoyed the company and eventually stopped my mind from screaming “don’t look at me”.

    Ego has to leave the building when spring enters the garden.

    xo J

    1. “Ego has to leave the building when spring enters the garden.” I shall quote you, repeatedly. I bet your neighbors had a wonderful time digging.

  27. Your delphinium is beautiful! It gives such joy to see what grows from seeds, doesn’t it? I’ve planted hollyhocks from seed which grew 13 feet tall and were lovely. Also, planted sweet peas from heirloom variety seeds.
    I hope you will catch a glimpse of the Monarch when he’s a butterfly, and hope you will have many more in your garden, like a good omen.
    Nerd or not, gardening brings out so many emotions along the way, but once things start to bloom, joy fills the heart. Your garden is bearing beautiful blooms and bringing you great joy!

    1. @Candace, Thank you – it does bring joy. And this caterpillar may not survive, but if not, I will take him/her as a sign that eventually I’ll have a milkweed stand and a butterfly garden to enjoy:).

  28. That is one food for thought post. “Ratchet down the admiration for the fighter”. And the fascination for decay, if current movies and series are anything to go by. Thanks, this made my day.

    Actually I always felt that people doing their own thing in-depth are cool.

    1. @mademarian, Thank you! I guess I did sneak a little personal hope and philosophy in there:). Also an attempt at artsy photography – bit by bit.

  29. In my opinion gardening is one of the best things on this Earth. Who else gets to produce food for endangered insects? Thanks for showing us the larve. When we didn’t have much water, we used an old fashioned bassin for washing hands, hair, baths and re-used this “grey” water watering plants instead of sending it down the drain.

    1. @Sara, I’ve started to keep a bucket in my shower. The water that runs before the shower warms up I use to water some native ferns I’ve planted in the shade area that runs parallel to my “butterfly garden.” In quotation marks because it’s so new and not yet established.

  30. My father was a gardener ( professional) , I had my own Mini gardens as a child & I have always gardened . I used to know many Latin names & swotted up seriously on future plantings . Things are more relaxed now but I still love it when the garden wakes up again in the spring & I can get my gardening gloves on . One of life’s pleasures is walking round the garden first thing , with a cup of coffee , to see what has appeared over night . I have a theory that gardeners sleep better & usually have the worst fingernails – or is that just me ?
    Wendy in York

    1. @Wendy, Totally bad fingernails, totally sleeping better, totally out there in the morning checking on everybody to see how their night went;). That might have been both useful and daunting to have a father who knew all this stuff professionally.

  31. NerdsRUs? Well, anyway, I increasingly think the more interesting people are all a bit nerdy about something, and therefore am inclined toward the idea that being a nerd is a bit of a badge of honor. Perhaps there is something in that — being a nerd makes you dangerous in a way, not in the punch-them-out kind of way, but in he the way of knowing something other’s don’t necessarily. Calling someone a nerd can be a way of disarming a perceived threat.

    I am sure you know by now that I tend to overthink….

    I have reacquainted myself with my love of gardening and was out until it was almost too dark to see last night, as that was the only time it was dry enough to attempt work in the garden. I love knitting and reading, and even cooking to the point of nerdiness. Where would we be without the nerds? Is it possible that nerdiness could be our natural state? Or at least something to aspire toward?

    1. @Mardel, Hey, overthinkersRus too:). And that’s a great point, that the label “nerd” can be used to disarm a threat. I’ve always wanted to own my own nerdiness – it’s kind of the best part of exiting corporate life.

  32. The gardening bug never bit me (see what I did there – bug – hee). I really dislike gardening to the extent that I can’t see how others could possibly enjoy it. Same with cooking. A chore and a bore.

    Yet I lose myself totally in reading, knitting, sewing, crocheting, needle-pointing, bead stringing, jewelry making….things that would make others poke their eyes out.

    Vive la différence!

  33. Dear Lisa,
    You are forever a woman after my own heart. I work at a botanic garden here is southern California, and it is heaven on earth, even in these drought days. We are getting ready to launch our big native California Butterfly Pavilion exactly so that your experience with the caterpillar on the milkweed can be shared by thousands of visitors. I guess you could say that nerds love to make “ah-ha!” moments.

    Thank you for always delving deeper. And for planting those natives!

    1. @anne scott-putney, And I know at least a few readers who live in your area – I hope they all visit! Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens, to take the name out from behind the links:).

    1. @anne scott-putney, I’m honored to be in your company. And I’d love to see your gardens. My mother used to volunteer at the one in Santa Barbara. 86 acres of native plants. The photos on TripAdvisor look gorgeous.

      Alas, my caterpillars, for I found another one, fell prey to something. I suspect the jays. But I’m still glad to know the milkweeds work, and only hoping that another monarch cycle will find my little stand and we’ll try again. With bigger plants, I think the caterpillars would be able to hide a little better.

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