How decking wipes out nature

Observations on gardens. By <strong>David Nicholson-Lord


Not far from where I live is a most peculiar street. Virtually every garden is the same. Polygons of paving alternate with horizontal screes of pebble and gravel. The odd lone rock or lump of statuary lends an air of ersatz mystery. Isolated evergreens stand to permanent attention in small and rigidly demarcated plots of exposed soil.

The provenance of these plots is Zen via Alan Titchmarsh and B&Q. Such gardens are a form of cultural infection and the chief source of it is the domestic make-over propaganda that now litters the peak evening viewing schedules.

There is a lunacy about the collective behaviour of Homo sapiens these days that makes you wonder whether we do not deserve to be fried or frozen in the climate apocalypse that scientists predict. During National Nest Box Week, starting 14 February, thousands of well-meaning householders will be encouraged to erect artificial crannies and crevices in gardens to replace the ones they have just obliterated in the pursuit of make-over. With one part of ourselves, we extirpate wild things. With another, we seek, not very successfully, to recreate them.

One reason for hard-surfacing gardens is the need for car parking. Another is low maintenance and "convenience", a tribute to the extraordinary introversion of contemporary human culture - of time-starved lives spent largely indoors. But with horticultural fashion, we're into different territory. Its most notorious exemplar is the spread of decking, virtually unknown in the UK until the late 1990s but now with sales worth more than £120m a year - a total predicted to grow to £400m within four years. And continue after that, one imagines, as the US timber decking market is worth $6bn a year.

What is its appeal? Like its rival, the patio, decking offers us an "outdoor room": in other words, urbanisation via the back door. It is, its manufacturers assure us, the "new lawn" - and remember here that the lawnmower was invented by a Victorian textile designer. It is, above all, tidy. That, according to a survey by B&Q, is the second most important quality that people desire of their neighbours' gardens (the first is that they should be invisible).

All this suggests an anally retentive civilisation which cannot see nature other than in its own image and wishes to banish risk and uncertainty to the far horizons. (It then disappears on backpacking rainforest eco-trips and round-the-world yachting ego-trips in search of risk, but that's another story.) It also suggests an ecologically illiterate culture which cannot see the damage its paving and decking are doing, not only to the microfauna that birds and animals depend on, but to the drainage systems of a globally warmed and therefore stormier world. By hard-surfacing our urban areas, for example, we create the ideal conditions for flash floods and sewage overflows.

Why do the deckers, pavers and garden designers not tell us these things? Let's turn the question on its head. How many TV programmes or magazine articles does it take to tell people to leave their gardens alone? Not many, is the answer - and so there wouldn't be much scope for ads, sponsorship deals or celebrity spin-offs either. And you probably wouldn't sell many nest boxes - we'd have the nooks and crannies for free. There may not be much money in nature by itself, but there are small fortunes to be made out of messing it up.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2005 issue of the New Statesman, The nuclear fat is in the fire