Cultures of Growing

The idea of “culture” is complex, and one that people have defined and redefined many times.  Often it is used to mean the whole set of practices and beliefs that people in a particular area develop and share and pass down through time.  This includes language and music and food and ways of dressing and living and thinking.  It also includes the ways that people interact with their environments.

Another meaning of culture is tied to a related word, cultivation, and refers to the set of ways that people learn to produce food.  Different “cultures” have done this in different ways.


Agriculture is often thought of as the production of food, but it originally has a more specific meaning. The first part of the word, agri-, comes from the Latin word for a field of grain (ager). So agriculture specifically refers to the cultivation of grain crops.  This growing method is used for the production of cereals, like wheat, and also for growing food for domestic animals like cows and horses.  Usually this produces a large crop all at once that has to be stored for later use.


Horticulture comes from the Latin word for garden (hortus), and it is often used today to indicate home gardening and landscaping in contrast to the agricultural production of food crops.  But in many parts of the world, especially in the tropics, people were primarily horticulturalists, and grew most of their food in carefully tended gardens.  Horticulture often requires giving greater attention to individual plants, rather than managing a whole field at once.  It also often produces food over a longer time span, rather than all at the same time.


Arboriculture means growing trees (from the Latin arbor).  Sometimes this is also called “agroforestry” but this doesn’t make as much sense given the root of the word!  Arboriculture is practiced widely across the world, and takes many different forms.  Sometimes only a couple of trees are grown, like the trees you might have in your yard.  Other times, many trees of the same kind are grown in straight rows and other plants are eliminated.  However, many different kinds of trees can also be grown together, and can benefit each other.  These mixed groves can resemble forests.

cultural misunderstandings

When European explorers, who came from a predominantly agricultural background, first visited other parts of the world, they were often unable to see that people were growing crops, because there weren’t the fields of grain that the explorers expected to see.  For instance, in the tropical Pacific, people were growing breadfruit, coconuts, and other tree crops using arboriculture, and taro, sweet potato, and other plants using horticulture.  When explorers walked among the trees they thought they were in a wild forest, although they were really in a cultivated orchard.  Similar encounters happened in other parts of the world.

These misunderstandings had unfortunate consequences.  European settlers, who thought that only agriculture mattered, saw land cultivated in other ways as being “unused,” and tried to take control of it through the violent process of colonialism.  Hundreds of years later we are still dealing with the repercussions, and trying to “decolonize” the land so that people can live as they want to.

Part of this process of recovery is recognizing what makes various cultures so unique, including the many distinct strategies of growing plants that were developed to make the best use of the conditions in each environment.  One of the ways to help different cultures survive is to support local ways of growing.

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Bunchy Top at Ricky's