Monday, 5 April 2010

The Marriage of Gardening and Realism

A recent Irish Times article by Ann Marie Hourihane titled ‘Planting seeds of doubt about gardening’ discusses our predisposition to view gardens and gardening as something that everyone will succeed at, with a particular focus on the ‘grow your own’ movement.  In fact many sources would suggest that we are guaranteed to arise victorious when venturing in to growing plants and produce.  A fluffy notion portrayed by the media and the government alike that was set to foster hope and motivation but inevitably dash dreams for others and quite possibly put people off growing fruit, vegetables and ornamentals for life. Ann Marie highlights how we see this type of ‘you can do it’ language day in, day out and quite frankly, although it was good to start with and very encouraging, it seems to have lost some of its lustre. Should we come back down to earth now?

Several initiatives added gusto and an infectious drive towards another ‘grow your own’ movement, freeing up space for communities, individuals and even national trust staff.  It all looked rosy to begin with and early signs were promising. Once again gardening was in vogue.  The mass media bandwagon had worked quite well and sales figures for the sector were looking extremely healthy in a climate that has brought devastation to many others.  

As we are very much aware, everything works with cyclical motion and this trend, if that’s what it is, will surely loose momentum at some point.  Just when is anyone’s guess and a study is underway to monitor allotment waiting lists that is sure to shed more light on the situation.  The study has already shown that for every 100 established plots another 49 people had registered their interest and were waiting in the wings ready to take on a small piece of earth.  In 1997 this figure was around 4 for every 100 plots in England.  The next set of results should prove to be an interesting read.

From my own experience I can say that allotment waiting lists in my area appear to be moving quickly.  There are two reasons for this, allotment plots are being handed back to the council and people are losing interest in gaining a plot altogether. In the space of a single week I moved from twenty-something on the waiting list to second.  This was unheard of only a few months ago. Is this a sign that there could be a change on the horizon?  There has certainly been a change in my locality, although it may not be representative of the rest of the nation.  

Another uninspiring piece of recent news focused on the National Trust flagship plot, which has recently emerged as a complete disaster.  Not boding well for the movement at all.  This empty gesture lacked thought, preparation, planning and discussion with the workforce, or so it seems. It represents how fluffy notions often end up and this vision of reality may be something we don’t see enough of?  After all, gardening is hard work at times and isn’t always sunshine and roses.  

Should gardening come with a warning?

In every other sphere of society there is an element of education that precedes decision-making and in a similar ilk surely gardening, be it ornamental or edible, should incorporate an element of realism and offer an informed view, allowing individuals to weigh up the pros and cons of whatever it is they wish to pursue.  To expand on Ann Marie Hourihane’s example of Cabbages, it would appear that these delicious Brassicas are fair game for any newbie gardener, when in fact there are a whole world of pests and diseases that are very likely to raise their ugly heads.   Birds, caterpillars, club root and a whole host of others are all waiting to snap up your prized seedlings/plants and you didn’t even know? 

A balance of advice would be a good starting point from which to launch in to gardening.  Lets move away from fluffy notions and biased information on the part of the media, retailer or enthusiastic “celebrity” gardener.  We know that to sustain engagement people need to see results or at least a degree of success as this helps to breed interest and motivation. A balanced approach, based in reality and possibility, will enable new gardeners to ‘go prepared’ as opposed to merely reacting or not knowing what to do when a problem arises.  

Will the next generation of gardeners see a realistic and informed approach to gardening? Or will they become victims of the movement’s own success? 


  1. Interesting question. I would hate to put anyone off but have done a post myself ages ago about things I would tell my daughter about gardening, amongst which the most important thing is that things die. I was shocked by this when I started. False expectations are the killer.

  2. Very well written, thought provoking piece!
    My guess is that like anything in life some balance is needed in the presentation of the work involved and the results arising.

    It is of course easier to garden at home rather than on an allottment, because you can potter for the odd five minutes and out of sight is not out of mind.

    Taking on allotments can also be soul destroying because you take on all the cultural problems of the site and sometimes the plots next door.

    I think people need to start in a small way and not be too ambitious until they realize what hard work it all is. Mini-allottments or veg in pots might make it clear that success is not guaranteed.

    But hey, life's an adventure!

    Best Wishes


  3. Far be it from me to suggest that gardening is a piece of cake -- but it *is* relatively easy. If it had been so difficult, I seriously doubt we'd have gotten very far as a species. Just imagine, in WWII, Victory Gardens provided over 40% of the produce for the American population. That's crazy. And it wasn't viewed as unlikely that someone could grow a cabbage to completion. Plants just want to grow and succeed, and as a gardener your job is to make it easier for them and improve their performance if at all possible. All the extra education a gardener really needs beyond some bare basics is easy to come by with a little research and can be learned over the course of a couple of seasons of just doing it.

    I suspect that it is considered difficult by so many of us nowadays because our generation has lost the cultural knowledge that used to be *standard* to our grandparents, and we have very little experience with the cycles of the earth and how to work with them in producing food. Sad, but there it is.

  4. Interesting post Ryan. While "down south" last week in the land where there are garden centers etc - Looking at yet another huge display of vegetable plug plants, starter plants and all sort of gardening irrelevancies I found myself wishing that this "grow your own everything" bandwagon would stop. The pendulum swung too far, too fast and I wished for more balance.

  5. I have been asked many times why I don't have an allotment. The answer is simple, it's because I know my limitations! Robert is quite right when he says it is easier to garden at home. I do know people who have allotments & it works for them because they feel they need to go somewhere away from home.

    Really good blog as I have seen many people become enthusiastic in the spring only to give it all up by the end of the good weather, and for many reasons.

    People need to realise that it takes commitment & that they will always be learning.


  6. Good post, Gardening isn't difficult, but you have to persevere at it to make it happen, - the National trust couldn't find people to do that with their Allotments, and it appears that the people local to you may not be persevering if you are moving up the lists so fast.

  7. "In every other sphere of society there is an element of education that precedes decision-making" I'm really not sure I agree with that statement Ryan. People rush into all sorts of situations without weighing up the pros & cons. This of course includes relationships, marriage/co-habitation, parent-hood, house purchase..... I expect I could go on but these are pretty fundamental to our lives. We see only the advantages of these changes in our lives without fully understanding that there are down-sides to most of these things. When the negatives hit home we either work hard at trying to resolve the problem, accept the bad along with the good or we jump ship. Why should gardening be any different other than the fact that it is probably for most of us not quite as fundamental as other aspects of our life. And to be honest, if we did fully research & understand the down-sides of things it would probably not stop us pursuing what we want; we either don't believe what we are told or feel sure that we can get over what may have defeated others.

    So yes, there are people who get the allotment, rush in with great enthusiasm, clear everything, bung in a load of plants but then find that it actually takes a while, they didn't realise that bindweed keeps coming back, it is difficult when you have to travel a couple of miles to pick your peas & suddenly blight takes all your tomatoes. You give up, but at least you have tried. And for everyone that gives up there are others who embrace it all with enthusiasm & find different ways of dealing with the problems. On the next plot to us we have 3 families sharing. They have now taken on an additional allotment having made it work.

    As for the NT, I think it is only the allotment they had for their head office that is the problem (please correct me if I am wrong). Another fit of enthusiasm without thinking it through.

  8. Best post since I have subscribed to your post Ryan, very interesting.

  9. Interesting thoughts Ryan. How about instead of a warning, we issue a caveat and some advice about how to do things? I don't agree gardening is easy going, at least not in my neck of the woods, but eating your own lettuce or smelling lilacs in your own garden as you work is pure satisfaction. Thanks for bringing everyone a bit back to earth. Hope you get your allotment soon.~~Dee


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