This pleasingly digestible book provides a rattle through the history and politics of various gardening activities which tend to the alternative. George McKay offers a counter-balance to the wealth of accounts of more staid horticultural practices and countless histories of grand, formal gardens of the rich and powerful. His radical places include Hyde Park’s speakers corner, Garden Cities which became home to simple lifers, squats and communes of the 70s and more. We see the history of allotments and community gardens as fights against capitalism and land ownership. Punks, hippies, eco warriors and suffragettes are all there.
Some of this will be familiar to those interested in gardening or politics. But there are wild cards like the little told story of peace gardens, nicely allied with the symbolic power of a single flower –the poppy. Nor does McKay shy away from those of less palatable politics, telling how the Nazis and latterly the BNP adopted gardening rhetoric and practices to reinforce their nationalism. The organic movement is also fingered for having racists and fascists in its ranks. And as he points out, it is difficult to see organic food as radical when it is now largely the preserve of the privileged.
Whilst he clearly lauds a rag-tag mob of revolutionaries with dirt under their nails seeking to make the world better, his is not a blind idealisation of the transformative power of gardening. He concludes that it’s not always a radical activity, and that not everyone who picks up a spade becomes an activist.
Apart from the liberal use of flinch inducing garden related puns – I offer his term counter-horticulture by way of evidence – the frustration with the book is that in seeking to cover so much it skirts over some. A wide and varied range of marginalised groups who have used gardening to assert a position form a rather unnatural collective in one chapter. This results in a particularly clunky segue between the story of a campaign against homophobic violence to the history of gardeners with disabilities. Bringing so much together sometimes lurches the reader across history with narrative flow lost to thematic convenience.
Cramming so many histories into one relatively short book also means certain issues worthy of greater consideration are glossed. So for example it is unclear exactly what or who constitutes the organic movement whose radicalism he deconstructs. Nor are counter arguments always given due airing. A preference for planting native species is left associated with far right nationalism without considering an alternative conservationist discourse motivated by a need to retain genetic diversity much more than a will for protected boundaries.
Reading the book left me better informed of some counter-culture and garden history, but with two major questions. Firstly, what does he, and by extension we, mean by radical? He employs the term loosely to encompass both the mass of allotment gardeners and hippies poking flowers down the barrel of guns. This makes for a varied read, but left me wondering how much all these people really have in common. Considering the allotment holders backed by law, perhaps only interested in whose runner bean crop is the most prolific one wonders just how radical are all these gardeners?
This leads to the second question- is it still possible for today’s gardeners to be radical? When the slogan ‘grow your own’ has gone from a promoting the joy of home-grown cannabis to garden products in B&Q… When allotments pepper reality TV and life-style magazines…This is something I’ve been mulling over since earlier this year I saw an advert from a city council for their guerrilla gardening activities, inviting local people to do some gardening on council owned land. Surely this was more a cheap maintenance session than strike against ‘the man’?
Maybe it doesn’t matter, maybe we shouldn’t expect gardening to be radical, beyond the touch of consumerism or government objectives. But I wonder if there is a risk that by being adopted by the mainstream, community gardening and the like lose the edginess which has brought support and in some ways been key to past successes.
I think it definitely does matter is if any activity is promoted as something it isn’t, because then you attract support under false pretences risking disappointment, disillusionment and discredit. To be clear, this is not what I think George McKay has done. But reading his book made me worry that the current surge of support for getting everyone gardening risks an almighty backlash. The lesson McKay might offer then, is to dose your idealism with a chaser of realism.
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