Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why I'm not going to Chelsea.

I usually go to the show every three or four years. Like a lot of people. Once you have seen two Chelseas you realise that one is much like another. Those who are going for the first time will have a fantastic time. No doubt about that. But after seeing a few of them, the appeal palls, and they begin to blur in the memory. I went last year, and as always these days, the main thrill is meeting people I have not seen in ages, a sort of big party really, and good networking. But the show itself, left me feeling vaguely depressed, and I came away feeling I would be quite happy never to go to another in my life. Which to be honest, I am sure won't not be the case, but I'll give it a few more years yet.

I don't think Chelsea is very much about gardening or garden design any more. It has been swallowed up as a big media event. Few people in the media understand gardening – all they understand is audience ratings and the money that depends on that. Media hype is guaranteed to distort anything it touches. In its trail follows money, which distorts everything even more. I'm not knocking the RHS or anyone who does anything there – if you can make it work for you, go for it!

Years ago, 1989-1991 I 'did' Chelsea, in that I had a nursery stand in the marquee (its called a marquee darling, don't you dare call it a tent). That was in the days when the marquee and its nursery stands were the core of the show and the gardens around the edge were not much more than wallpaper. I remember thinking at the time why the RHS bothers with the show. The site is ridiculously cramped, logistics are horrendously tight, and the numbers who can be let in has to be limited because it was getting so crowded – any more and there would be one of those terrible incidents like you get on Hindu pilgrimages when hundreds get crushed in a stampede. A lot of people don't go because of the crowds, although if you go at 8.00 when it opens you can have a good clear two hours before it gets too crowded.

Hampton Court Flower Show, the regional shows like Malvern and Tatton Park are much more pleasant experiences: room to breathe, space to lie on the grass (if weather agreeable), show gardens you can actually see, you can buy plants, all so much more civilised. No wonder so many in the nursery trade would rather go to these than Chelsea. The great marquee has been emptying over the years, even to the point where the RHS are subsidising nurseries to exhibit. The costs of showing, staying in London etc, at a time of year when most nursery people are über-busy anyway, are prohibitive. I remember talking to one last year, who gave me a cost breakdown of doing the show, swearing she would never do it again.

What has taken over of course, are the show gardens, whose significance has been hugely blown up by media hype. Garden design was blown up ridiculously as a profession some years ago by media hype (at the expense of gardenING, remember the -ING, it is very important). Having moved on to other things, they haven't let go of Chelsea, and continue to perpetuate the folly of thinking that what happens in show gardens is somehow relevant to what people might do in gardens at home. The problem is that these are gardens put on for a few days. The rules (as I understand them) allow for all sorts of plants to be put together that would not normally be put together in a garden. The constricted sites and viewpoints make for gardens that are generally completely impractical, as any one of the overpaid fools who is so stupid as to buy a Chelsea garden rapidly discovers. A friend once said to me that “Chelsea gardens are not about garden design, they are flower arranging”. They are just too high impact and too far removed from reality to do much to really inform the public about gardens that actually last the summer, let alone for a few years.

Show gardens are big money, at least £150,000, and that's probably out of date as a figure. Sponsors want returns, which means nothing less than a gold will satisfy them. So everybody is trying to please the judges, they are trying to hit a target, which tends to stifle creativity. A lot of the best work at Chelsea can be seen in the small gardens, the ones which have less investment riding on them.

What would work is a summer long show that has show gardens in a big park, where people can come and see, and perhaps make repeat visits and see how the gardens shape up through the season. A bit like the summer-long German garden shows (although, from my all-too limited experience in visiting these, there is not much of a show garden element) or the wonderful Chaumont-sur-Loire garden festival in France (although this verges on installation art too much to be really useful to most people). The German shows include a huge amount of garden related goings-on: temporary events, lectures, displays of summer bedding, big landscape interventions etc, etc. They act as a setting for a whole series of experiences which link the worlds of landscape, gardening and nature far more than the madness of a few over-hyped days on a cramped site can ever hope to do.

The other good thing about the German shows is that they move around, so one place does not get a show for at least another 10-15 years. And they are about urban regeneration. They are somehow much more public-spirited and democratic. There is media-hype and nonsense to be sure, but fundamentally they are about things that last and which work – good sustainable gardening and public landscape regeneration. We have a lot to learn from them.

As an alternative, there is of course The Chelsea Fringe.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Making the most of native flora

Cow parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) and other wildflowers in light shade in a garden in Suffolk. Paths mown through create a wonderfully romantic effect. All is mown down later in the summer and allowed to re-grow.

A recent blog on the Timber Press website has an extract about the native/non-native planting issue from my recent book with Piet Oudolf. If you haven't seen the book yet, here it is.

Red campion (Silene dioicia) and tulips, interesting experiment in bedding but the tulips get a bit swamped. Abbey Gardens, Bury St.Edmunds.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why does Robin Lane Fox have to drag his sexual fantasies into a review of a garden book?

Let's face it. If I had had a good review from Robin Lane Fox I would have been worried – a sign that I (and by extention Piet Oudolf) had sold out, joined the establishment, become a safe pair of hands, retired to planting petunias and pruning hybrid tea roses. Like the artists who cherish their rejection from the Royal Academy, we know that condemnation by particular people is a sign that we are doing the right thing. 

Robin Lane Fox is one of those treasures of British life, a long-standing, opinionated and conservative commentator on gardening. He is one of a kind – the 'crusty old fart', who we do particularly well in Britain, annoying, but in the end, rather lovable. The sort who hang around in gentleman's clubs in London or senior common rooms in exclusive Oxford colleges, with an intravenous drip of vintage port into their veins, fulminating at every opportunity about the silly mistakes of the young, the idiocy of letting women into the club, blah, blah, blah and blah. Lane Fox's day job is “Extraordinary Lecturer in Ancient History for both New and Exeter Colleges”. You get the idea – clever chap, just not very clued in to the modern world, the sort of person who when you say “estate” to, thinks of a friend of his with a big house and deer park and a couple of tenant farms 'on the estate', not a crap place to live on the edge of town with a library and swimming pool that's just been shut, and a rip-off bus once an hour into town and the job centre, where the only thing that makes life worth living are the fantastic drifts of flowers that the clever guys from Sheffield University have just done between the tower blocks – this is what 'estate' means to most people. 
A pasting from Robin Lane Fox is like a thrashing with a wet lettuce, a back-handed complement playfully received. But quite why he drags in “actress Rosario Dawson, full-frontally naked from head to toe” into a review of a gardening book, I completely fail to appreciate; for God's sake you old goat, leave your sexual fantasies out of reviews of our book – perleeze.

Reading in a bit more detail, Lane Fox is revealing his prejudices a little. He admits of course to subjectivity (what a relief that is); he clearly does not understand that some people want a vision of nature, either in their gardens or their public spaces – that is a big shift in the aesthetic, one of those world-changing paradigm shifts that the ol' boys in leather armchairs in their clubs and senior common rooms had better get used to, the guys who like their double roses and camellias, and peonies out in the quad spaced out neatly with bare earth between them, lined out politely around the outside of that beautifully lush hallowed green, striped grass that no-one is allowed to walk on. And which the rest of us can hardly ever even see, because we are not even allowed in past the porter's lodge.

Our book is addressed to all gardeners and designers of planted spaces: private gardeners, community gardeners, volunteer gardeners, professional gardeners, and of course landscape designers. It is about trying to communicate a vision of nature which may be small-scale and private or big-scale and public. That is quite a challenge to get into one book, but the principles are the same. But the public aspect is important. Lane Fox can sneer about “German garden shows” but the whole point of those German garden shows is that they are about regenerating places which will then give pleasure to the entire community, not just for one summer, but ever more. The whole thrust of the despised “German planting” is actually about making beauty democratically available. Public space has been too often overlooked and under-utilised. Isn't quality public landscape a democratic right? I would like to think that some of what we discuss and show will help bring alive those public spaces, so we can all benefit. 

Here's the book in question: Planting, a new perspective

If Robin Lane Fox is not careful he'll end up with a cameo performance in my ongoing soap opera of gardening life, the latest episode of which is just up on Amazon Kindle.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Why do we believe it? Gardeners - fact, myth and downright *******.

Gardening discourse is full of information which is actually wrong. Far more than in many other areas of life - medicine maybe an exception, if the whole wide world of complementary treatments and their journalistic camp followers are included. 'Facts' about plants and how to grow them get circulated which have little or no basis, but seem to take an age to die away, even when exposed. I wonder why?

Maybe it is to do with the fact that we are dealing with living things, always with that element of unpredictability. Driving, or doing DIY projects are simple exercises in cause-and-effect by comparison; natural systems are so much more complex; the results of our interventions often not obvious.

My thinking about this was stimulated by a recent double page spread in The Observer newspaper last Sunday - Nine Garden Myths Debunked. It was the science pages, and flagged up a website I had not heard of before - Garden Professors - hosted by Washington State University's extension service. One of the people behind this is the university's Dr Linda Chalker-Scott, who I had come across before when I discovered her books in the Royal Horticultural Society library in London - readable little guides to what works and what doesn't in the garden. Valuable stuff, especially for those new to gardening, who find it difficult to face down an older and more experienced gardener telling them, in no uncertain fashion that "you must do it this way". Maybe that is the problem - too much learning informally, too much folk-knowledge passed down from unquestioning generation to unquestioning generation. Sometimes circulated by garden writers too.

Actually, the Observer piece set up a bit of an aunt Sally here by including some of the prescriptions of biodynamic gardening/farming (here listed as myth number six), which are so self-evidently dotty that few people this side of cloud-cuckoo land believe them. Bit of an easy target that. The first myth debunked, that of compost tea, did make me think about the sources of myth though. This particular myth is, I think, a relatively modern one, the result of pseudo-science emanating from the organic movement, who have been particularly prone to generating new myths. Number two - Lighten clay by adding sand, is, I think, actually more interesting as myth, as it has been around an awful long time (Victorian days?) and is devoid of any of the 'muck and magic' ideological overtones of the organic movement. The truth about myths no. three and eight - Young trees should be staked and Add bonemeal and compost when planting trees, have been known 'in the profession' a long time, but has not got out into the amateur world sufficiently. Given how hard it is to buy decent tree stakes, this is jolly good news. Sun through water burns leaves is another Victorian one I suspect, as are Tree wounds need dressing and Gravel helps containers to drain. Myth nine - Natural is safer is a rejoinder to the organic movement.

Nine is just a start - there are many more out there.

Interesting that a national newspaper decided to devote its two page science section to the subject of gardening myths. Shows how important we are perhaps, or maybe how prone to delusion. I can't help feeling that as old myths die, new ones take their place. There is an awful lot of belief involved in gardening, or to be more precise there are belief systems which people cling to, sometimes with an almost evangelical fervour.  The organic movement in particular has had its fair share of 'true believers'. Permaculture too - why do people get so fanatical about it. Is this gardening as religion?  

One of the problems with gardening myths is that few of us really make good scientists (I include myself here). A lot of us 'experiment', by which we mean try something different and see if it works. But setting up a trial with a proper control and being really disciplined about it takes time and very often space. We are far more likely to try something one year, and something else the next, and then draw the conclusion that whatever worked best, must be best, although a thousand and one variables would have affected the results. If we do do a full trial, making sense of the results is often far more complicated than we imagine possible when we set out - science often does not give clear results.

One source of myth is, I suspect, is the gardener who always does something a particular way, and being a good all-round gardener, the results are good, so they make the mistake of assuming that because they have always done it that way then there is a relationship between  a particular course of action and the results. In fact the course of action may be neutral, irrelevant or even harmful, but its effects outweighed by other beneficial courses of action. I once met someone who grew orchids in pots with the bottoms of the pots permanently immersed in water, and which she promoted as 'the way to grow orchids' - which any orchid grower would describe as madness, as these are plants which need impeccable drainage. She must have been doing a few other things right, as her plants seemed happy enough though.

I suspect that as old myths die, new ones come to take their place. Today, I suspect we have an unholy alliance between marketing boosters and journalists on the one hand and the commercially minded wing of the organic movement on the other. I am also old enough (55) to see myths develop. Just to take one example, the extraordinary growth of the idea of raised beds for growing vegetables. I think it was Lawrence D. Hills who started this - he was a pioneer of the 'rational' wing of the organic movement in the 1950s and 1960s (as opposed to either the 'magical' biodynamic crowd or the bunch of mystics and fascists involved in setting up the post-war Soil Association). Hills had various ideas about why raised beds are a good idea, chief of which was the idea of avoiding soil compaction (you don't walk on your raised beds).

Raised beds can be a good idea for various reasons. In particular, those of us who are getting a bit creaky find it much easier to tend veg plants at a little above ground level (we have three, about 15% of our veg plot). But there are so many disadvantages: they heat up and cool down more quickly than the ground does, they are singularly inconvenient for root veg, they need considerable work in constructing - like finding all that soil to fill them with. Yet so many gardeners feel that they have to grow their veg in them. They are a manufacturers and salesman's dream - all that wood (and preservative) or plastic or whatever. No wonder the mail-order catalogues and the garden centres are full of 'raised bed kits'. The wooden ones (i.e. most of them) only last x amount of time before they rot and collapse. The worst, from the sustainability point of view, are railway sleeper beds - all that wood, what a waste! The hold over novice gardeners that they have to grow their veg in raised beds has become quite extraordinary. Another myth to combat!