A Tale of Two Books

Two new titles, both claiming to show us how to garden in more planet-friendly ways, while helping to curb climate change, prove that you can never judge a book by its cover.

By John Walker. Published in Organic Gardening, February 2008. 

I have just read two books from cover to cover, against a backdrop of hope. I read them with the eager expectation that I had found two new books which were set to break the mould – to go where no gardening book had gone before. One is Royal Horticultural Society New Gardening: How to Garden in a Changing Climate* by Matthew Wilson, curator of the RHS Garden Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire. The other is The Organic Garden: Green Gardening for a Healthy Planet** by Allan Shepherd of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Mid-Wales. The books are roughly the same size and length.

Front covers of The Organic Garden by Allan Shepherd and RHS New Gardening by Matthew Wilson.

The Organic Garden has a friendly ‘organic’ feel to it and is printed in the UK on Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) paper. The glossier RHS New Gardening is printed in China, with no mention of its paper’s origins…

I have tried hard to put bias aside, to imagine I was opening them as a wet-behind-the-ears new gardener, or as one just becoming aware of the challenges facing the earth’s fragile ecosystems. My own gardening is under constant scrutiny to ensure that everything I do, buy, use, sow or plant has a minimal negative and a maximal positive impact on the world around me.

What drew me to these books is that they are the first to mention climate change on their covers. The back cover of RHS New Gardening includes the phrases ‘more earth-friendly’, ‘more in tune with climate change’, and ‘more natural’. Other cover blurb cites ‘better techniques, modern science and visionary design, in harmony with nature’.

The back of The Organic Garden encourages you to ‘recycle, think local, save resources’, ‘be ethical at the garden centre’, ‘cope with climate change’, and asks, ‘With the world apparently going to seed in a wheelbarrow, and a future of flood and drought predicted, can a mere gardener really make a difference?’. So far so good. The books seemed to inhabit common ground before a page was turned. But, having read them, it is clear to me that although they have some ground in common, and both impart largely sound gardening advice, in other ways they are poles apart.

“I have tried to imagine I was opening these books as a wet-behind-the-ears new gardener, or one just becoming aware of the challenges facing the earth’s fragile ecosystems”

The themes on which the books agree include the importance of sustainability, an emphasis on choosing the local over the distant, and the need to reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ of our gardening – although at times this receives puzzling discussion in New Gardening. For example, when describing installing a pond, Matthew Wilson writes, ‘My preference is for flexible liners, either butyl or plastic… Neither material is especially sustainable but the trade off is big: the 20 plus years of benefit to wildlife before the liner needs replacing more than offsets the manufacturing process.’ Does it? Is there any evidence to show this? This smacks of wishful thinking, as does, ‘it’s relatively straightforward to establish whether a gardening activity or practice is sustainable.’

The chapter from RHS New Gardening discussing sustainability.

Although RHS New Gardening contains a welcome explanation of the nuts and bolts of sustainability, it goes to some lengths to suggest that living in an ‘inherently sustainable’ way is beyond reach.

If it’s so easy to identify ‘sustainable’ gardening, why are there legions of patio heaters lurking in gardens – despite widespread coverage of their contribution to global warming? Matthew Wilson doesn’t seem to know either: ‘So now we include within gardening such diverse features and activities as patio heaters… [and] barbecues… I’m not condemning it, if it means that gardening appeals… ’

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising statement in New Gardening is this: ‘There is no doubt that leading a more sustainable life is less convenient. It requires research, planning and commitment.’ And then, ‘Historically, gardening is one of the most self-contained, sustainable activities on Earth… Nothing ever went to waste, from recycled materials to compost… the garden of old was a self-contained, closed-loop system that was almost entirely self-sufficient.’ Hang on! Doesn’t this sound suspiciously like something still practised today? Organic gardening, perhaps?

The Organic Garden is a well thought-out, creative and imaginative introductory manifesto for ethical gardening. It has no need to make spurious statements, or to utter the word ‘sustainable’ through what, in New Gardening, often appears to be gritted teeth. (There are two other words it flatly refuses to utter at all – but read on.)

The chapter in The Organic Garden on making ethical gardening decisions.

‘Do you need it?’ is the first question posed by The Organic Garden on the pages devoted to purchasing decisions. Next time you’re at the garden centre, see just how many of these ethical symbols you can find…

The Organic Garden recognises that it isn’t ‘straightforward’ to assess what is and isn’t sustainable in gardening terms. We’re offered a whole chunk on ‘making ethical decisions’, beginning with the author’s refreshingly simple first question: do I need it? If you do, there’s a comprehensive guide to all the various symbols you are likely to find on ‘ethical’ products, such as the Forest Stewardship Council’s ‘FSC’ mark denoting timber from well-managed forests.

Throughout, The Organic Garden acts as a portal to myriad other sources of information, mostly websites, for anyone seeking more sustainable and ethical choices for their gardens. One gem is mention of Hemcore Biomat, a truly sustainable alternative to oil-hungry ground cover fabrics and black plastic, made from British hemp grown without the use of pesticides.

The two authors’ thinking on other issues reveals their grasp of the concept of sustainability. The Organic Garden explains that using a four horsepower petrol lawnmower for an hour releases pollution equivalent to driving a car for 90 miles. New Gardening makes no mention of any such statistic, though it does, in a picture caption, advocate using a ‘push’ mower, and gives suggestions for grass-free lawns. On quarried stone, The Organic Garden urges us to source reclaimed materials if possible, with local and traditional materials as second choice, while acknowledging that quarrying is ‘hugely destructive’. New Gardening, after admitting that it is ‘inherently wrong’ to quarry stone (with no explanation why), justifies its continued extraction for gardens on the grounds that it creates jobs in areas of economic decline, and can be used ‘over and over’.

On a practical level, New Gardening drops some clangers. We’re shown how to make a raised bed using ‘rammed earth’, a low-energy building technique. It’s a nice idea, but the author seems not to have checked what happens to rammed earth structures exposed to the elements: they disintegrate. Then there’s the recommendation to compost holly prunings (they don’t), and to water ground after mulching. And New Gardening devotes just two measly pages to what is probably the most earth- and climate-friendly gardening activity there is – growing your own food. The Organic Garden has an impressive (albeit introductory) 24.

Opening pages of the chapter on climate change in The Organic Garden.

As Allan Shepherd says in The Organic Garden, ‘Climate change is an elephant that’s wandered out of the house through the patio windows and made itself at home in the garden. There is no single bigger threat to our ability to create the kind of successful, caring, beautiful, inspiring gardens we want than climate change.’

But what sets The Organic Garden apart from New Gardening, and from other gardening books, is its last chapter – ‘Climate Change and Gardening: The Elephant in the Room’. Allan Shepherd gives it to us straight: ‘Gardeners… will have to change their idea of what a garden can be. We need a new style of climate-friendly gardening that allows us to reduce the carbon cost of our gardens.’ He adds: ‘the best thing any gardener can do is reduce his or her personal CO2 emissions… to ensure the climate remains as close as possible to the one we know and enjoy now.’ He goes on to suggest practical actions we can all take to help avoid climate chaos.

There’s not much ‘new’ about RHS New Gardening. It’s a book that tries to be a jack of all trades, overlaid with a cautious, guarded nod to the concept of sustainable gardening. It touches on things we can do to head off climate meltdown, but fails to make any radical call to arms, even hedging its bets with a phrase beloved by climate change doubters. ‘It may be that the reasons for climate change are more complex than we imagine and are ultimately part of the climatic cycle… ’

Intriguingly, Matthew Wilson’s ‘new philosophy of gardening’, on the tenets of which his book stands, doesn’t appear to have a name. And in all 224 pages he doesn’t mention, together, two words which might just fit the bill, words which you might expect to find in a book espousing a ‘more earth-friendly’ approach. Organic gardening?

*Republished as Nature’s Gardener: How to Garden in the 21st Century, Mitchell Beazley, 2011.

** Republished as The Organic Garden: Green and Easy, Collins, 2009.

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