Green fingers

The net flourished only when we ditched the "walled garden" approach

Two weekends ago my reserve finally broke. As the sun came out for the almost entirely predictable Indian summer, I could find no other excuses not to tackle the garden. A rambling expanse that would not look out of place in a fairy tale (surrounding a castle where a sleeping princess is held captive, that is), my garden is bigger than my flat. Only a fool would let such prime real estate go to rot.

But I am no gardener. I have marvelled at the knowledge of my mother, and other mothers, as they have toured me round the various gardens I have been lucky enough to live beside during my lifetime, pointing out the flowers from the weeds, letting me know the complicated rituals that would care for, or take care of, each one respectively. Nothing ever sank in. Any knowledge passed down to me about gardening has always fallen on stony ground.

So I googled "gardening" and . . . my goodness. The first result is the BBC gardening pages. On them I am invited to make my own profile, where I store the plants I want to grow and the techniques I will use ("prune a rambling rose"; "make a container herb garden"). In return, the site rewards me with a custom-built garden diary, which gives me tasks to do as the seasons go by, and a place to store photos of my developing garden. The Royal Horticultural Society website is the second Google hit, where I can search for plants according to the exact conditions of my humble plot. Further down the search results I find forums of garden enthusiasts, on hand to answer questions on any topic.

"Girl finds useful information on internet" is hardly headline news, I know. But it reminded me of a forgotten truth. Back when America Online (now AOL) first offered web services in the 1990s, it took what was later dubbed a "walled garden" approach - providing an artificially cultivated information environment, separated off from the rugged, "natural" environment of a truly grass-roots web by impenetrable walls. If you wanted to get content out to AOL customers, you had to be approved by AOL - and only a few professional content creators bothered doing that. It wasn't until the barriers to putting content online came down that the web truly took off.

Gardening is good online because, like cookery, it relies on folk knowledge - knowledge that is in the public domain. When it comes to gardening, no information is proprietary. Unlike, say, the latest Britney Spears comeback single, what we know about cultivating plants, we have known for generations and can share freely. Information about gardening shows the peer-to-peer internet at its most fertile.

Being able to learn from the wealth of information about gardening other people have put online has changed my prospects as a gardener. Two weekends later, and not only is my rose immaculate, my autumn bulbs are getting cosy under newly turned beds.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble ahead: the crises facing Gordon Brown