Whilst I was away in Cornwall I saw a tweet about a garden not too far from where I live and the story that it was to be dug up and dismantled. Once, flooded fields and overgrown weeds surrounded Ochran Mill just outside Abergavenny but over ten years ago Elaine and David Rolfe moved in and transformed the land. Nature was tamed, the grass was cut to define new borders and the planting began. It didn’t take the couple long before they had created a verdant, lush space packed with trees, shrubs and herbaceous perennials. The garden featured on Gardener’s World and they opened every year for the NGS.
Then David became very sick and he discovered he was terminally ill. Devastating news for the family was compounded by the need to move from the home and garden they loved. But if all that wasn’t enough the land agents who own the property said the garden would have to be dismantled and returned to pasture as it would be off-putting to new tenants faced with maintaining it. If this didn’t happen then the private Llanover Estate initially said they would charge (although this is no longer the case) the Rolfes for the cost of making it more tenant friendly.
I wasn’t the only person the day the news broke to be incensed by the story. The gross insensitivity on the part of the landowners seemed quite incredible and how heartbreaking to have to take apart something you have so lovingly put together when you are going through such a dreadful time anyway. The story does also show the two sides of a supposed nation of gardeners. On the one hand you have a couple with more than just green fingers whose love for plants is obviously huge. Then you have those who see gardens as hard work, a hindrance and a chore.
I’ve lived in my fair share of rented places and if people are passing through it does make sense as a landlord to have gardens that don’t require a lot of maintenance. Our first home together was on an army base, the garden came with a scruffy, moss-ridden lawn and four of the scrawniest looking roses you’ll ever come across and that was it. Outdoor spaces were maintained under the threat of penalties when you ‘marched out’. That really was the term they gave to moving house (they didn’t make you literally march out the house though, fortunately). Accommodation on private estates in rural areas tend to be mid to long-term lets though. These aren’t commuter areas or military bases with people moving on after six months, it isn’t unusual for tenants to stay in estate properties for ten, fifteen or more years.
In 2010 the UK garden retail market was worth £4.6 billion and we think of ourselves as a nation of gardeners but what criteria make you a gardener? Does buying a ready-made hanging basket and watering it occasionally throughout the summer make you a gardener? If your garden only consists of lawn, does mowing it every week constitute gardening? What about filling your borders with bedding plants that you buy? You might plant them but they may need no more attention once in the ground, does that make you a gardener?
The idea that a beautiful garden is an encumbrance rather than an asset perhaps says more about the general attitude to gardening than statistics of how much is spent on gardening products. My own garden is smaller than the average, with no lawn because I wanted it to be full of plants. It isn’t high maintenance. In fact, without a lawn it’s actually pretty undemanding but I know when we come to sell that’s not what potential buyers will think. I’m already prepared for the conversation where I explain how easy it will be to take out the raised beds and lay some turf, just so they can replace low maintenance plants with a high maintenance lawn.
Walk around most garden centres and it’s easy to see where the £4.6 billion is spent and a lot of it doesn’t seem to be on items with any real relevance to gardening. Outdoor living is the new gardening whether it’s admiring your meerkats or the bejewelled, oversized butterflies on stems plonked around the garden. A few plants that might attract some actual butterflies might be a better choice. I think, rather like my recent post on whether the grow your own revolution had died, there is a hard-core group of dedicated gardeners, people with a real passion for plants and wildlife and then there is a much more significant group on the peripheries. The success of the Alan Titchmarsh Love Your Garden programme on ITV has seemed to prove this point. Much more about make-overs than gardening, the instant effect seems to win out when faced with the actual growing of plants shown on Gardener’s World.
Maybe it shouldn’t surprise me then that the garden at Ochran Mill is to be uprooted. Many of the plants are going to good homes and Bristol Zoo is taking some of the more exotic and rare specimens but it’s sad that the beauty of the gardens and the hard work that went into them wasn’t appreciated.
I’d love to hear what you think defines a gardener.