The Great British Gardening Revival

Much has already been said, tweeted and written about the BBC2 programme ‘The Great British Garden Revival’, but I’d like to add my own view to the discussion. 

Firstly, the title. Does British gardening really need a revival? There are more gardening books and magazines, more coverage of the big RHS shows on mainstream television, more viewers of Gardeners’ World, than ever. There is a lot of anguished discussion about the shortcomings of GW amongst the garden-Twitterati, and some very justified concerns about the Tesco-isation of garden retail – as large chain garden centres take over from independent nurseries – but gardening seems to me as popular now as it was twenty years ago. 

Admittedly the emphasis has perhaps changed, as fads and fashions (by definition) do. New-build domestic gardens are becoming smaller, and they are under pressure to fulfil more simultaneous and diverse functions: outdoor playroom, outdoor kitchen and dining room, veg patch, wildlife haven – all of which can rarely be accommodated with any success in a small suburban garden. Whoever introduced the wretched trampoline to the British garden has a lot to answer for. Hence people want small, compact, easy – they want the gardening equivalent, perhaps, of ready meals and package holidays. 

I don’t think that equates to a lack of interest in gardening: just a change from the traditional forms of the activity. That was why the makeover programmes of a decade ago were so popular – before a wistful and nostalgic ‘lifestyle’ tone took over, and Carol Klein began her chuckling wafts through swathes of wildflowers. 

A lot of what passes for gardening may not be of very good quality, but it is still going on. Gardening television may be dull, gardening books are apparently dull too – but they do still exist and presumably have an audience. Dan Brown is a rotten novelist, but his books sell and are read – is that better than no books and no readers? That debate – applied to any area of human activity – has been going since Caxton’s time, and shows no signs of reaching any conclusion. And of course there are excellent gardens, fascinating and inspiring books, brilliant gardeners out there for those who seek them – and to which we can direct those who are interested to know more. Which brings me to the content of the new programme.

Joe Swift’s section in the first programme dealt with the – real – decline in front gardens, as they are paved over for car parking space. The rise in car ownership since the 1960s, and the rise of multiple occupancy, both contribute to this. For many people, however, the tyranny of the front garden – keep the lawn mowed, prune the roses – is probably something they do not mourn. It was even evident in the pressure on the working mum in the programme who was deemed to be ‘letting the side down’ in Rockcliffe Terrace because her garden was not planted to the rafters with pots and troughs. Gardening must be fun and fulfilling for the gardener, not something done under duress merely to pacify the neighbours.

My main problem with the programme was its incessant bittiness. Although it was divided into two distinct sections – Monty Don on wildflower meadows, and Joe Swift on front gardens – each section was itself then further subdivided. So Monty’s half had to cover: the decline of native wildflower meadows, preparing the ground for a new meadow, meadow management at Pensthorpe, scything, planting a mini-meadow in a pot, manufacturing meadow seed mixes and (deep breath) the Millennium Seed Bank at Wakehurst Place. Less, surely is more. None of this was sufficiently detailed or really inspiring. The only ‘practical’ section for most people was the mini-meadow segment – and meadow plants really don’t lend themselves to such planting. If we want people to use limited space to plant and grow beneficial plants, there are more useful and realistic options. Indeed, as Ken Thompson and others have argued, native wildflowers are not inherently better than ‘immigrant’ flowers for pollinating insects – pollen rich is the key, irrespective of where the plant originally comes from.

Joe Swift’s section, whilst also bitty, was also repetitive. How many times did he tell us about the ‘alleyway’ at Rockcliffe Terrace in Whitley Bay? And how many times did we need to see a concreted or paved-over parking space outside a house? Again, the piece seemed torn between a makeover approach – giving away free plants (what was the point of that – let alone Joe Swift doing his milkman impression? Ironic, given that milkmen are even rarer than front lawns these days) and doing a bit of quick planting in a couple of gardens; and a more detailed look at the impact of front garden loss in terms of drainage and air quality.

OK, so this was programme one, and we ought perhaps to celebrate any addition to the gardening coverage on television. But this feels like the same old same old. Should we be pathetically grateful for anything the producers and schedulers toss our way? Surely not. Same presenters, same content, same audience. Where’s the element of revival in that?

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