The disappearing English garden

Our England is a garden
And gardens are not made
By sighing 'Oh, how beautiful!'
And sitting in the shade.

Thus Rudyard Kipling on Englishmen and gardens. We still love gardening. It's what millions do each weekend – mowing the lawn, weeding, building a patio, reorganising things, making grandiose plans, buying things that are not really needed.

Gardens have changed: in recent decades, money has meant patios (and patio heaters, for goodness' sake) and elaborate barbeques, and great big garden sheds with verandahs and sun-loungers instead of humble deckchairs. But at the heart of things there are still gardens. People announce that they are going to grow vegetables because it is “green” and will “save the planet” but actually they grow vegetables because it is satisfying and interesting and involves hard work that brings satisfaction.

We need gardens. So it was worrying to read that many are disappearing. Pressure to build more houses means that in the suburbs, plots that once accommodated two or three homes with substantial gardens now have five or six, with just a small square patch of greenery behind each one, and nothing much in front.

Gardening can be made to sound outdated. It is easy to sneer at. I am sure that some one will over the next couple of years announce that it's wrong to promote gardening too much, because people from families originating in the Indian sub-continent or in Africa or the West Indies don't share the same obsession with the subject as some Anglo-Saxon-based people do and therefore the subject should be sidelined. So let's nail that one now. Gardening is for everyone. The climate of Britain is peculiarly suited to it. We get plenty of rain, and our summers don't scorch the earth. Anyone and everyone who lives on these islands can enjoy gardening, and the need to grow things – and the pleasure and satisfaction gained from doing so – is common to all humanity. Among the people I know who enjoy their gardens are men and women of various races and backgrounds.

Gardens bring beauty and usefulness in a great combination: flowers, fruit, vegetables, a place to sit, a place where children should play, a place for the washing to dry. Alas, for many, it isn't like that. Today's suburbs do show many neglected gardens, often strewn with rubbish, overgrown, a target for vandals and the dumpers of old furniture, a haven for rats. For all the millions of people who love their gardens, there are others who barely notice them except as a space in which to dump things.

There are lots of reasons for this. Family break-up means one generation doesn't teach the next in a normal and natural way: things are fragmented, relationships often transient. Television and the computer can be lures that keep people indoors even on the brightest of days. And gardening requires commitment, loyalty, being in the same place for prolonged periods of time, patience, a willingness to be taught and to learn – not things that are much promoted or encouraged these days.

Gardening is about gratification, but it's delayed, not the gratification of the instant meal, the eat-from-the-box hamburger, the I-want-it-now of the sweets at the checkout.

What to do? I'd like to see more schools with gardens. Most have some small plots that could be used. This is especially the case in primary schools. Get the children digging and planting -- flowers, shrubs, a couple of fruit trees. Children would love to try planting out seeds to spell the school's name or initials, or to make a commemoration of a special anniversary.

There will be problems. I'm sure there is some tiresome rule stating that children must be banned from eating any food grown in a school garden. You don't believe me? Did you know that when there is a cookery display at a children's show or museum, no one may eat the resulting food and it has to be thrown away? I learned that from a volunteer at the Museum of London who had worked with eager children who loved learning Medieval and Tudor and Georgian recipes – and had to tell them they couldn't have even the tiniest taste. Health and safety regulations, you see. Cruel and draft. And wasteful.

And I bet there will also be rules banning children from using proper equipment, like forks or hoes trowels, “in case someone gets hurt”. Any hint of competition will also be banned, so plans for “the prettiest flower bed” or “the best use of small space” will have to be dropped. (You don't believe me? Ask how many competitive events are held at your local school's sports day. Many schools ban running races and even egg-and-spoon events because those who don't win can get upset.

Nevertheless, I think we should persevere. Let's get gardening. If we insist on it, we can get all sorts of spare -- and mucky -- corners turned into gardens. Churches could help; lots of them have land around them and could offer it to local schools to become gardens jointly shared and loved by everyone.

If houses are to be built with inadequate gardens, we have got to make gardens elsewhere. Now and for the future, England needs its gardens. And they won't come by looking at catalogues or TV programmes and sighing, “Ooooh, that's nice” and staying inside.

Joanna Bogle writes from London.


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