This 2006 article from the Observer Magazine entitled ‘Greener Gardens’ explains why Monty Don believes that urban gardeners/allotmenteers are at the forefront of the fight against super-market control of the food-chain. He also warns us to be cynical of the constant stream of ‘new’ plant varieties.
He reckons that we should ‘dig for sanity’ – ok I will!
Over to Monty…
We can all do our bit for the environment in 2006 … take cuttings, buy local plants, make compost and grow our own food. The battle for the earth is in your garden, says Monty Don.
It was 10 years ago that I last wrote a New Year column for New Year’s Day. Normally the pegs that we weekly columnists hang things on veer a little one side or other of publication day. But today, bull’s-eye. I guess most people will have bleary heads but I usually go to bed sober and early on New Year’s Eve and treat New Year’s Day as the first working day of the year. This is not Puritanism but relief. I use the period between Christmas and New Year to potter about, think and completely change my mindset. In that easy no-man’s-land between Boxing Day and New Year, loins are girded and mettle readied. It is time, as we voyagers bid farewell to the old year, to fare forward.
But there is an inevitable taking stock of the year that has just slipped away. I gardened less in 2005 than I have done since 1992. For every gardener there is a minimum level of engagement that is needed to sustain and develop the relationship. There is no magic figure to this and it will vary from person to person and season to season, but it is there. I need around 10 hours a week spread across no less than three days. Less than that and I lose the plot, in every sense.
It might be down to this comparative lack of private, untelevised, unpaid horticulture, but I have been less interested in plants this year and much more fascinated by stone, wood and the spaces between plants. This is influenced by the Welsh hill farm we bought in the summer, but also a slight lack of engagement has meant that I have looked more objectively, finding simplicity and natural forms equally attractive. Many gardens are hijacked by their plants and end up looking like a room overstuffed with furniture.
I have also found myself increasingly irritated by the constant celebration of ‘new’ plants, the vast majority of which are produced to try and stimulate flagging sales. Although no one figure is agreed upon, there are between 250,000 and 420,000 plant species in the world. The RHS Plant Finder (Dorling Kindersley, £12.99) quotes 72,000 named plants, most of which are bred varieties. Clearly no garden begins to use more than a tiny fraction of these. Is there really a call for more – especially when their aesthetic worth is often contentious, to say the least?
A friend of mine was at a conference recently where growers were crowing about the development of a new clematis. Its claim to fame was that it would stack and therefore be cheaper to transport and display. You can bet that the horticultural trade will launch this marvellous ‘new’ plant next spring as a vital addition to our gardens. It is junk horticulture, I’m afraid, and one is right to be deeply suspicious and cynical about it. Collect your own seeds and take your own cuttings. Swap these with friends and neighbours who have done likewise. Some ‘new’ plants will inevitably occur – for free. Growing plants offers twice the pleasure of caring for already-grown ones. And if you must buy mature plants – as sometimes we all must -buy local. Support local nurseries and buy plants that have a human connection and which you know have been raised in similar conditions to your garden.
This year will bring gardeners ever more to the front line of environmental issues. After all, the effects of climate change work most immediately in the back garden. For at least 10 years I have been trying to get television interested in doing a serious but watchable magazine programme about the environment. It has so far met with endless rebuffs. The irony is that gardening – with attendant programmes, and articles – is unavoidably moving into that territory.
There is a range of issues to consider, from sourcing local plants, not using peat, generating wind and solar power for our greenhouses, to fossil fuels used by strimmers and mowers, to composting and, most vitally of all, growing our own, local food.
This is – or damn well should be – the age of the allotment. We need to Dig for Sanity. There is, rightly, a lot of hostility to the way that supermarkets operate a food tyranny pumping out bland, uniform products with little respect for health, taste or provenance and killing local growers and shops in the process – despite the occasional cheeky young chappie brought in to sanitise their image. But small shops are growing. Farmers’ markets are particularly successful in cities, and for the first time since the war it is reckoned that vegetable seeds will outstrip flower seeds in 2006.
The importance of this is the empowerment that it gives people, however small or seemingly insignificant their gardens might be. If you can grow anything edible, be it running multiple allotments (this summer I visited a man in Nottingham who had had nine on the go at one time, but at 76 he was now restricted to three crammed with superb vegetables) or a pot by the back door, you can step off the remorseless food treadmill. It is surprising how liberating this is. A few lettuces, nectarines, spuds or artichokes suddenly free you up. You don’t have to knuckle under the brutal supermarket regime. Once you engage with the simple enough business of feeding yourself, of soil and water, weather, season and harvest, it becomes personal. It is about you, your family and friends. Food becomes an aspect of those relationships as well as your intimacy with your plot.
I prefer to garden and eat organically, but I would rather have really good non-organic food that is raised and sold locally by people I know than impeccable organic credentials raised as a cynical marketing exercise and distributed in a mass, indiscriminate way. If you know where something has come from, it suddenly has meaning. It does not have to be food, either. These mass-produced ‘new’ plants are simply a floral version of junk food; your own seeds, gathered in a brown envelope, modestly but carefully grown and shared with friends, are always going to be the real thing.
I am more convinced than ever that the way to challenge the global hegemonies is through small, local action. It makes no sense at all to put your trust in politicians of any hue, who are hopeless in these matters. Likewise, I suggest being wary of all organisations, even the seemingly good ones. They can – perhaps almost inevitably do – become corrupted. I think individual action working within a loosely linked social consensus is the way to combat the clunky global destruction that has steamrollered out unchecked over the past 50 years.
The garden is the place for this to happen. It is beautifully simple and modest. Gardens are now the front line of the environment, of climate, of food and, I would argue, of some kind of social sanity. I have no illusions that this will change much, but then again it does not have to. A lot of little change will do more to transform society than grand, but almost invariably empty, political gestures. Very small is very beautiful.