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31 May 1999

May the Ground Force be with you

In our national passion for gardening, Michael Leapman finds a metaphor for Blair's new Britain

By Michael Leapman

Looking back, we should have detected the early signs. Gardening programmes on TV began to aspire to something more glamorous than filling the celery trench with old newspapers and putting yoghurt cartons around the tomatoes. A glossy magazine, Gardens Illustrated, hit the bookstands, proving that not all garden publications need a pack of marigold seeds on the cover. Garden design schools cropped up everywhere, and their alumni advertised their pricey services in the neighbourhood magazines and newsagents’ windows of upmarket suburbs.

“New gardening” has arrived in new Britain. Our back gardens, for years the place to hang out the washing and let doggie do doodoos, have become style statements, as this week’s Chelsea Flower Show confirms. The opinion-forming newspapers, conscious of their responsibilities as fashion leaders, led the way. If the Daily Telegraph‘s show garden was truly, as it claimed, the prototype for the 21st century, then any remaining cosy lawns surrounded by wallflowers, with a goldfish pond at the far end, will be replaced before long by high-tech steel structures, masts and booms supporting sail-like canvas canopies. The pond will become a complex canal on three levels, the whole setting lit with power from solar panels.

If this is indeed the coming trend, I suspect that the Telegraph‘s readers, still coming to terms with the electric lawnmower, will have to be dead-headed before they fall in with it. They are more likely to agree with Sir Roy Strong, whom I bumped into at the press preview and who declared trenchantly: “It’s a long time since I’ve seen such a wealth of tastelessness and vulgarity in one place.” Not since last year’s show, at any rate.

Meanwhile Sir Terence Conran, designing a garden for the Evening Standard , had gone to work on the vegetable plot. Placing our leeks, cabbages and cauliflowers in their traditional neat rows has been naff for a while now: we are supposed to arrange them harmoniously in a potager, so exquisite that we dare not do anything so vulgar as pluck even a lettuce leaf to eat. Outside a glass-walled kitchen, Conran created what he puzzlingly called “a mini Villandry or Padua Botanic Garden”. The botanic garden at Padua, the first in Europe, was established in 1545, and Villandry not much later; so it would be a surprise if they had featured the galvanised metal planters that dominate Conran’s fantasy.

Metal is big this year. Even at Columbia Road, the Sunday plant market in London’s East End that has always championed the “old gardening” – busy Lizzies and rainbow-hued pansies by the boxful – you can now buy those slim galvanised pots that only a couple of years ago the top garden designers were having made to order at bespoke foundries. In the Express‘s “Horti-couture Garden”, “where gardening and fashion meet”, a yew hedge was caged in a metal grid so that you could stand on top of it – or even lie down, as an inadequately clad model was made to do for the photographers.

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With its eccentricity and lack of focus, this garden neatly reflected Rosie Boycott and her aspirational but floundering newspaper. Alongside the hedge was a path made of rusting steel washers, with a border of orange flowers to tone in with the rust. Beyond it was an area of cottage garden plants billowing in long grass; for this was one of several show gardens that tried to incorporate two conflicting trends of current design. The first is the stylised, contrived layout, where plants cede priority to structure. A wildflower meadow, by contrast, is supposed to reflect our environmental concerns and take us back to nature.

The attempt to combine these two essentially incompatible concepts is a metaphor for modern British attitudes in areas beyond gardening. It may be a coincidence that the advent of the fashion garden coincided with the rise of new Labour, but it is tempting to link them. Formal gardening, like Blairism, is about control, about bending nature to your desires and using metal, concrete and containers to keep it in place. Wild gardening stems from nostalgia for the halcyon summer days of childhood, when we romped amid butterflies and songbirds while our progressive parents lay in the long grass dreaming up blueprints for the coming social revolution. The Blairs, I seem to remember, paved over their Islington garden before they moved. Ken Livingstone welcomes frogs to his pond in Brent, and would be as likely to lay a path of rusting steel as to breed genetically modified newts.

Choosing between order and nature is a recurring theme of garden history, given its most dramatic expression when Capability Brown ripped up scores of formal parterres in the 18th century and replaced them with naturalistic landscapes. It is a dilemma paralleled in many aspects of modern life. Take the choice of Poet Laureate. Andrew Motion was the safe, controlled option, the equivalent of the clipped lawn offset by neat paths and discreet statuary, but perhaps with the occasional dramatic surprise in the flower borders – a tall scarlet kniphofia, say, or a giant gunnera. The untamed wildlife tendency, where strange weeds grow in a lush setting, would include such as Benjamin Zephaniah: if only Blair could have combined the two, as the Express garden tried to do.

The Chelsea wildflower boom began about five years ago, when the show judges, in a burst of what they saw as political correctness, began giving top awards to gardens that looked as if they had been carved straight out of a sandy cove or grassy meadow and brought unaltered to the show ground. I have seen few such in real life. A wild garden looks a bit of a mess, and that is the last thing most of us want behind the house.

A more accurate portrayal of new Britain’s ideal garden comes from Ground Force, the phenomenally successful TV make-over series that has regularly attracted around ten million viewers since it moved from BBC2 to BBC1. The programme emphasises structure rather than planting. The format requires one spouse to be sent away from the house for a weekend while the other brings in the Ground Force team to transform what was usually an amiable, lounger-friendly patch of lawn into a nightmarish layout of paths, ponds and fountains interspersed with the odd fashionable shrub and – always – yard upon yard of decking, the ultimate cliche of the new gardening. At Chelsea, there was more decking than on the Titanic. On preview day Charlie Dimmock, one of the Ground Force presenters and the hot new celebrity of green-fingered TV, popped up all over the place. Commentators ascribe her popularity to her uncupped bosoms, but I think men just love to see women heaving large lumps of concrete about.

Writers about Chelsea, with more than half an eye on the Charlie phenomenon, have been telling us repeatedly that gardening is the new sex. (Conran seems to agree, admitting to the Standard‘s magazine: “The things I look forward to with extreme passion are the first broad beans and the first peas.”) The metaphor does not quite work, though, and not just because it implies that there was something wrong with the old sex. It would be more apt, if a bit pedestrian, to call gardening the new football. Our national winter sport has succeeded spectacularly in shedding its cloth-cap associations and persuading the young and wealthy to part with unbelievable sums of money for Premier League season tickets.

Gardening is in the throes of a comparable transformation. That is what motivated Channel 4 when it outbid the poor old BBC last year for TV rights to the Chelsea show – a few months before it stole that other BBC standby, Test match cricket, whose ongoing image make-over has so far been less successful. When social historians come to write the story of how gardening, Cinderella-like, changed from dowdy to modish, they may see Channel 4’s Chelsea coup as a decisive landmark. It was celebrated in the show marquee by Birmingham City Council, who combined new gardening with old by reproducing Channel 4’s up-to-the-minute logo in carpet bedding, of the kind that used to be de rigueur for floral clocks at the seaside.

Another sign of the way things are going was this month’s launch of New Eden, a bimonthly magazine devoted to what its publishers call the “funky” side of gardening. It certainly looks of the moment, but the bulk of the text has little to distinguish it from other gardening mags. The familiar, bankable names are there – Christopher Lloyd, John Brookes, Stephen Anderton, Joy Larkcom – writing familiar, bankable stuff: “Gardening only comes into our lives when we find ourselves the owner of our first house . . . Colour is the magical ingredient in salads . . . Decide what plants you like, how you want the garden to look and the mood you want to create . . . “

Funkiness manages to break out once or twice, as in a feature called “My shed and I” and descriptions of must-have gizmos such as a garden chair consisting of a steel frame covered with turf: don’t sit down right after watering it. It is as though Amateur Gardening had been grafted on to Hello! to produce a magazine where presentation takes precedence over content: just perfect, then, for the new gardener in the new Britain.

As someone who came out as a sod-turner when it was barely socially acceptable to confess to the vice, it would be churlish of me not to feel gratified that today my proclivity puts me at the centre of a fashionable social tendency. But we who commune regularly with the world of plants are by nature pessimists, ripened by disappointment, too wise to assume that things can only get better. If, in the next few years, the advance of style gardening comes to a juddering halt, I will tell you why: at the end of any honeymoon period – matrimonial, political or horticultural – comes the time when pleasurable aspiration is superseded by harsh reality; a moment that sorts out the dilettante from the truly committed.

What I mean is that unless you are going to cover your garden entirely with decking, galvanised metal and rusty washers, you eventually have to go out and get your hands dirty.

Mind you, sex is a fairly grubby business, too.

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