In gardening, the pursuit of perfection is fruitless; we should embrace nature’s wonkiness

If I have learnt anything in 40 years of writing about horticulture, it's that “perfect” produce is a meaningless ideal that benefits no one. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

This spring marks 40 years since I published my first gardening book. Many dozens more followed, together with thousands of articles in newspapers and magazines. Throughout, my purpose has been to encourage others to share my love of, and enthusiasm for, gardens and plants in all their multiplicity of manifestations. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than when I am approached by someone – commonly many years after the event – who tells me I gave them the inspiration to take up gardening, or that I have imbued them with a love of plants and the wider wild world.

Much of my professional life has been spent communicating with gardeners through the written or spoken word, and always, my guiding principle has been to explain the why, as well as the how. I have never, I hope, preached at gardeners and potential gardeners, never told them what they must do, and in my talks and lectures I have encouraged the audience to ask questions, and told them never to be embarrassed at what they might perceive to be ignorance. For none of us – no gardening expert, no experienced gardener – can ever know everything, and would be foolish ever to claim they did. We all make mistakes, we all ask what may seem to be naive questions, and I have often said the way to learn how to garden is to do it.

[See also: Some look to their calendars for the start of spring – but I see it in a clump of yellow primulas]

I bristle still when I see books or magazine features telling readers how to “create the perfect lawn”, grow “perfect vegetables” or the “perfect rose”. What is this “perfect lawn” that is dangled so tantalisingly before us in advertisements for fertiliser, weed killer and moss controls?  And what are these apparently beguiling “perfect” vegetables promised to us if we buy this or that company’s seeds, or follow this or that gardening expert’s guidance? I have never really been sure, but it seems to be yet one more facet of what I call cosmetic horticulture, a state of unattainable utopia that can be laid largely at the feet of the modern supermarket. I am old enough to remember when vegetables and fruit (vegetables and fruit, that is, we had not grown ourselves) were delivered to our house by a rustic soul named Jack who toured the village streets with his horse and cart. And my word, how imperfect yet full of flavour they were. As evidence of their freshness, they were generally accompanied by a reasonable helping of fine Derbyshire soil – which cynics might say we paid for, because everything was sold by weight.

[See also: Why a fine “tilth” – though it may be hard to define – is essential for successful seed sowing]

Full marks to Asda, the first supermarket, I believe, to have recognised that the notion of “perfect” produce is a meaningless ideal that benefits no one – growers, retailers or consumers – and begun to sell a range of so-called “wonky” fruit and vegetables. To my mind, it should extend it and sell wonky everything. I feel disappointed if all my kitchen garden produce does not have a degree of wonkiness that confirms its healthy, chemical-free origins.

So this year, as I begin to write book number 64, and this week, as I now complete gardening article number 5,000-and-something, I hope I may continue simultaneously to inspire my readers, encourage them to garden and know that whatever they do in their own gardening lives, there is seldom any action that is rigidly right or wrong. And I certainly ask them to be reassured that no matter what anyone tells them, they will never achieve “perfect” results because, in gardening, such things simply do not, should not, cannot exist. 

Next week: John Burnside on nature

This article appears in the 12 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Without total change Labour will die

Free trial CSS