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Nature and Artifice

There are some gardening practices which improve the health of the soil and the natural ecosystems in a garden and some which don't. Keeping the soil covered with either mulch, green manures or other plants is good for soil fertility and reduces erosion. Avoiding the use of substances which kill useful organisms such as bees and ladybirds should be obvious. Saving rain-water to use on the garden makes both ecological and financial sense. Choosing the right plants for your garden's conditions means having robust plants which can more easily resist diseases, which then means fewer trips to the garden center and fewer temptations to use harmful sprays. Using perennial plants that flower throughout the year means there is less recourse to the use of bedding plants which are often grown in energy-intensive ways.

However, whilst one can be more sensitive to the wildlife and soil health of a garden, the garden itself is not a natural ecosystem, but a humanly created one; an enclosure within other humanly-managed land such as farmland, plantation or overgrown coppice woodland or urban areas, unless you are lucky enough to live in a national park, which, it could be argued, isn't true 'wilderness' either.

Many of the plants that are grown in the English cottage garden (seen as the epitome of 'natural' for some) have been brought from countries distant to the UK by plant collectors. Who is to say that a hollyhock (Alcea rosea, native to southwestern China) is more 'natural' than a painted fern (Athyrium nipponicum, from Eastern Asia)? The plants we choose to put in our gardens often reflect an ideal of beauty which is personal to the gardener, which may be for nostalgic reasons, purely aesthetic, or for any number political, historical, philosophical or spiritual reasons.

For example, I couldn't have a garden without at least one rose. The reason for me is partly practical; that they are long flowerers and have a lovely scent and I can make rosehip syrup, but also the romantic and mystical symbolism of the rose means that it acts almost as a guardian for or reminder of those qualities in my life. But Wax begonias (Begonia (Semperflorens Cultorum Group) origin, Brazil), forget it! They remind me of seaside resort bedding plants which I associate with the 1950s and 60s style of gardening which made great use of polluting chemical fertilisers and pesticides and also Victorian-style blocks of colour to be viewed from above remind me of how regimented and control-obsessed I imagine the Victorian head gardener would be and how status-driven the owner would be and somehow this merges with my sense of these resorts' nostalgia for Empire which makes me feel somewhat politically queasy! All from one plant...And yet this isn't rational at all, as roses were also very popular in Victorian times, as they were with their re-invention with the hybrid tea and floribunda roses in the 50s and 60s, as they are now and people can be just as obsessed with rigidly controlling their growth and spraying them against pests and diseases. In fact, my romantic attachment to the genus Rosa probably has more to do with reading the Brothers Grimm, Keats, Tennyson, Shakespeare and Rumi. And I cannot deny that the spirit of conquest and exploration connects what I find distasteful in the attitude of Empire to the swashbuckling plant collector.

So I challenge anyone reading this to dig deeply (sorry for the pun) into the many reasons that are there for why you like or dislike a plant and share them here. I'd love to hear from anyone who absolutely adores wax begonias too!

One thing though, plants aren't just lovely objects you may place in the garden, just as you place furniture in a house; they are living beings with life-spans which have their own ideas about what conditions they like, what other plants they can or can't live with and which direction they want to grow in! Yes this is an anthropomorphic approach, but I believe it helps me to be a more intuitive and thereby more effective gardener to occasionally view plants in this way. But then again, living in Glastonbury as I do, I'm the kind of person who would always ask a tree if it wants a hug, before going ahead..

Comments (3)

  1. Grower

    Jim Edwards

    a little bit of what you fancy does you good

  2. Grower

    Jeremy Wright

    Interesting post. You're right. It's all very personal. What fascinates me is how the likes and dislikes are so strong. Of course the influence of the gardener makes a huge difference to what grows or otherwise (however much we might think we cannot control it!)

    Whole PhD studies are, I am sure, being written as we speak about fashion in plants, horticultural market forces, human likes, needs and dependency on plants through the ages ... and what constitutes a weed.

    At the end of the day though, the elemental thing for me is being in touch with and enjoying what Nature delivers. Plants are so much more the bigger force on this Earth than us humans, that it never stops to inspire me.

    Where would we be without plants?
    Dead. But more about that in another post ;-)

  3. Grower

    Good Earth Gardens

    Thanks for your comments! I think gardeners can be incredibly opinionated about the aesthetics of plants- if you've read 'The Well Tempered Garden' by Christopher Lloyd you'll read him raging against dwarf cultivars and talking about plants as being 'blowsy, double, man-made monsters'. Yet most gardens in the UK, below a certain altitude, if left to Nature, would eventually stabilise as deciduous woodland. In other parts of the world, the climax vegetation would be different- which is where we get many of our garden plants from.

    Some people would say that the most 'natural' garden for lowland UK is therefore a woodland garden, which perhaps mimics a natural woodland in having different layers of plants from canopy through understory, field-level and ground level.

    I personally favour the idea of accepting that the garden itself isn't natural, but that as a gardener I can create more variation, and possibly boost biodiversity by mimicking different ecosystems, within one piece of land.

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