Saturday, December 26, 2015

The rise and rise of the feel-good garden

I recently had to review a book, a mainstream, lavishly illustrated, rather general book on choosing and using ornamental plants. I suspect the author concerned (who shall remain nameless) had been told to write the book by their agent, or the TV company who has given them their high exposure. I'm sorry to say it got a bit of a hatchet job, as it was very sloppy and inadequate on the information front, but what dawned on me as I put it down was that it never, ever, faced up to some awkward truths about gardening. In particular there was no mention of weeds or weeding, something any book of the past on this subject would have dealt with, and often in great detail.

I fell to thinking more about comparing garden books of the past (until roughly the 1970s) and now. The book I had just reviewed had a 'feel good' factor – gardening is fun, gardening is lovely, gardening gets you close to nature, let mother nature be your guide, blah, blah, blah. Let's not mention slugs, weeds, aphids, diseases, above all let's not mention anything negative. Hear, see or speak no evil.

'Old-fashioned' gardening books were almost the opposite. Looking back on them now, they seem almost obsessed by the negative: huge sections on pests and diseases in particular. There was a great deal of information given, and often given in such a way that surely must have sent many a prospective gardener scurrying back indoors. Contemporary books not only give off an air of 'everything in the garden is lovely' but also are remarkably deficient in 'the difficult stuff'. I will freely admit that some of my own work could have addressed more fully problem issues.

One who does not pretend everything in the garden is coming up roses is Anne Wareham whose book 'The Bad-tempered Gardener' says it all. From what I recall, one chapter heading is actually called 'I hate gardening'. She uses this as an opportunity to think aloud why she does it, and makes a career out of it. She does however, seem to have as much an aversion to hard information as much as many other garden media.

So, what has happened? Why and how have we gone from a world of gardening being difficult, information heavy and a bit of a slog, to it being fun, uplifting, and generally lending itself to 'lifestyle' publishing with plant-porn pictures and feel-good text.

The period we are talking about has seen so many changes in the garden world:
  1. the growth of garden design
  2. a far better gender balance with massive increase in women becoming active as gardeners
  3. the large-scale development of consumer media
  4. a vast increase in the availability of consumer product
  5. the rise of 'green' gardening: the organic movement, wildlife gardening, etc.
  6. the linking of gardening with the idea of heritage

The first two are linked I think. The old-style garden book or magazine feature had a very strong strand of “get it right lad”. Hard facts presented man to man. A right way and a wrong way. The amateur gardener as a version of the (male) professional. I remember an old farm labourer neighbour who used to grow the most perfect sweet peas and delphiniums but with no thought about how the garden looked as a whole. He was a perfect example. In fact, ditto my father.

I suppose it might be possible to advance a very crude case that: since women tend to be more concerned with what things look like (design) and since the garden market is now far more gender balanced, then that explains that. Well not really; it would be sexist and patronising in the extreme to suggest that the decline in information was due to the rise of the female consumer (traditional women's activities like cooking and needlework need as much precision and knowledge as grafting and rather more than double digging). By the way, who remembers double-digging?

A more useful avenue might be to explore consumer culture. Companies make stuff to flog to us, and do their best to flog as much of it as possible. In the past a garden shop would sell seeds, tools, chemicals, and at appropriate times of year, plants. Now they sell far less useful stuff and far more that perhaps might be better described as 'garden décor' or useful stuff unnecessarily dolled up: slate labels with names of herbs already inscribed, birdboxes with design-conscious avian inhabitants in mind, little wire baskets to put plant pots in, “I'm in the garden” notices to hang on your house door, etc, etc. You know the kind of thing. Much of it made for the grab-and-gift market - “oh heavens, we have to give them something, she likes gardening, go on, that'll do”. This stuff is designed to look good, and may be sold alongside the purely functional spades, seed trays and packs of fertilizer. Or in some shops may actually replace it – there is a new generation of garden shops which sell only the designed, the visually-appealing, the dubiously useful and the downright dilettante.

Part of the reason for the now rampant consumerism is surely an economic one. Gardening traditionally was an activity that did not need much of a cash outlay: decent tools should last you years, as should seed trays, pots etc. Seed costs little. Potting compost would be one of the highest running costs. Dumbing gardening down, and making everything really easy can be a way of getting people to pay more: selling them vegetable plants, bedding plants, things well on their way to maturity, perennials in three litre pots. Never mind that some are actually very easy to grow from seed, and immensely more rewarding to do so. The illusion of the 'instant garden'.

It makes sense for garden centres and shops to see half-hardy annuals as young plants, but certainly not hardy ones, many of which form much better plants if sown where they are to flower. What I think is scandalous is the selling of short-lived vegetable plants in containers, sometimes several to a pot; things like mizuna or pak choi, which will bolt in five minutes after being separated and planted out. I have even seen such horrors on sale at an RHS garden; and a leading US nursery as has even offered seedlings of such easy-from-seed plants by post! For a ridiculous quantity of dollars needless to say.

The 'instant garden' and one focussed almost entirely on the design skills of putting things together to look good, be they plants, decking, furniture or neo-rustic bird houses, cuts out a whole level of skill, reducing the need for knowledge once regarded as vital: seed sowing, potting on, hardening off, etc. It may simply be that the emphasis on design, fashion and looks has simply driven out knowledge and skill from books and magazines. There is also the argument, often made with regard to all sorts of things, that wider contemporary trends downplay the importance of knowledge and the acquiring of skills; of this I am sceptical, seeing how so many have taken on board so willingly a whole range of computer skills, to say nothing of the popularity of skills-orientated cookery programmes.

A distinct sub-section of the vast array of consumer goodies on sale is retro. Garden consumer publications and advertising in particular used to stress the scientific credentials of whatever they promoted. No more. It seems, looking at much that is on for sale, that the fact that your grandmother/father sowed this seed variety, used this hoe design or that material for labels makes it somehow better. Some might argue that some heritage products are more sustainable (another one for the terracotta versus plastic pot debate), but on the whole there are good reasons why we have moved on. Wooden seed trays particularly annoy – as they are so much more difficult to sterilise than plastic and can provide a home for all sorts of fungal rots to kill your seedlings; a good example of the sheer ignorance of the manufacturers and promotors of retro.

The decline in respect for science in the garden world has gone hand in hand with the rise of both retro-gardening and 'green' gardening. One of the ironies (and tragedies) of ecological politics and its associated green consumer culture is that many of its most fervent believers are quite open in their hostility to science, or are clearly scientifically illiterate. The faith in heritage/heirloom links with a romantic belief in the past as having been a better time, we all know that is rubbish (slums, disease, oppression etc.) but it does not stop many looking back a century or so through rose-tinted spectacles.

Wildlife gardening, native plants, sustainability etc. has been the most important revolution in the garden world over the last couple of decades, and a huge amount of good has come out of these new movements, but they have also, needless to say, unleashed a whole wave of consumer goodies for us to be persuaded to spend our money on. I cannot but help there is a real cynicism here - “buy this product and help save the planet”. It is difficult for the garden media to do an honest job of judging the sustainability of much this product range for the usual reason of scaring away advertisers (I was actually told this by editors more than once, most outrageously by one as grounds for turning down my suggestion of a story on Indian 'natural' paving stone and slavery).

Dealing with problems: pests, diseases and weeds, seems to be a particular gap in the current range of garden books and magazine features. Attitudes of course have changed, as we have become much more relaxed about pests and diseases on ornamentals and chemical treatments have been widely discredited, or banned (possibly by an overcautious European Union). However having a sensible discussion about problems has been made much more difficult by the way the organic movement have driven forward a kind of stifling 'political correctness' i.e. we daren't recommend herbicides or pesticides of any kind for fear of being pilloried or have copy rejected by editors and publishers who do not actually understand the issues and respond to the hypocrisy of the current climate (i.e. only a small minority buy organic from the shops but many more express hostility to the crop protection products that puts the food in their supermarket trolleys at a reasonable price).

More fundamentally though I worry that the design focus of much of the past few years and the 'lifestyle' focus ('lifestyle' is one of those words which seems forever to be condemned to be enclosed within inverted commas) of the publishing industry has resulted in a huge loss of knowledge and skills in gardening. It is not in the interest of consumer and sales driven approaches to anything to stress challenges or the skills needed to overcome them.

Walking around allotments or looking newly made vegetable gardens I have noticed something - the new generation of veg growers are often curiously unambitious. A solidly-constructed raised bed (the ones that really annoy me are the ones that use railway sleeper size timber) is home to what their grandfather's generation would have regarded as a quarter row of cabbages and a mere smattering of lettuce. The actual amount of produce from many of these plots is so small, such a token, it seems as if the person concerned likes the idea of veg growing, but primarily needs to prove to themselves that they can do it (and so make them a better person in the process), show off to their friends, both the veg and the haloes around their heads – rather than actually make a substantial contribution to the household budget. If they set themselves low targets, then losses to pests, or low productivity does not really matter.

The confluence of all the above combine to push gardening into being a feel-good activity, an activity that stresses relaxation, consumption and self-satisfaction, not thinking (and certainly not using one's critical faculties) and a romantic longing for a wholesome, and simpler lifestyle. Gardening as morally-improving escapism (accompanied by the sound of credit card numbers being keyed in). The modern garden-consumer desperately wants to make the world a better place and is all too easily persuaded that they can do by the expenditure of yet more money.

Gardening should be relaxing, but to do it well is also challenging – I can't help feeling that much current garden literature does not face up to this, or to the immense satisfaction and sense of self-worth we get from taking on challenges and succeeding. We don't want to go back to the old days of the bossy old garden-writer, oblivious to design and aesthetic questions, but I do wish we could celebrate the joys of gardening at the same time as inform, advise and explain.

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