In contrast to sex, gardening offers us sensuality without messy embroilment or traumatic confrontation
A green thumb is sexier than a tongue stud; a flourishing allotment more coveted than a Notting Hill address. Garden centres have sprouted up and down the country; gardening shows proliferate on the box. What was only recently the hobby of secateur-wielding ladies in their sunset years has bloomed into a national pastime, a lifestyle choice with its own guru (Alan Titchmarsh), its own bible (Anna Pavord's The Tulip) and its own pin-up (Charley Dimmock).
Deep-rooted though it may be - think of Capability Brown and Gertrude Jekyll - the British love affair with gardening has never been more widespread. Irrespective of gender and geography, class and income, people are setting forth to seed, weed, prune and mow, trilling about the thrill of growing roses in dung and covering an unsightly wall with clematis. Climatic changes, increased pollution, the shrinking number of green spaces - no amount of obstacles can dampen the enthusiasm of the hoe-and-spade brigade.
Their passion is understandable: in a culture that arouses us with ubiquitous images of sex yet recoils from exchanging a peck on the cheek or patting a child on the head, gardening is the acceptable face of sensuality. In contrast to the potentially scarring and always confusing engagement of the sexes, gardening satisfies touch, smell and sight while remaining emotionally pristine. It's a perfect activity for the sentimentally constipated - no messy embroilment or traumatic confrontations, just weeds to pull and bushes to prune. You can still work up a sweat, get dirt under your fingernails and splatter mud on your legs - and all without articulating anything but a "buzz off" to an invading aphid.
It's the perfect affair: release without commitment. And no one can accuse you of selfishness: gardening is a utilitarian pursuit that generates oxygen and contributes to the aesthetic well-being of the nation. (And often supplies vegetables, healing herbs and tisanes as well.)
If, for many, organic has replaced orgasmic, some green thumbs also turn to their floral niche to find solace from the world at large - government sound-bites, bomb alerts and bulletins from the Balkans do not intrude. For gardeners, their plot of land is an extension of the once sacred home and hearth - now defiled by noisy gadgets, dysfunctional family quarrels and above all radio, telly and Internet commentators. What better escape from this madding crowd and their rapid pace than the lovingly tended flower bed and herbaceous borders that obey nature's rhythm and the gardener's hand?
The instant gratification afforded by other hobbies - think of that other newly fashionable pastime, cooking - is anathema to gardening: trees don't bear fruit and flowers don't bloom fast enough to give you a quick fix. Domesticating nature requires more patience than whipping up a blancmange - which explains why there is no place in gardening for the temperamental fireworks that regularly rock the masterchefs' kitchens.
Propriety, then, is respected; as is property. Whether it's just a handkerchief of green or an expanse of rolling acres, here is a corner of the earth gardeners can call their own, a patch of topsoil, worms and compost in which they can set down roots to find identity: I am what I grow. The green thumbs enjoy the security that comes from belonging to, and caring for, a particular place. By nurturing nature, they also enjoy a special relationship with what the rest of us now approach cautiously: ozone layers and freak weather changes have reminded us that nature truly is red in tooth and claw. For gardeners, though, nature is science writ small - familiar if not altogether comprehensible.
At ease with nature, self-contained, their feet planted solidly on the ground, gardeners are the best of the new crop of nineties amateurs.