by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 30
August 2022
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07:00

The Guardian tries to cancel gardening

A writer claims that the term is loaded with cultural baggage
by Peter Franklin
An urban farmer

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. 

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Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
27 days ago

What, an article in the Guardian that criticises historic practIces of the British? Anyone would think they hated our country.

Michael Stanford
Michael Stanford
27 days ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Er…actually, they do

Christopher Peter
Christopher Peter
27 days ago

All words come from somewhere, and all therefore have in a sense some kind of history or “cultural baggage”. That’s what makes them interesting. To try, however, to find some problem with “gardening” smacks almost of desperation. And of course any proposed alternatives might become equally “problematic”, not to say inaccurate. “Urban farmer”? – but not everyone lives in an urban area. “Plant daddy?” – how, ex, patriarchal? – surprised the Guardian would approve – plus of course gardening can be more than plants.
Reminds me of when that Countryfile presenter opined that the countryside is “racist”. Such statements tend to tell us more about the person saying them than about the thing they think they’re talking about.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
27 days ago

The depressing part is how much these wing nuts seem to have infiltrated and influenced all areas of public policy, discourse and institutions.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
27 days ago

Yes, as Inigo Montoya said in “The Princess Bride”: “You keep saying that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Tony Abbott
Tony Abbott
27 days ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

No, it wasn’t Indigo Montoya who said that; it was the giant. Indigo said, “Hello, my name is Indigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
27 days ago
Reply to  Tony Abbott

Nope. Richard is correct. Montoya says it in response to Vizzini’s exclamation of inconceivable when the dread pirate Roberts climbs the cliff face.

Ben J
Ben J
27 days ago

As I never tire of pointing out, ‘Peppa Pig Magazine’ has a higher circulation than The Guardian. Of course, the paper is a bit of a force multiplier because of its popularity among opinion-formers of a certain stripe, but nonetheless it remains a bastion of utter stupidity 90% of the time.

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
27 days ago

Guardian writers live is some strange alternative reality to the rest of us. I wonder if Mr Wong has a new book coming out. You can usually rely on Mr Monbiot to come out with something ludicrous whenever he has a book to sell.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
26 days ago
Reply to  Steve Elliott

Indeed – just trying to up his social media hit rates.
If nonsense works then that’s okay – just follow the money for the simple explanation ….

Last edited 26 days ago by Ian Barton
David Bell
David Bell
27 days ago

They might consider that the name of their own wretched rag is problematic. The word “Guardian” sounds patronising and old fashioned. Guardian of what and of whom?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
27 days ago
Reply to  David Bell

I’ve often thought that too. I think the idea was to ‘guard’ the poor factory workers but these got replaced by affluent women and the sexually confused.

William Adams
William Adams
27 days ago
Reply to  David Bell

They firmly believe that they guard people’s morals (‘righthink’) and know what is best for us.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
27 days ago

I’d say a bigger reason more youngsters aren’t into gardening is because many can’t afford a home of their own, and as such aren’t going to spend time and effort to look after a garden they’re liable to be kicked out of at short notice

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
27 days ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

On the other hand, I lived in a shared house with a nice, mature garden when I was younger. We didn’t want to live in a midden and used to mow the lawn and trim the bushes back. Even grew a few bits of veg in pots (with limited success). We didn’t own it, but that didn’t mean we let it go to ruin; rather, a little effort and we were able to enjoy it.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
27 days ago

I’ve had a similar situation in the front yard of the little brownstone in Crown Heights, Brooklyn where I rent an apartment. My landlord didn’t object so I kept going. Pretty soon I had a lovely patch of green with all sorts of flowers and more pollinaters than you could shake a stick at. It’s literally alive; moving, changing, buzzing and chirping.
But the best part is the neighbors and passers-by who stop to chat, ask questions, express their appreciation, etc. The social urge, even the shallowest small-talk, is incredibly important to human thriving.

Ruud van Man
Ruud van Man
27 days ago

I congratulate you sir. My impression (and please correct me if I’m wrong) is that gardening is not as popular in the US as it is in the UK so I applaud your initiative. A well-tended garden or even just a few attractive pots brighten the world for everyone including casual passers-by.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
27 days ago

On the one hand:

  • The Guardian is a laughable publication and when anyone I know turns out to be a reader, I inwardly downgrade my estimation of their intelligence.
  • Wasn’t this James Wong fellow the one who was saying that English gardens were racist a couple of years ago? Mind-boggling…did he want the daisies to stop being quite so white in the name of diversity and political correctness or what?

On the other hand:

  • The word “gardening” does imply having a garden…and many in the younger generation today struggle to pay rent on a small apartment, never mind having a garden..or even a balcony for that matter.
  • I live in a small city apartment with no balcony or garden and satisfy my green-fingered urges by cultivating orchids (my babies!) and growing various things (cherry tomatoes, jalapeno peppers…I even planted an acorn in a pot once to see what would happen…nothing as it turns out) on the one free window ledge I have. Working with my own possibilities, like. I do not refer to this as “gardening” (which seems a trifle overdone under the circumstances), but “windowsill agriculture”. But I’m not getting my knickers in a diversity twist about it.
Last edited 27 days ago by Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
27 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

And if I might briefly suggest that the garden-less among us might look into foraging? In the age of pre-cut, pre-packaged carrots and other sillinesses of the modern age, one may have forgotten that nature is a bountiful garden. Go get your nettles for soup (if you know what a nettle looks like, there is very little that can go wrong here)! Elderflower for cordial! Just be very careful with mushrooms and suchlike. I’ve gone the full David Bellamy and love nothing more than to plunge off into the next best hedgerow in my cycling garb and Marigold gloves to see what goodness I can find.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
26 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

How long will it be until this gets called “wild shopping” ?

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
27 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I must offer my congratulations on your efforts. Once again, I have undertaken my annual attempt to grow herbs on the space between my sink and south-facing kitchen window. Once again, they have all died within a week of getting them home from the supermarket. I’m just compost-fingered, I guess.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
27 days ago

Do not give up! Herbs were always a disaster for me. You just need to find the plant that works for you and the conditions in your flat.

Lizzie J
Lizzie J
27 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Buy your herb pots from a garden centre not a supermarket. Thelatter are forced and so very hard to keep. South facing window isn’t ideal – put them in a well lit spot without direct sun. Good luck!

Anne Torr
Anne Torr
27 days ago

Most herbs we use in cooking at Mediterranean and so need sun and not to much water. Over-watering is often the reason home grown plants die so my mantra is treat them mean and keep them keen.

Samir Iker
Samir Iker
27 days ago

What I find mysterious is how this lot never turns their fire on cycling – predominantly young male, hence sexist, patriarchy, toxic masculinity blah blah.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
27 days ago
Reply to  Samir Iker

Just seen the front page of today’s print Grauniad and there’s some load of tripe (probably) about cycling being the new front in the culture war. I’m not sure if I have the will to investigate further. You also neglected to mention that it’s somewhat ‘pale’ at professional level.

Nicholas Rynn
Nicholas Rynn
27 days ago

I am deeply offended by the term “plant daddy”. How sexist.

Michael James
Michael James
27 days ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rynn

Perpetuate the joke by writing a quasi-serious letter to the Guardian complaining about it.

N Forster
N Forster
27 days ago

Viewing things from a “progressive” point of view is a curse for those infected by it. Think of it as a game. You have to start with the conclusion first: that if an idea is both popular and traditional (and Western) it must be wrong. Somehow evil. Rooted in an Imperial, racist, problematic past. Your task is not to question if it is or not, as you already know it is. Your task is to find out what that might be. 

This is all Mr Wong has done here. What a silly young man.
There are so many layers of foolishness and conceit to this way of thinking. I hope he grows out of it in time.

AC Harper
AC Harper
27 days ago

Perhaps the young, living in flats or tiny modern houses with hard standing for a car and a tiny ‘enclosed space’ have no way of indulging their horticultural emotions? They mostly move to larger properties later in their lives though.
I find the names ‘Guardian’ and ‘Observer’ somewhat paternalistic and colonial… perhaps James Wong could tilt at those windmills instead?

Peter B
Peter B
27 days ago

The Guardian – where real people go to invent imaginary problems – and then fail to solve them. So much easier than working on real problems.
Why is anyone surprised that a quite ordinary, “hands dirty” manual activity open to almost everyone has to be weaponised by these deluded class warriors to try to turn people against each other ?
It is almost as if such people are afflicted by some sort of mental condition.

Dominic A
Dominic A
27 days ago

From time to time – that’s an understatement. About three articles daily are self-parodies. Anyone noticed the current misery-porn over inflation? Apparently it is something we are trying to ‘survive’; one bemoaned ‘having to’ eat rice pudding cold, as she could not afford to heat it in the microwave (cost 0.3 pence) , another that he was going to have to switch his fridge off (which will undoubtedly increase his bills greatly as the fridge is rather useful for keeping food fresh etc) and another that she had taken to storing to excess hot water from her kettle in the thermos …. -basic good housekeeping measures such as boiling no more water than you need, not using unnecessary light bulbs, putting on a jumper, using a towel, rather than a hair dryer (after walking the rain!), hanging out your clothes to dry, etc are unacceptable, and cited as evidence of a crisis, a desperate plight. How will we survive!

Perhaps we could look at what we did for the entire period pre 1987, when energy costs were similarly high?

Mark Plunkett
Mark Plunkett
27 days ago
Reply to  Dominic A

Energy costs may have been similarly high, but disposable incomes were also much higher while many other expenses were much lower. All in all, energy costs still wouldn’t have put the same sort of strain on a person’s budget (particularly a younger one) as they do today.
That said, yes, the examples given are just ridiculous. We’ve entered a strange era where things people used to be embarrassed to acknowledge are now badges of pride (being a victim, being poor, mentally ill, etc.) while things that used to be seen as desirable, the sort of things people would lie about being even if they weren’t (wealthy, mentally healthy, etc.) are now things people try to distance themselves from.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting people should have been embarrassed of being mentally ill, just that they usually were. This particular shift isn’t a bad thing overall, but is still an example of one of the many ways good is now bad and bad is now good.
Nobody wants to be seen as having enough common sense to put on a sweater or to not overfill their kettle with water they don’t need to boil.

Last edited 27 days ago by [email protected]
Dominic A
Dominic A
27 days ago
Reply to  Mark Plunkett

“but disposable incomes were also much higher while many other expenses were much lower.”
When were you born?
DI has declined somewhat since 2008 (under 10%), but otherwise it was lower at any point before that (about 38% lower in 1997).

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
26 days ago
Reply to  Dominic A
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
27 days ago

Gardening? Is that not something that one pays others to do?

Michael Stanford
Michael Stanford
27 days ago

Only the Guardian or Observer could politicise gardening, probably the most peaceful and inclusive activities known to humanity

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
27 days ago

There’s a lot Wong with that article. I think he should be given garden leave.

Neil Cheshire
Neil Cheshire
27 days ago

Perhaps Mr.Wong’s problem can be solved by ‘decolonising’ gardening to sever its link with ‘white privilege’.

Alphonse Pfarti
Alphonse Pfarti
27 days ago

This does beg the question as to why young people who live in flats are a priority for our ‘celebrity gardeners’ and their ilk (Monty Don was blathering on about this last week, while probably alienating the very licence-fee-payers who actually watch him). I would assume that gardening broadcasting and indeed other gardening related media might be targeted in the main at people who have gardens, be they owner occupiers or renters (see my response elsewhere in this thread). Does this ‘exclude’ our hapless flat dweller who, like me, is content with a few low maintenance pot plants that can survive my horticultural hopelessness? Perhaps they prefer to live in a flat, without a garden to worry about. I don’t own a caravan, but I don’t feel excluded by broadcasting or magazines about the activity of caravanning.

Last edited 27 days ago by Al M
Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
27 days ago

Yes, its about time this subject was properly aired. In Germany in the 1930s Himmler established a secret regiment of the SS, the Erdgräbertruppen were an elite group of botanists and horticulturalists recruited from universities and blumengymnasium. Their job was to follow up infantry and plant rows of Edelweiss and Cornflowers in occupied territories. This subject was first raised by Peter Simple in the Way of the World column when he reported that Dr Heinz Kiosk admitted to being a member of the junior wing of the Erdgräbertruppen, der KindereggVolk. After the war Kiosk fled to Tibet where he was found by Simple. But no one took any notice. I quite agree with James Wong, well done.

Keith J
Keith J
27 days ago

I don’t understand where the problem is. Lots of young people in my town are involved in gardening or ‘urban farming’, and they are a very diverse bunch of youngsters. Maybe people just don’t notice them because, being in an urban area where outdoor space is limited, they are forced to undertake their horticultural activities up in the roof space under high intensity strip lighting. 

Roger Inkpen
Roger Inkpen
27 days ago

I’ve just read the article, and I suspect the headline is more about clickbait than a serious discussion about the term ‘gardening’.
The writer opines that not enough young people are getting into gardening, but then goes on to say how healthy online gardening communities are, which are mostly young people! Just because they give themselves names like ‘urban farmer’ or ‘crazy plant lady’ is just a case of them being creative.

Brett H
Brett H
27 days ago

Is this becoming a satire magazine?

Michael James
Michael James
27 days ago
Reply to  Brett H

Try writing a letter to the Guardian congratulating it on its brilliant satire.

William Reynolds
William Reynolds
27 days ago

Mr Wong is an Ambassador for Kew Gardens, where he was trained. It’s odd that he is silent about the archetypally colonialist nature of that institution.

Last edited 27 days ago by deepsouthdiary
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
27 days ago

Indeed Kew is full of cultural or at least botanical appropriation from foreign parts. At least the plants are pretty diverse.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
27 days ago

I think Wong just meant to say that “gardening” has a “granny” feel.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
27 days ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Exactly. When I read this: “At the heart of his concerns is an actual problem — which is that “few young people are interested in horticulture.” I wanted to ask: Just when were A LOT of young people interested in horticulture? The answer is never. I spend a lot of time gardening … that’s because I’m old. And I can afford it, because the mortgage is paid off.

Last edited 27 days ago by Russell Hamilton
Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
27 days ago

No need to despair over a lack of young gardeners. All our children seemed to develop an interest quite naturally once they reached the age of 30.

Aldo Maccione
Aldo Maccione
26 days ago

Guardian gonna Guardian

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
27 days ago

“Theory” doing what Theory does best.

Anne Torr
Anne Torr
27 days ago

The self-righteous Wong needs to look around at all the community initiatives on gardening and see places like Incredible Edible Todmorden for inspiring initiatives, instead of whining on a rag like Grauniad to those who think that the gardening pages are for advertising for someone to work in their own garden..

Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
26 days ago

He’s simply wong!

tom corrick
tom corrick
15 days ago

According to James Wong, ivy does not damage walls. Really ? I am a dry stone waller and can assure everyone (except Wong) that ivy wrecks both stone and brick walls. His column in the Observer is utter garbage. Every week.

Brian Hogan
Brian Hogan
2 days ago

The thing is, the self-parodic content appears to be quite effective as a means of steering the bourgeois left, which has historically tended to be pacifistic, into a kind of secular-evangelical support for militarism (against Putin, etc.). In fact, this appears to be its intent – to make indifference to foreign policy acceptable to so-called “progressives” – and (based on conversations with family and friends) it works.

Last edited 2 days ago by Brian Hogan