Time For Climate Questions?

I join the audience for a Gardeners’ Question Time recording to pop questions to our top gardening ‘experts’ about carbon footprints, but did I get any answers?

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

Inspiration is a powerful thing. Chances are it’s the very reason you’re now going about your gardening in an earth-friendly, organic way, and why you read this magazine. Inspiration comes from many sources. It might be a book or article you read, something you watch on TV, or see online, or hear on the radio. We gardening folk frequently get it from each other, simply by having a mooch around one another’s plots.

Inspiration can motivate and stimulate us, offer us a different way of looking at the world, even provide the answer to a nagging question. It can give us ideas we can adapt and shape for ourselves, and be powerfully enabling. But for any of this to happen, we first need to be inspired.

In April, with the help of a friend, I decided to conduct an unscientific experiment, though asking questions based on an increasingly worrying branch of science – that looking at global climate change. The experiment took place in a community centre in North Wales, in the company of 200 or so fellow gardeners and a clutch of the nation’s top gardening ‘experts’. The catalyst for the experiment was a recording of BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. GQT is broadcast on Sundays at 2pm (and repeated on Wednesdays).

Our GQT panel comprised [the late] landscaper John Cushnie, plant pathologist Pippa Greenwood, and garden designer Bunny Guinness (substituting for Chris Beardshaw), with Eric Robson chairing. It is a slick operation. The professionalism shown by the panel, the chairman and the production team was impressive. Getting that seamless 45 minutes of gardening wisdom on to the air each week is no mean feat, and sitting before an audience, with no inkling of the questions to come, requires gutsiness.

Then came the nerve-wracking bit for the audience, as the authors of the selected questions were summoned. Hearts thumped. Would it be either of us? In the end it wasn’t, though we had followed the guidelines to the letter, avoiding slugs, snails, vine weevils, ants, how to get wisteria to flower…

One of the cards the audience attending a BBC Radio Gardeners' Question Time recording are invited to fill in (I wasn't 'lucky' enough to be chosen).

We can only wonder at why our top gardeners’ radio programme is so reluctant to inspire its listeners with can-do, earth-friendly ideas.

The notes said ‘ask absolutely anything you like’. We felt our questions were succinct, topical, relevant, and sowed the seeds of potentially inspirational answers. They were, ‘What steps are you taking to reduce the ‘carbon footprint’ of your gardens?’, and, ‘I’ve been listening with interest to your climate change series. What are the panel doing, in their gardens, to help put the brakes on global warming?’

The recording was made during a six-week run of GQT in which 15 minutes of the programme each week was devoted to how gardeners can adapt as climate change kicks in, covering the possible effects on different plants and how pests and diseases might manifest in a warming world. But our questions weren’t selected, nor were any others on the subject we’d asked about.

My experiment sought to discover what, if anything, the panel were doing to garden more lightly on the earth, and what advice they might have for carbon-cutting, earth-friendly plotters like me. So it ‘failed’ in the sense that they didn’t bite on discussing carbon footprints and climate change, but was a ‘success’ in that I didn’t actually expect them to.

Like almost every other gardening programme, publication and discussion, GQT has focused almost entirely on what effect climate change might have on our gardens, and how we might adapt to it – as if it were an unstoppable juggernaut hurtling toward us. So, true to form, the panel ducked out of addressing a question I suspect most gardeners are starting to ask: what can I do in my garden to help put the brakes on climate change?

The questions put to the GQT panel are selected by the producer, and they don’t see them in advance. But the panel get all the rejected questions to look at, and each panellist chooses one of these to answer in the warm-up session before the recording. So ours, along with many others, were filtered out, firstly by the producer, and then by the panel.

One of the questions we hoped to pop to the BBC Radio 4 Gardeners' Question Time panellists.Maybe they genuinely didn’t have any answers – surprising for a bunch of horticultural superheroes – or perhaps the answers might have led into uncharted territory. It’s easy enough to babble on about what plants might do well in a climate that might be warmer/colder or wetter/drier, or how this pest or that disease might get worse or better; talking about future gardening against a backcloth of uncertainty isn’t that taxing. And when we arrive in a climate-changed future, it will be easy to say that we got it wrong about this or that, because everything was so uncertain…

So let’s look at some certainties. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main ‘greenhouse gas’ causing global warming and leading to climate change. We release CO2 in all areas of life, but in gardening we can pin down solid examples. When we heat propagators and greenhouses, we use energy derived from burning fossil fuels; when sphagnum peat is turned into compost and exposed to the air, it releases CO2; when we drive to the garden centre, we burn fossil fuels; synthetic bioicides and fertilisers consume vast amounts of energy; the skins of our polytunnels are derived from oil… The list goes on.

Wouldn’t it be something to inspire GQT’s two million loyal listeners with ‘expert’ ideas on how to shrink their carbon footprints, simply by adapting the way they garden now? Imagine the nation’s gardeners becoming carbon-savvy en masse and playing a tangible part in helping to achieve the emission reductions necessary to prevent climate chaos.

Chairman Erica Robson, with Bunny Guinness, [the late] John Cushnie and Pippa Greenwood recording BBC Radio 4's Gardeners' Question Time.

Our succinct and topical questions tried to find out what some of the UK’s gardening ‘experts’ are doing on their own plots to help stop the planet frying.

So isn’t it rather surprising that our top radio gardening programme chooses to stick with might-be’s, rather than definite can-do’s? Perhaps not. Much was made of how Bunny Guinness had driven “hell for leather” to get there, and how John Cushnie had “flown in specially”. You’d think the earnings of these gardening superstars could stand a carbon-cutting rail and/or ferry fare. Both panellists are also loyal fans of glyphosate weedkiller, a synthetic, energy-gobbling poison. I don’t know if any of the panellists heat their greenhouses, or use peat-based composts, or if they’ve made the connection between the seemingly benign act of gardening and climate change. I don’t know if they even want to. For the time being at least, they don’t need to.

“We gardening folk frequently get inspiration from each other, simply by having a mooch around one another’s plots”

Following the recording, I asked GQT’s producer why he’d decided not to select either of our questions, and why GQT’s climate change series had focused on how gardeners could adapt to it, rather than on how they might help to curb it. His response: “There are many aspects to climate change but as a gardening programme our listeners want to hear about the practical effects on their gardening and for this reason I did not cover the broader environmental issues.” In other words, it’s all right to drone on about how we might adapt to a topsy-turvy weather world, but not to discuss the actions we gardeners could take to address the ‘broader environmental issues’ – which are, of course, the cause of the changes we are talking about having to adapt to!

GQT is a broadcasting institution enjoyed by millions every week. But unless its producers and its experts start tuning in to ‘broader environmental issues’ and connecting with the world around them, listeners in search of honest, earth-friendly inspiration might as well tune out.

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