Two garden related stories made the news in recent weeks, and I think they are linked in some interesting ways. The first was garden centres blaming Monty Don for having to dump millions of unsold spring plants. His advice to wait for temperatures to rise before planting was seen to put gardeners off a spring spending spree, hence the ‘mass dumping’.
The second was the RHS warning of a horticultural skills gap as the industry fails to attract the next generation of experts required to prepare us for future plant-related challenges. They report that businesses already struggle to fill vacancies, whilst training for a garden career does not seem to be that appealing.
Both stories are revealing about how people in the UK perceive the work of gardening and how it is not seen to be a greatly skilled activity. As a potential career it seems somewhat dated and tarnished by images of hoary hands of the soil. Any tech-savy aspects of the industry are hidden. People don’t really understand what it means to be a horticulturalist, never mind value it as a skilled profession.
Meanwhile many who want a garden at home lack the skills to know when best to plant them, hence garden centres relying on selling plants to people who don’t know how to garden. It is a pleasant hobby or way to make a space look nice rather than something to take time to learn.
And yet, as both these stories also show this is big business. According to the RHS the horticultural industry is worth £9 billion to the UK economy annually. Amongst all the narratives of back to the land and counter-culture through gardening it is easy to forget its strong vein of consumerism. Russell Hitchings’ fascinating study of how people behave in garden centres shows how plants become commodities not living things.
It seems that this is one area of our ‘skills economy’ which could do with a little more championing.
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I’ve been rather busy recently and the reason for this is pictured. I’ve been going through all the data from my fieldwork to analyse it and work out what I’m going to focus on writing about. I’ve ended up with 6.25kg of diary, notes and interview transcripts, and 21.66Gb of photos, film and recordings, from which I need to produce a thesis. And please don’t suggest that weighing stacks of note books is a form of displacement activity…
So I’ve been going through it all, looking for themes and patterns, thinking about what it all means, and what seems to be important. Plenty of mind maps and long long lists. Slowly some of the threads I’m tugging out from the tangle seem to be weaving together.
The first 3,010 words are written. Only 76,990 to go.
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A careers assessment I did at school concluded that I should become either a tank driver or a tree surgeon. I can’t say this advice affected my life choices but it does perhaps indicate that I’ve always had an urge to work outside. The last year of doing fieldwork at community gardens has been a real treat. Whilst my fellow PhD students were stuck at the desk and roamed nowhere beyond the Wi-Fi signal I spent several days a week out in the garden.
Of course it was hard work doing the physical tasks of a volunteer gardener alongside the business of research. But I can’t really complain. They were lovely days learning how to grow, working alongside all manner of people and getting to know them. There were plenty of smiles and laughs, and the satisfaction of seeing things I’d sown getting big enough to sell.
Despite reports of a wash out summer there were very few days I got a real soaking. Yes, sometimes I arrived home exhausted and damp but I also returned tanned and freckled, brimming with chatter about my day. I realised that if your job involves being outside day in day out you shift to work around the rhythms of the weather. Work in the polytunnel can be done during a shower, saving the digging for a dry spell. When everyone else is in their office staring longingly out the window at a sunny May day the gardener is out feeling the warmth.
So it’s a bit of a shock now the year is over and I’m knuckling down to desk work. The rucksack of fieldwork bits and bobs has been unpacked and put away. My freckles are fading and I worry about losing the garden work-out whilst retaining the appetite. I root around my wardrobe trying to find something to wear apart from dirty frayed work clothes. Plus I miss my garden colleagues and knowing what they’re up to, all that gossip and banter I’m losing to the solitary life of researcher.
I’m adjusting to a different way of life, different rhythms and patterns, remembering who I was before I was a gardener. For once my finger nails are clean, some small recompense for coming back inside.
Waiting for the bus after a dirty day’s work
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I’ve started to notice beauty in the strangest places. Or find the most unlikely things beguiling. Like this creamy skinned patisson squash which was hidden by foliage whilst it grew large enough to be worth picking. It was almost a shame to snip it from the plant but equally I worried that greedy slugs would get to it before me, stealing my supper and deforming its smooth curves.
Of course gardens have long been appreciated as visual treats, a blaze of colour and patterns to tease the senses. The veg patch is less celebrated for its aesthetics, associated more with function than form. Allotments in particular are notoriously loved or loathed for their shabbiness. But surely those neat lines of carefully spaced onion bulbs sending up sinuous green shoots have a certain beauty. As are the pale silver-green pea tendrils winding and contrasting against rigid dull sticks. A lingering look around the vegetable garden or head tilted to take in different angles reveals plenty that is pretty or striking.
I have even developed what I have come to think of as the Polytunnels Project- far too many photos of these productive hubs resembling plastic igloos. A certain light casting a striking silhouette of the struts, leaves and raindrops decorating the surface, torn skin wafting lazily in the breeze. Most of these pictures are stolen in a moment of solitude in order to avoid the embarrassment of explaining what I’m photographing. The imagery which entices me would I’m sure be ignored by most, actively disliked by some. Maybe that’s what makes it so intriguing.
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Don’t you love it when a book makes sense of things which happen in real life? I’ve just read What a Plant Knows by the scientist Daniel Chamovitz. Not only does he know quite a lot about plants, he’s able to write about them in a way accessible to a non-specialist for whom A-level biology is a long distant memory.
In turn he considers that what we think of as the human senses of smell, hearing, memory, touch and knowing where we are, as they might be attributed to plants. By drawing on a long history of botanic experiments he shows that pea tendrils can remember when they’ve been touched, plant cells work out which way is up, even in space. He explains the working of well-known phenomena like a venus fly trap closing round its prey. Or how leaves warn their neighbours to protect themselves from dangerous foes which are nearby. Hence I often see one plant in a row riddled with insect damage whilst the rest of the crop is fine.
The book also made sense of a recent mountain walk on a route I know few people use regularly. All around was high bracken yet the ‘path’ was clear of this growth, along the route the grass was short as if a stream of feet had trampled it. This is a familiar scene, one beautifully harnessed by Richard Long’s art. With my new understanding of how plants respond to touch I realised that all it takes is a few brief sweeps past to cause plants to stop growing in a certain direction so the path stays clear of bracken.
Looking at the chemical reactions behind such actions it becomes clear that plants aren’t so very different from us. They receive messages from other plants by smelling certain chemicals in the air. Their cells initiate complex reactions in response to external events. This shouldn’t really come as any surprise- after all we’ve evolved from common ancestors, and human functioning also has to rely on flows of chemicals and electricity.
Chamovitz concludes that despite their sensory skill, we shouldn’t fool ourselves that plants are like people. Fundamentally, they don’t care what we think of them. But I agree with Jane Bennett that anthropomorphism can be useful- it encourages us to think of humans as a bit more like plants. If we start to think that plants have senses it reminds us we humans are not so different from the rest of the world.
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I’ve been writing about the c word – community. Several thousand words later I’m still not sure I know what it means. It seems to be often used yet little really thought about. That’s certainly the case with community gardeners I’ve spoken to who seem to think it’s ‘a good thing’ without having given much thought to why.
There is a bit of nostalgic ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ feeling that community used to be stronger. (Thanks to a recent Radio 4 programme I’ve found out this is called declinism). But it’s by no means all parochial and gloom. There’s celebration of community spirit, and how people enjoy the togetherness of their gardens. We’ve also discussed virtual communities and what they have in common with their physical counterparts.
One thing I’m interested in is whether people open what they mean by community beyond humans. Do neighbourhood sparrows or frogs get a look in? In one sense the answer seems to be no as the first definition which comes to mind focuses very much on people living near each other. In another sense the influence of ideas like permaculture, and the way gardeners nurture all manner of beings suggests they ‘commune’ not just with humans.
The word community has always been an ought and an is – it doesn’t just denote how things are but how things should be. In which case maybe we’ll see more people using it to encourage a life lived with greater affinity with non-humans.
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Each garden I visit at the moment is peppered with scarlet poppies dancing in the breeze, glistening under bright sun. From a distance the colour draws the eye. Up closes the texture entices the fingers. It seems impossible to resist the pull to lightly touch the tissue thin petals so glossy and smooth, soft as silk.
Having a few minutes alone in and enjoying doing nothing in the summer sun, I took the chance to film the flowers. A still scene with so much motion, so alive. How rare to just sit and watch, absorbed. How easily imagined far from the city centre I was in.
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