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How moral is the Chelsea Flower Show?

Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

May 24, 2019   4 mins

There is a dry patch of compacted earth at the bottom of the Rectory garden that I have been meaning to do something about for ages. Flat, solid and grey looking, no life has been able to emerge from its unyielding surface for as long as I can remember. Not even weeds.

It’s never been high up on the to-do list. But the fine weather of late has made me look for an excuse to spend some time outside. And so I have been to the garden centre to buy manure, and I have started to break open the shell of hardened ground and feed it with sweet smelling, life giving fibre. It’s a strangely satisfying thing to do. Hands filthy, I’m feeding the dead earth with biological energy in order to return it to life.

A few miles from here, over the river, the Chelsea Flower Show is in full bloom. I have been a couple of times, but it’s become a bit too corporate: this year’s Gold Winners include the Morgan Stanley garden and the M&G Investments garden – M&G also being the sponsors of the whole event. And at £107, ticket prices are steep. I think I’ll stick with B&Q rather than M&G.

I also find that the themed gardens at Chelsea strain a little too much for social relevance. The pictures of the CAMFED Campaign for Female Education garden did indeed look splendidly colourful, recreating a Zimbabwean schoolyard in the heart of SW3. But it struck me as more of a sermon than a garden.

Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with a sermon on the subject of women and education in Africa. Far from it. And I also do think that gardens have long been places of moral edification. But there is a crucial and telling difference between the way our own gardens work on us morally and the sort of moral instruction that is being offered by a themed garden in SW3.

In the morally-themed garden, the flowers and planting are being used to illustrate a moral concern, like a poster or a promotional film might. But the really important moral point of gardens is not that attractive flowers and planting are used to illustrate some important wider cause, but that the very act of being in a garden – tending to it, playing in it, eating in it, weeding, watering, walking about in it – all contribute to our moral formation. And a roped-off, do-not-touch garden in Chelsea just cannot achieve that.

In other words, to borrow an idea from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, some virtues are ‘internal’ to certain practices. And the morally-themed garden is not virtuous in this sense – the morality it illustrates is not the morality internal to the activity of gardening.

The philosopher David Cooper makes a similar point about morality and gardens in the context of a much wider discussion of moral philosophy’s history. Cooper rightly regrets that moral philosophy has moved away from the Aristotelian idea that our moral take on the world is bound up with the sort of life we live as a whole – with our friendships, our jobs, our lived environment.

Morality is not a separate compartment of ourselves – a stern-faced bit, only concerned with important things like human rights and vulnerable people. Morality is not just for when we are ‘on duty’, as it were: it involves cultivating virtuous habits of the mind that are always in play, including in our ‘off duty’ activities.

Morality is everything: it is the whole of our lived life, including the bits that we have mistakenly come to regard as private and morally neutral.

My soil is a case in point. Working the ground, feeding it manure, involves a form of care for the natural environment that is not all about some immediate advantage for me. Yes, I and others will hopefully benefit from the beauty of the delphiniums I imagine one day growing there. But that’s only half the story. Because the very act of pottering about in the garden establishes an increasingly fond alliance between myself and the forces of nature, which sets my own life in a wider perspective.

To put it in Christian terms, it feels like a mini collaboration between me and God. Success is only party in my own hands. When it comes, I am thankful. So, gardening teaches dependency: the idea that life is a gift, and that the gift itself should be gratefully received.

Why do my own tomatoes “taste better” than the ones I buy from Sainsbury’s? Objectively, they don’t. But it makes perfect sense to say they taste better than shop-bought ones because taste, here, is not just a matter of sensory experience: it has a much more expanded sense of what the tomato means.

A garden is, of course, part nature, part human artifice. At times, garden fashions have emphasised the latter – straight lines, geometric planting, topiary. At other times, a more ‘wild’ look has been in vogue, as with the Romantics.

But whatever one’s preference, the garden is always an intersection between nature and human activity. And so the garden always feels to me like a sustained meditation on our human place within a world that does not do our bidding. A world in which the weeds will always finally win.

Over the coming summer, the garden will be a place of great joy. Laughter, barbeques, den-making, lawn-mowing contemplation. For Aristotle, being good is always an aspect of the good life – of a life well lived. From this perspective, morality and personal happiness are not set against each other as if being good always involves a sacrifice to one’s personal happiness. That is more a Christian perspective – always more concerned with the emergency ethics of dramatic situations. And from this Christian perspective, the ethics of Aristotle’s Eudemonia can feel a little too complacent – in danger of being conscripted by what one might call bourgeois complacency.

Well, I will bear that in mind. But for now, I will linger in my garden. Drink tea with friends. Fight the weeds. Play with my children. Host parish parties. Watch the delphiniums grow. In terms of modern culture wars, all this might be called a sense of place. And the garden might therefore be regarded as the spiritual headquarters of the ‘somewheres’ as opposed to the ‘anywheres’.

But the great thing about the garden is that when I’m in it I don’t much care about such matters. Feeding the ground with life, hands stinking of the farmyard – that feels so much more important.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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