We Shop, Planet Drops

Prudent use of natural resources is at the core of gardening organically, so why is the nation’s head gardener urging us to shop?

By John Walker. Published in Organic Garden & Home, January 2009.

It’s time to grab your wallets and purses, dust down your debit and credit cards, and reach for your organic fairtrade cotton bags. So set the sat nav and fold down the back seats in the car. It’s time to go shopping. And if you’re in any doubt about how to actually go about this vital, enthralling activity, don’t worry – a saviour is at hand.

Forget about visiting small, local nurseries, which grow their own plants and are happy to offer advice, and ditch any notion that it might be thrifty, as well as ecologically sound, to grow plants from seed. This is no time to go about gardening in a thoughtful, earth-friendly way, saving money and resources in the process; you must hit the road and head for your nearest out-of-town cathedral to horticultural consumerism – the garden centre. And if you go on a Saturday, you’ll be raring and ready for your shopathon if you watched BBC2 the evening before.

Gardeners shopping at the Gardeners' World Live show at the NEC Birmingham.

Curiously, the nation’s new head gardener, Toby Buckland, has said that actually increasing gardening consumerism and getting the “mass market” gardening will benefit the environment, but hasn’t explained how.

Toby Buckland, the new lead presenter of Gardeners’ World, erstwhile Organic Garden & Home (OGH) contributor, and reputedly ‘ethical’ gardener, is going to teach us how to shop. Here’s what he said to the trade magazine Horticulture Week:

“There’s a theory in gardening that you should only visit small nurseries and grow as much as you can from seed. That’s perfectly good, but I want to broaden Gardeners’ World’s appeal and make it acceptable for gardeners to visit garden centres, while highlighting what’s on sale at garden centres right now. I believe gardeners need to be shown how to shop for things and encouraged to support the [gardening] industry. It shouldn’t all be about growing your own as cheaply as possible.”

Other eyebrow-meets-hairline comments in the interview included the admission that Toby uses garden chemicals when he “has to”, that it’s “common sense” to spray a weedy allotment with glyphosate weedkiller, and – this is a corker – that sometimes “it’s better to be an inorganic success than an organic failure”. (‘Organic failure’? As if there could be such a thing.) He redeems himself – a little – by acknowledging that growing your own and cutting ‘food miles’ is the most important thing gardeners can do. Here’s to that.

“By reducing gardening consumerism, we take a simple yet powerful step back from pushing our biosphere to a dangerous tipping point”

A month later, he made an even more curious, if not alarming, comment about his predecessors on Gardeners’ World, Geoff Hamilton, Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don. He said that their views on how to garden were “right”, and that they “changed a good few minds of people to consider the environmental impact of how they garden”, but then concluded, “I don’t think it’s right for me to carry on in that vein. They were right for the times – different times. We need to get the mass market gardening. It will be better for the environment in the end.” That’s where the news story ends, so, tantalisingly, we don’t get to discover how it will actually be “better”.

Toby Buckland is a lifelong gardener, a professionally trained horticulturist, and an experienced television broadcaster. But comments like “gardeners need to be shown how to shop”, “highlighting what’s on sale”, “support the industry”, and “get the mass market gardening” seem akin to the current spin that’s trying to get us to ‘buy’ our way out of economic recession and the ‘credit crunch’. If the industry needs the nation’s head gardener to keep its checkouts busy, it must be in serious troubles of its own making.

Growing more of your plants at home, from seed, using reliable peat-free compost will reduce your 'gardening footprint' and save on plastic bags and other packaging.

Growing many of your own plants from seed, at home, helps cut ‘plant miles’ and reduces the nation’s gardening plastic bag mountain – which is still growing if this plant ‘creche’ is anything to judge by.

Toby’s comments also point to a lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to understanding that the very fabric of life on this planet is coming apart at the seams because of man’s voracious appetite for ‘stuff’. He must surely have heard of the ‘environmental crunch’. Suggesting that gardeners (especially us organic lot) need to be shown how to shop is risible; nobody in the Western world needs to be taught how to shop. We need to be taught how to stop shopping. If that isn’t the key message of our times, what is? Gardening is a hobby and a way of life, not an industry.

In a way, Toby has been hoist by his own petard. He’s contributed some cracking articles to magazines, including OG&H, on how to be creative and reduce waste by using recycled and reclaimed materials, and he designed and built an award-winning ‘Ethical Garden’, using salvaged delights, at the 2008 Gardeners’ World Live show. But while all of this puts wind in the sails of organic gardening, it has gardening industry bosses wringing their hands over the abyss.

When we organic gardeners do acquire stuff, we tend to spare a thought for the planet’s precious natural resources. Wherever possible, we buy things that will last us a lifetime, rather than until the next gardening fad arrives. But much of the time, as recommended in Toby’s articles, we don’t buy anything, preferring to reuse, repair and recycle. Is it any wonder that the gardening industry, intent as it is on peddling every daft and unnecessary widget under the sun, shows such sustained scorn for the earth-friendly ethos of organic gardening? We don’t even, shock horror, buy their ever-diminishing armoury of ‘plant protection materials’ (insecticides, fungicides and herbicides to you and me).

Organic gardening might be sour milk for fat-cat garden centre owners, and bad news for their checkouts and their shareholders, but it is, always has been, and will increasingly become, brilliant news for the world around us. Thrift and frugality are two keynotes of gardening organically, but prudence, forethought, shrewdness and wisdom resonate, too. One thing that strikes me again and again is just how much time those who tend vibrant and bountiful organic gardens actually spend with their hands in the soil – as opposed to on the handles of a clattering trolley.

Garden centres shopping trolleys are one of the icons of modern gardening consumerism.

Organic gardeners tend to spend more time with their hands in the soil than on the handles of shopping trolleys. We’ve always been more hand-held basket type of folk…

By reducing gardening consumerism, we take a simple yet powerful step back from pushing our biosphere to a dangerous tipping point. Almost everything we buy has a cost in terms of the raw, often finite materials required to make it, and the energy consumption (and resulting pollution) of production and transportation. Gardening stuff, much of which is inessential anyway, is as good at releasing carbon dioxide, the main driver of global warming, as any other stuff. For our highest-profile celebrity gardener to set out to teach us how to consume even more – and on the curious premise that the environment will benefit – seems nothing short of reckless.

Reading between the lines of Toby’s comments, there are, of course, other factors at work. Gardeners’ World viewing figures are flatlining at around two million – down from four million during the Titchmarsh tenure. Monty Don’s wholeheartedly organic, joined-up style of gardening didn’t go down well with the gardening industry, which regularly vilified him for encouraging us to swap seeds and cuttings, and to achieve more with less. Pressure from the industry to keep us all consuming is relentless, and career advancement might just be getting a look-in.

Toby’s desire to “broaden the appeal” of Gardeners’ World in order to “get everyone in the country gardening” is laudable. But such populism must not lose sight of the fact that growing organically, with its emphasis on careful, thoughtful use of resources, has never been so urgently required, or so attuned to the times. The last thing we need is to be shown how to fill a shopping trolley.

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