The word 'natural' must be one of the most abused in the English language. Its use generally implies 'good', and all-too often 'buy this product'. Needless to say the two areas of life it gets applied to most are to do food and gardens. I want to talk here about how meaningless the concept of the 'natural garden' is, and relate it to wider discussions about our relationship with nature. I intend this to be the first of a number of fairly blunt interventions in our ongoing discussions about our relationship with growing plants.
The sheer moral emptiness of the 'natural = good' equation was brought home with some force recently by hearing about how Antarctic penguin colonies are being starved by ships hoovering up kril, in order to keep the food supplement industry supplied with a source of omega-3. No doubt the mountebanks and charletans who populate this most unnecessary of industries (if you eat properly you wouldn't need 95% of those pills) feel justified in promoting this as 'natural', which indeed it is, but sustainable? beneficial? ethical? One day we'll have genetically manipulated plants to produce the stuff for us. Roll on that day, but be assured that there will be protests that this is 'unnatural'.
We don't do 'natural'. We are humans. We stopped eating natural food when we started growing it. When we moved out of the Garden of Eden that was hunter-gatherer society and harvested our food from little plots of grain in clearings in the primordial wilderness is when we stopped eating naturally. And started farming/gardening. Any cultivated plant is going to have certain aspects that make it useful for us, and distinctly dysfunctional in an wild environment with no human intervention. That seems to me to be a pretty clear break-point between what is 'natural' and what is not. The ur-break-point for us grain-eating Eurasians was when our ancestors picked out some grains whose seed heads did not shatter; very useful for picking and shoving in a basket, pretty useless at distributing the plant.
Virtually all our crops will not survive for more than a few generations as 'volunteers' i.e. self-sowing, and if they do it is because they will be evolving 'backwards' rapidly. Agriculture/farming is a profoundly unnatural business, and it is the most destructive of nature of all our activities, simply because of its scale and the impact it has on soil and climate and most of all on natural vegetation. That includes organic agriculture, which is no more keen on weeds in the crop than conventional, and is arguably more destructive as it is so inefficient in its use of space it leads inevitably to more land being under cultivation, and so even less room for nature.
Gardening is just a diddy version of farming, but potentially much less damaging, depending on what we are doing. Growing cabbages and carrots to eat, where, in order to have any crop, we have to eliminate or exclude an awful lot of nature: weeds, insects, birds etc., is clearly more destructive than most ornamental gardening. In North America, organic growing is referred to as 'natural', which is a sleight of hand as there is nothing remotely natural about growing unnatural plants completely dependent on humans for their reproduction in straight lines in beds of bare earth. Or even in circles like some hippies have done.
Gardens are not natural and it is high time to stop pretending that they are. They are a regimented version of nature which we make because we like the outcome, and which make us feel good. Nothing intrinsically wrong about that. I have never willingly used the word 'natural' to describe the kind of garden-making I promote, although a good handful of book and magazine editors have tried to get me to do just that. 'Naturalistic' is a lot more accurate, implying as it does, that you are aiming at implying something with no pretensions to actually ever achieving it.
In making a garden we are applying human culture to natural or semi-natural ingredients - semi-natural in the case of radish seed or double roses, natural in the case of an 'unimproved' species genetically identical to wild forebears. We seek to eliminate what we do not like or that which does not fit in with our artistic vision. In a naturalistic garden we grow and manage what occupies a kind of middle ground, a tidied-up version of nature which may be inspired by a natural or semi-natural environment and even be made up of 100% locally-native species, but which is nevertheless our vision. It is not natural.
We like to encourage wildlife into our gardens, which is good, and indeed of all the developments that have happened in my lifetime (I'm 60 btw), this is, I think, far and away the most ethically positive. But of course we only want the 'nice' wildlife, not the kind we think of as destructive. The concept of the wildlife garden does not always translate well either – go anywhere where there are poisonous snakes and you have to think about the relationship between plant density and human recreation spaces very differently.
The evidence (BUGSproject) etc. is that ornamental gardens can support a lot of wildlife, more than arable farmed countryside, so that's a good thing. Simply leaving many gardens to go wild might be handing them over to nature, in the sense of letting natural processes take over, but in many cases the level of biodiversity they end up supporting may actually be less than an ornamental garden, the reason being that a competitive 'weedy' species may take over and dominate for a good many years: brambles, pasture grasses like cocksfoot grass, or nettles. A garden actively managed for wildlife interest may be less 'natural' but be more biodiverse. That's a paradox that should cast doubt on how we use 'natural' in the context of gardening.
What I'm leading up to is to flag up a remarkable and important essay by the science writer Emma Marris, whose book Rambunctious Garden I mentioned in a blog post a few years ago – see Beyond 'nature as virgin – garden aswhore'. In 'Can we love natureand let it go?', Marris proposes the concept of 'decoupling', essentially arguing that reliance on supposedly natural processes may be less sustainable and more destructive of nature than artificial ones; she uses grass-fed beef as a good example, a trendy, feel-good but grossly unsustainable food source. Decoupling nature and humanity allows us stop exploiting nature and effectively give it some space. She looks forward to 'lab meat' and other hi-tech alternatives to eating animals. She also flags up, with some powerful statistics, the sheer inefficiency of organic farming, particularly in terms of the much greater amount of space it takes up compared to conventional, and indeed her essay starts off with a wonderfully sharp crit of an upscale residential development integrated with little patches of organic farmland to make the new (inevitably well-heeled) residents feel like they are doing the world a good turn.
My reading of her idea of 'decoupling' is that if stop pretending we can do so much 'naturally', 'in tune' with nature etc. we could actually use land and resources a lot more efficiently and sustainably – and so give more space to nature, or to what James Hitchmough of Sheffield University calls 'enhanced nature', plantings designed for aesthetic benefit but also with positive biodiversity benefits. Indeed, looking historically, in a way we have already done this with our gardens. In the past we would have been far more self-sufficient, growing veg in our gardens; now these domestic spaces are taken up with more wildlife-friendly ornamental trees, shrubs and perennials, so bringing about the relatively rich biodiversity of contemporary suburbia. We have decoupled our food supply from our gardens with positive results. Most domestic veg growing is so inefficient in its use of space and resources it is very doubtful if it contributes much to achieving any kind of sustainability brownie-points. Especially if raised beds (one of my pet hates) are used. It has an educational value – teaching children where their food comes from, and this is very valuable, but basically it's recreational. Nothing wrong with that at all, just don't try to pretend that its saving the world, or even particularly sustainable.
If we stop using the word 'natural' to describe what we do in our gardens, we can free our minds up to think about what sort of outcomes we want and can expect. Primarily places that give us pleasure, and yes, give us contact with a domesticated version of nature, but secondly to look objectively at what benefits undomesticated nature in the form of birds, bees and butterflies gets from our gardens.