I am not a regular television viewer. Gardener’s World, BBC’s long-running gardening show, is the only programme that regularly tempts me to turn the television on. I’m not sure for how much longer though as even this show is triggering more frustration than inspiration.
Three recent episodes included a slot in which a gardener designer analysed the design of a typical urban gardens. Of course, the garden’s were far from typical. Even the “small” garden was two or three times the size of the average urban garden in my city. And each was designed to within an inch of its life. The gardens looked attractive enough but in a bland, stylised way, as if they had been bought off-the-shelf from a horticultural version of Heal’s. None of the garden designs looked like they had grown out of a relationship between owner and space, a relationship that had deepened with seasons and evolved with tastes, needs and budget.
As the episodes progressed and the subliminal message became more obvious, my annoyance grew. In each ‘masterclass’ the designer described the layout by highlighting the three seating areas, without explanation or irony. Forget about plants or wildlife, including three seating areas seems to be the benchmark for a well-designed garden these days!
My frustration would have been muted if the designer had explained that the owners in question preferred entertaining to gardening or that they had chosen to sacrifice vegetable beds, a cut flower patch or borders for more seating. But no, there was no clarification. A matter of fact reference to three seating areas was just trotted out as an unquestioned hallmark of good design, much like decking was a decade ago and a water feature before that.
This masterclass of good garden design subliminally stressed the unnecessary as essential. And not just any unnecessary feature but a feature that requires hard landscaping and substantial items. In other words, goods and services that command a higher price than plants, seeds and a few hours of labour per week. Just as interior magazines fuel desire by implying that every stylish house has an en suite bathroom, Aga, American-style fridge, wood burning stove…, garden designers imply that a stylish garden requires a one-off design with plenty of hard landscaping and, of course, multiple seating areas.
I should stress, I have nothing against attractive gardens, or even seating areas for that matter. This year I am working on turning my own garden from one that looks like an allotment into one that looks like an oasis, without sacrificing the edibles of course. And I certainly have nothing against aspiration. Anybody who decides to learn to play the violin or throw pots in adulthood is de facto aspirational! However, unlike garden designers, who often create new trends to generate more instructions, I believe real the joy of a garden lies in the process: in immersing ourselves in a space that is ever-changing and therefore never actually finished.
For most gardeners, getting to know our plot, observing what works and what doesn’t, sinking our hands into soil, nurturing plants to fill our borders, feed us or attract wildlife are all part of the delightful process of developing our garden. Yes, there are definitely reasons for including a bench or a table and set of chairs. Sitting down with a restorative cup of tea after some vigorous digging or weeding is a joy, as is enjoying a meal next to beds of fragrant plants or just soaking up the sun amongst flowers buzzing with pollinators. But these seated moments are only a small part of our enjoyment of the garden.
So this Easter I am going to ignore the design lessons from the recent Gardener’s World masterclasses, pour myself a cup of tea, dig out my Encyclopaedia of Gardening and head out to my one tiny seating area to mull over how I can squeeze even more plants in my typical, very real urban back garden.