Anyone who follows me on Instagram (@bensbotanics) will probably have come to the conclusion that I’m a bit of a ‘plant nerd’. I’m writing this article in the spare bedroom of my little house in Devon, UK, surrounded by my gardening books.
I love plants. I love seeing them, finding out about them, I love growing them. What isn’t apparent from my ‘public face’ is that I have a very modest garden of my own. Circumstances (working in a low-paid industry – horticulture!) mean that I must rent my home; I’m lucky to have a garden at all.
Nowhere to grow!
Until a couple of years ago I didn’t have a garden. I had a concrete yard at the back of my house and an area of pots at the front, but beyond that I had nothing. I’ve more than doubled the outdoor space that I had, and I now have soil to grow in!
I know how lucky I am. I have friends, other professional gardeners, who have little balconies or even no outdoor space at all. The urge to grow is strong with all of us; we all grow something at home, but it’s mainly our places of work that allow us to indulge our interests.
Possession is 9/10ths…
The gardening world is obsessed with owning plants and gardens. Modern gardening culture is little more than a new spin on the 19th century aristocracy, with the garden owners demonstrating their status by showing their possessions to the world.
Magazines (those collections of advertisements you buy in the hope of finding actual content) are full of the same old stories; “Harry and Henrietta restored their cottage in the country and then set about turning the five acres of wilderness into a garden that reflects their personal values.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m pleased for “Harry and Henrietta” and I’m glad they’ve been able to find somewhere nice to make a garden. I just don’t need the same “look how lucky we are to own a garden” stories every time I open a magazine.
Few of us will ever actually achieve that goal of ‘dream home and garden’, so that world is something that we can only look in on. Yes it is nice to look in at what other people get up to, but beyond that are the constant succession of indulgent articles just voyeuristic?
Can you love plants and gardens without owning a garden?
If the world of ‘popular gardening’ is to be believed then no. It appears that to be a great gardener you must be in a position to buy yourself a great garden.
I disagree with this idea. I’ve met too many wonderfully talented plant and garden enthusiasts, experts even, who don’t have a big garden (if they have a garden at all). They, we, live vicariously through the gardens and green spaces around us.
We gain enormous pleasure from a tree in the street. We become expert at appreciating the gardens we visit, and learn so much about the plants we see without ever owning them for ourselves. We’re blessed with some wonderful gardening books (oh the treasures you find in thrift stores and second hand book stores if you look carefully!), we have websites, online resources and social media to look at, and we can also indulge our interest on trips out.
Because we don’t have to maintain a large garden of our own we are liberated, free to enjoy the best of gardens and gardening without having to be encumbered with the responsibility of having to maintain a large space ourselves.
And so I raise a toast to all the passionate and enthusiastic plant experts and gardeners out there who don’t get to make their dream gardens.
How lucky you are, that your job is so soul-satisfying. That’s a rare, wonderful thing.
I wouldn’t say it’s all great, but then what job ever is?
O, this is a hard one. I once grew things on the roof of the block of flats I lived in, in pots. Until the other tenants stopped me. The urge to grow things is where it all begins for most of us.
Perhaps being a professional gardener meets some of that need to grow things but you’re suggesting that the element of choice and control are unimportant. Most of us also want to grow plants we choose, in combinations we have also chosen.
In fact, most garden lovers ideal would probably be to have a sizeable garden, the money to furnish it, and Ben to tend it for us. And those of us who would love that and cannot have it will suffer envy, which is extraordinarily painful and also inadmissible.
Very hard, all this.
Great post to begin a great conversation Ben – a rental house with a garden in the UK was something we could only dream about in our little gardenless flat in London. And the envy you mention Anne… yes very hard when you’re desperate to have (some level of) control over your outside space, and yet there are now so many ways of coming face to face with reasons to feel envious every day. It has to be put aside as it is a very destructive emotion and comes out when you’re least expecting it.
I remember getting irrationally angry at my mother when she queried why I was going to the trouble of putting a trellis in outside the window (to block the view of my horrible neighbor). I blew up – she and my father had moved into their home with ten acres when she was 30. I was going on 40 and still no hope for the large garden and PRIVACY I dreamed of. I apologized later of course, they had many hard years before moving there, but I realized I was a little more vulnerable than I thought. My first book Big Dreams, Small Garden, dealt with much of that process of letting go of the envy and working right where you are with joy. Even the very wealthy with staff gardeners deal with the same emotion, different parameters. Looking forward to seeing both of you soon! xoMW
It’s interesting, and very true, that envy is a human thing. No matter how much we have we still want more, and that envy can turn unhealthy of course.
I guess what I’m coming to with the idea of indulging your interest through the gardens of others is to take the edge of that envy; rather than feel completely outside the world of gardens and gardening to be able to have that contact even if it’s not your own creation. The gardening colleagues I allude to in the article must first and foremost comply with the whims of their employers, so even at work there is seldom a free rein to be creative. Like you with your trellis in London, we all do the best with what we have.
I appreciate that it is a hard one. I’ve been told in the past that anyone who lives without any outdoor space at all needs to volunteer somewhere so they can still get their hands in the soil, as it were. A nice idea for those in a position to do so, but falls down immediately if someone has a job to go to.
The big flaw to enjoying the gardens of others is that lack of personal creativity. I think it’s entirely natural and right that people of any gardening ability would want to be creative, and when you step onto someone else’s property you’re at their mercy. It’s a difficult one to navigate, but the impression that’s given that those who don’t get to build their garden are either ‘locked out’ or somehow automatically ‘inferior’ is an unhelpful part of gardening (particularly garden media). If you can’t build a garden then the second best thing must surely be to indulge your interests through the gardens of others?
Yes, of course and good that you identify that possibility.
I like Ben’s posts a lot, real and down to earth. None of the same old, same old, “I’m an environmentally responsible gardener” stuff.
Thank you for this.
Thank you for your kind words.
Oh I do the ‘environmentally responsible’ stuff, although in a far more nuanced way than I think most of the ‘gardenistas’ do. Some of the things I do are very beneficial, some of the things I do are destructive; navigating between the two is seldom easy! I may well write about the ‘grey ethics’ of gardening in the future, and I hope that you’ll enjoy that too.
One of the most influential gardeners I have ever met is someone whose name almost no one has heard of, unless one is a native plant advocate in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, USA. He was an electrician who lived in an apartment but was known in the native plant world as one who propagated native plants in his spare room and then went about planting them in parks and public spaces, as he was so often invited to do. The quote that has stuck with me for 30 years was his, “The world is my garden.” Indeed, it has helped me to appreciate gardens far and wide, even the wild ones, not planted by human hands.
“The world is my garden”, wise words indeed.
I know of a man here in the UK who used to love trees. He approached the local authorities in his home town and they allowed him to plant trees on public land (at his own expense of course!). He got to see trees growing, other people had the benefit of being able to see and enjoy trees, although let’s be honest and say that few will have noticed, and the authorities saved some money. It’s good that these people are around.
I like this perspective shift. I will sit on my porch admiring the blooming crabapple trees along the street and my little pot of seedlings and try not to feel envy for not “owning” land of my own. I’m grateful for neighbors who let me fulfil my urge to grow on their land.
We all get that envy; I think it’s part of the ‘human experience’.
But to be able to appreciate everything around us without feeling a need to own it must be a good thing.
Christopher Lloyd used to suggest that certain trees (cherries, for example) were best enjoyed in other people’s gardens. I feel that way about any number of high-maintenance plants, which probably wouldn’t grow for me anyway. It’s hard not be envious sometimes, but thanks for the “attitude adjustment”.
I hadn’t realised Christopher Lloyd had said that too, but it’s certainly something that makes sense to me and that I’ve said to other people.
I think it’s good to have our dreams, providing we remain firmly in the ‘waking world’.
It’s great that you accommodate your reality, Ben, and the garden you do have is beautiful. I am older now, and don’t have the strength to tend a garden but I really enjoy the few plants a I grow in large pots on the porch; it’s all I can do to keep them watered in hot weather. I make a lot of pictures of them to share with friends. And I can enjoy my neighbors gardens all I want! You’re doing great. Thanks for sharing your garden with us.
Thank you very much, and happy gardening!
I had a neighbor doing poorly whose lovely yard was getting way out of control. I asked if I could try to renovate some beds–I was told to enjoy. I did. Both parties benefitted. Lexington Ky USA
An excellent arrangement!
When we were young and our children little, we farmed. I didn’t have time for growing the pretty flowers that I had enjoyed in my mother’s garden as I was growing up, even though I certainly had lots of room to do so. When you spend your days chasing livestock and children and driving a tractor, something has to go. So, the blooming veggies and a scattering of marigolds in our huge veggie garden had to suffice. Now, we are older, live in town with a little bit of a yard, and have precious grandchildren who like to help in the garden. I enjoy growing flowers in our little beds, but we still find ourselves centering on the veggie garden. Music to my ears and heart, “Grandmom, can we go eat the tomatoes? the snap peas? the green beans?” instead of, “can we have candy?” None of our neighbors have veggie gardens, and that’s okay. They grow beautiful flowers and I am the grateful recipient of the occasional sweet bouquets. It’s a blessing to share. Do I wish I had more room? Yes, sometimes. But I think it’s fun to see the neighborhood as “our” garden. Thank you for your posts, Ben. I appreciate your humble honesty and simplicity.
Thank you for your kind comment.
I recently saw a ‘garden’ of ferns down a drain near where I was working. Seeing how the ferns and mosses grew together was fascinating; a little world hidden behind an iron grate. For a few moments that was the greatest garden I’ve ever seen.
The only reason I had the fortitude necessary to pay off my debts and save (over many many many years) to buy a house was because I was buying a garden with a shack on it to sleep in. So get the desire to have some ground that you can shape to bring you pleasure (and food and flowers). But now that I’ve seven years into living here, I find that I really enjoy a lot of plants in other people’s yards and gardens–because I don’t have the space for them, or the conditions, or the money, or, actually, I just don’t like them that much–like I’m really glad that a neighbor around the corner grows all sorts of palm trees and similar tropical plants. I don’t think I’d grow a single thing they plant. But I love their yard and go out of my way to walk past it in all seasons to enjoy it.
Love your writing on gardens btw.
Thank you very much.
I was looking at a veriegated Weigela today; it was weighted down with flowers and an absolutely stunning specimen. A real honour to see.
But it’s not a plant I would commit space to in my small garden.
I get exactly what you mean.
Having “been there, done that” for years myself and working with other horticultural professionals, it seems to me that most people engaged in horticulture as a profession but without the funds to afford a garden (or even a home) would love to be able to own and tend one, were that an option. At the same time, I don’t think that anyone would dispute that it can be intensely pleasurable and inspirational to take in other people’s (or institutions’) gardens and plants, and tending plants and working in a garden has its rewards, but it is still work, a fact that can be lost on many people. I have often been told how lucky I am to be working in a garden by visitors who are at the same time completely uninterested in hearing what that the reality of that work actually entails. I also feel that there is something slightly unsettling about the idea that enjoying others’ gardens might be a reasonable substitute for respectable pay for those employed in the often deeply undervalued profession of horticulture. If horticultural workers were paid enough overall to afford gardens (and homes) of their own, but still chose not to own them, it would be one thing. Any suggestion of acceptance of the persistent reality feels to me somewhat like a reverse “sour grapes” mentality, where victims of de facto economic class warfare must rationalize and become grateful for their situations, choosing to be happy with whatever scraps of happiness they can scrounge, rather than demanding real change. My hope is that we can simultaneously take joy in the gardens and plants of others while still ensuring that our wages are sufficient to allow us to own and love gardens (and homes) of our own, if we so choose. The same goes for professions beyond horticulture, obviously.
Yes I agree with what you’re saying; for those of us doing this as a career the gardens we enjoy are very much a job. In some places, particularly where an owner/Head Gardener/curator exercises absolute control, the opportunities to become more engaged with gardens are reduced.
I think the idea that gardeners should have their own space, should be able to afford a place where they have their own garden if they so choose, is a noble one. Unrealistic at the moment it seems; horticulture still fails to reach the level of respect it needs to achieve to be taken seriously as a career, and until that happens the money isn’t going to follow.
A friend who for many years produced a weekly tv gardening show said “you can never fail by showing people a garden they couldn’t afford”.
I am a volunteer gardener on a few Japanese style gardens that allow me enjoy gardening I could not afford. So many public parks in the uk depend on volunteer support- and as long as the head gardener has faith in you the are good opportunities.
It’s certainly true that a lot of horticulture media is selling aspiration. Presumably the ‘how to’ content is intended so that when you get your big garden in the country you can tell your gardener what to do?