A writer claims that the term is loaded with cultural baggage
From time to time, The Guardian outdoes itself — publishing an accidental satire of itself. No section of the paper (or its Observer Sunday incarnation) is immune. Not even the gardening page.
Which brings me to this gem, a hand-wringing column by James Wong. Though he’s a gardening expert of some distinction — not to mention a trained botanist — he’s got a problem with the very word ‘gardening’.
At the heart of his concerns is an actual problem — which is that “few young people are interested in horticulture.” He warns that with “with garden societies closing, course places going unfilled and nurseries shutting shop, it’s becoming quite urgent.”
That’s not to say that young and trendy gardeners don’t exist at all; but according to Wong, they prefer not to use the g-word to describe themselves. Alternative terms include “urban farmer” and “plant daddy”.
Wong argues that, as a term, ‘gardening’ is “loaded with cultural baggage”. So much so that it can suggest “an incredibly narrow way in which to garden and an even narrower sense of just who is allowed to participate.” Thus we must either make the word more “inclusive” or ditch it altogether.
It’s true that the etymology of ‘garden’ is derived from a root word meaning an enclosed space — from which we get other words like ‘yard’ and ‘court’ (and also the ‘-grad’ at the end of Slavic place-names like Leningrad). One might therefore conclude that anything with the sense of being walled-off must be exclusionary.
Except that’s not how gardening in the modern world operates. As a hobby it is extraordinarily open and generous. As an untalented amateur, I’ve had complete strangers coming up to say nice things about my green-fingered efforts — and offering me plants from their own gardens.
You can wander around just about any neighbourhood in this country and see an astonishing variety of gardening styles and plant choices. The idea that we’re somehow subject to “an incredibly narrow way in which to garden” is demonstrably wrong. Even at the most professional level, events like the Chelsea Flower Show and attractions like the Royal Parks are ablaze with creativity.
That said, gardening isn’t the ideal activity for those who crave instant gratification. As a pastime it requires patience and a tolerance for setbacks. It also ties one down to a particular patch of earth. Being quite literally rooted, it is inescapably conservative. So if anything is putting off the restless young, it is the very nature of growing plants. What it can’t be blamed on, however, is some snobbish insider-y culture.
The irony of Wong’s argument is that there are few things more culturally exclusive than taking a widely-used word or concept and problematising it. Thus a common-place idea — even one as basic as gardening — becomes yet another battleground in a culture war that most people never asked for.
I may be over-reacting here. The likelihood of such an uncontroversial word becoming contested territory does seem remote. Then again, ten years ago, we might have said the same of ‘woman’.
Of course, if the hipster botany geeks of North London prefer to call themselves ‘plant daddies’ or even ‘leaf-botherers’, then good for them. But for my part, I will continue to call myself a gardener — albeit an extremely bad one.