Sarah Coles



                                                Downsides of Gardening 

If you don’t employ a gardener, your garden necessitates continuous toil.  Winter may provide a brief and welcome break, but there’s no such thing as sustainable gardening.  A truly sustainable garden which did its own thing would have little but ground elder, brambles and bindweed.  Even the plantless gravel gardens of Japan require constant raking and the removal of weeds which appear (where from?) with depressing inevitability.  Your designer may slave over the plans, your builder sort out paths, walls and levels, your contractor order in shrubs and trees and get them planted, and finally leave you with their splendid creation. But it won’t stay that way.  It will require maintenance, however minimal.

There’s mud.  Dirt.  Mess.  Frost zapping fresh growth in spring.  Plants continually  dying.  Constant rain.  Storms flattening borders.  Slugs.  Aphids.  Weeds.  Lily beetles.  Toil.  All plants live, and die.  The gardener’s work is never done.  It’s not surprising some people enjoy visiting gardens but hate gardening.  Not everyone wants to work in the cold and the wet, or find their roses grey with mildew, their broad beans clogged with blackfly, or the buds of their fruit tree ravaged by bullfinches.

Plants have evolved vicious and poisonous protections to stop themselves being eaten to death.  We have thorns on roses and brambles which tear at skin.  Skin irritation from euphorbia, aconites and other plants too many to list.  The danger of children eating poisonous berries such as yew, laburnum, holly and scores more.  Colour is no indication of edibility.

Accidents.  Harmful bacteria in the soil causing tetanus and sepsis.   Rusty nails.  Electrocution caused by sawing through power cables.  Backache caused by digging and other repetitive tasks.  Torn filthy nails.  Hands, even when washed, ingrained with soil.

Deafness from power tools.  Mowers, chain saws and strimmers with a noise range between 80 and 105 decibels can damage hearing.  To avoid this wear ear protectors.

Many plants in the garden are poisonous, not only laburnum and yew, but rhododendrons, hydrangeas, foxgloves, lily of the valley, daffodils, monkshood and many more.  It’s not surprising.  These plants have evolved to avoid being eaten to extinction.

Are plants our friends?  Plants can live without us, but we cannot live without them.  We need food, and air.  We may feel in control, but in fact plants are farming us.  Leaves photosynthesize, using the sun’s energy to convert carbon dioxide and water into carbohydrates and the oxygen we need to breathe, until we eventually die, decomposing into something fit for their consumption.

Many loathe gardening.  ‘I wish Prince Charles, Monty Don and gardening fascists everywhere would stop telling us about how good gardening is for our mental health,’ writes the Times critic Kevin Maher who would ‘be quite happy to cover the place with AstroTurf.  [These people’s claims]’ he says, ‘are starting to feel like passive-aggressive bullying.  Some of us don’t get gardening and see it as a deeply futile act of prettification.  All this nonsense about how getting in there among the weeds and planting and pruning and clipping and trimming is vital for our mental wellbeing during stressful times?  Well, it’s enough to drive you mad’.  Another time he writes, ‘I simply struggle with the pointlessness of growing flowers that die almost as soon as they bloom.  I understand the poetry of it, obviously, and the metaphorical significance, but it’s such a waste of time.  Dig, dig, plant, grow, die’.   He might be a depressive talking about life.

Philosopher Jean Paul Sartre went one further.  He was disgusted by what he saw as the pointless superfluity of vegetable growth, its ‘soft, monstrous masses in disorder’.  It was the meaningless of it all!  In Nausea he’s in a park where a chestnut tree presses against his eyes.  ‘Green rust covered it half way up; the bark, black and blistered, looked like boiled leather.  The soft sound of the water in the Masqueret Fountain flowed into my ears and made a nest there, filling them with sighs; my nostrils overflowed with the green, putrid smell.’  He concludes, don’t leave towns.  ‘If you venture too far, you come to the Vegetation Belt.  The Vegetation has crawled for mile after mile towards the towns.  It is waiting.  When the town dies, the Vegetation will invade it, it will clamber over the stones, it will grip them, search them, burst them open with its long black pincers; it will bind the green holes and hang its green paws everywhere.  You must never go out alone into that great mass of hair waiting at the gates: you must let it undulate and crack all by itself.’

Maybe there’s something uniquely French in this shudder at the unruliness of plants.  French gardeners need to keep all vegetation under strict control – think of a garden like Versailles where even the shoots of trees are trained rather than allowed sprout as they wish.  Flowers, the epitome of life, charm, youth and beauty?  Charles Baudelaire can hardly have thought so, naming his best known volume poetry Les Fleurs du Mal.  His flowers reek of decadence and rot, and the strong whiff of white lilies past their prime.  Heady stuff, even so.

But Sartre is correct.  Long term, nature reigns supreme over our gardens, our houses and our civilisations – think of Cambodia’s Ankor Wat, a city with its vast stones garlanded by trees and creepers, its buildings long abandoned, its lakes clogged, or Mayan temples in Mexico, or abandoned railway lines blooming with rosebay willow herb.  This may be what William Blake meant when he wrote of nature’s ‘cruel holiness’.  We are all part of a living throbbing world, here to assemble our momentary dreams, and if a garden teaches anything, it is humility.  If we look beyond, we see the whole world as our garden.


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