There is much talk at the moment about the future of gardening. There seems to be a collective panic amongst many within the gardening industry be it growers, writers or the gardening establishment of the RHS that gardening is in decline. The suggestion is younger people aren’t interested in plants, front gardens have been concreted over to give our cars a home for the night and where’s the room for plants in our back gardens when there’s hot tubs, trampolines and barbecues the size of some people’s kitchens taking up all the space.
Two new garden programmes will be on the BBC soon – The Great British Garden Revival and The Great Allotment Challenge – which it hopes will reignite the nation’s passion for plants. But is there a crisis in the first place? Certainly in my experience I know few people who garden and by garden I mean actively grow plants, mowing a lawn once a week doesn’t count. But if I think back to when I was growing up in the eighties I don’t remember gardening featuring highly as a hobby for the parents of my friends. So has much changed?
There’s certainly more opportunities to spend money on gardening products than ever before. But garden centres and even the large flower shows, where there is a huge focus on non-plant related garden paraphenalia, have changed our ideas about what constitutes gardening. The phrase ‘outdoor room’ makes me shudder but that has been the trend of recent years and means many gardens are becoming a repository for everything BUT plants.
There’s much comparison between the seemingly insatiable appetite for food programmes and the distinct lack of gardening on TV. David Dimbleby recently suggested there should be fewer food and garden programmes. He has a point regarding cookery, some nights it’s wall to wall nosh, but gardening? The half an hour a week of Gardeners’ World hardly counts as a surfeit of plant related telly. It has been suggested that gardening needs to be made cool and instead of people being obsessed by cake decorating and soggy bottoms it’ll be home-grown carrots and gardening gloves that we’ll all want. But food programmes do have one big advantage at capturing our attention and that’s all the sugar and fat? A soil encrusted parsnip isn’t going to get the saliva glands going in quite the same way as butter, cream and oodles of chocolate.
There’s a much quicker result from food. You see the ingredients being combined and then, ‘hey presto!’, a cake appears. It’s much harder to convey the satisfaction that gardening can give in a half hour programme. Sow some carrot seeds and then it’s three months before the result can be shown. Getting hung up on comparisons with the interest in food is distracting. Sales of juicers maybe up 210% but anyone who has ever owned a juicer knows the reality. You use them once or twice then you realise they are a nightmare to clean, they spend a year in the cupboard before you give it away to some unsuspecting relative. Viewing, purchasing and actually doing should not be confused.
Gardening does have a bit of an image problem. I recently received a birthday card from a friend. In the note inside she wrote about how she loved walking around it in spring and seeing the plants poking through. She finished this with ‘I must be getting old’. Admittedly we are both approaching forty so she isn’t wrong but the connection between gardening and age is interesting. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this either. Throughout my twenties and into my thirties I was made to feel as if my love of gardening meant I had progressed all too rapidly towards the world of pipe and slippers. Gardening presenters are, with a few exceptions middle-aged or over, and content often focusses on gardens that many of us unfortunate enough to be on the wrong side of the property boom will never in our wildest dreams be able to afford. These two factors do create a general perception that gardening is not for younger people. But hasn’t this always been the case and does that mean there should be a drive to make gardening trendy and appealing to a younger audience? The first problem is defining what is young. When I stand up after planting bulbs my knees remind me I’m getting older but in terms of the typical age group that watches Gardeners’ World, which is apparently over 60, I would imagine the production team consider me a youngster. The danger is trying to make something trendy can be like watching someone recapturing their youth on the dancefloor – painful. And what works for one programme won’t necessarily translate to another. Just because the format of Top Gear has worked so well, (this is completely unfathomable to me) that doesn’t mean you can shoehorn it into other subjects. Gardening should be seen as open to all, a rewarding and fun hobby but perhaps we need just need to accept that gardening is something that comes to many for the first time in their thirties, forties and even fifties and that in many cases circumstances drive this.
Perhaps a fundamental reason for the success of food programmes is that we all have a kitchen. When it comes to gardening not everyone has the space to grow. A straw poll of people I know includes those who house-share even in their thirties because to buy is too expensive and those who live in flats, again driven by financial circumstance. Then there’s time. Some spend several hours a day just getting to and from work, there’s young children to look after and childcare to arrange. Demanding jobs and increasing ways of spending our leisure time mean gardening is bound to be one of the hobbies that falls by the wayside. I can remember the days before Sunday trading was allowed. It’s hard to imagine now that Sunday was meant to be a day of rest, a day for pottering around the garden. I’m not looking back at the early eighties with rose-tinted glasses, I remember all too well the interminable boredom sometimes that drove us to watch programmes like Bullseye, but the way we use our free time has changed and gardening has suffered as a result. If anything the crisis in gardening is not about those who are choosing not to grow but those who would grow given the chance but a lack of space and time make it impossible. The problems affecting the future of gardening go much deeper.
I look forward to new, and hopefully inspiring, gardening programmes but if we want to get more people growing it won’t be enough for gardening to pin its hopes on TV to be it’s saviour in the same way The Great British Bake Off has been for cake tins and baking trays. There is a huge focus on gardening in primary schools now so there is hope that this generation of young people will grow up with a love of plants. Whether they have anywhere to grow them may be a different story. Whether land for growing, be it allotments, back gardens or community spaces is available in the future for today’s children to carry on Britain’s great tradition of gardening is down to our politicians, architects, planners, house builders and ultimately us. If this generation don’t value the green spaces we have bought alongside our houses then why should the politicians. If we concrete them over to provide parking why should we expect planners and architects to see a value in gardens. Whether gardening is cool should be the least of our worries.