Photo c/o David Lynham

Photo c/o David Lynham

Lifestyle Gardening? No Thanks!

Friends and colleagues are often surprised by my attitude towards Reality TV gardening shows- for aren’t they are encouraging the cathode-ray addled masses to get outdoors, get their hands dirty and get growing- surely no bad thing? Well I’m afraid I’m unconvinced. Basically they are just another variation on the endless slew of ‘makeover’ programs that tell us what to eat, what to wear and how to live. You know the kind of thing- invariably they feature an host of celebrities gurning into the camera whilst they slap down the decking, exotic ornamentals and water features as a ‘surprise’ for some gormless householder while they’d just popped down the shop to buy a paper or something. If these punters couldn’t keep their garden in order when it was just a patch of lawn with a rabbit hutch and a kid’s tricycle on it, how do they hope to cope once its converted into a high maintenance, Corporate Garden Centre-dependant mini-version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon???

My vision of the urban garden is a place where we can begin to develop self-reliance, growing useful crops such as fruit, vegetables and herbs by implementing permaculture techniques and methods. The difference between the permaculture garden and its more ‘conventional’ counterpart is basically to do with design- or at least, an approach towards design. Of course, ‘design’ is very much addressed by the ‘lifestyle’ shows. However this tends to be focused purely in terms of aesthetics and fashion- what colours and shapes go well together this year, where best to place that decking or water feature to impress the neighbours, how to avoid those plants and flowers that are just so passé… It’s also an exclusive and top-down approach. We the viewers, as well as their clients in TV land, simply sit back and gawp as open mouthed passive consumers whilst ‘The Experts’ dazzle us with their skills, knowledge and witty banter.

Permaculture design on the other hand is more about building up a thorough and intimate understanding of both your garden (its aspect, soil type, wind and rainfall patterns, what plants or creatures share it with you, etc) and what you actually want from it. Therefore my first piece of practical advice to any gardener that would prefer to work with rather than against nature is simply to Slow Down- “Don’t just do something- sit there”. Many permaculturists recommend a non-intervening observation period of at least twelve months. In reality this isn’t always practical as we usually need (or want!) to obtain some kind of a yield before this, and you might well fancy cultivating at least part of your plot in order to get in a few crops of spuds, onions, carrots, etc. However the ‘leave it a year’ rule is certainly good advice to follow before making any changes that may be difficult to reverse, such as any major landscaping, pond creation, tree and hedge planting or building permanent structures like sheds and greenhouses.

By practising ‘thoughtful inaction’ rather than the frantic activity promoted by the makeover shows you will gain a good solid grounding regarding the relationship between you, your garden, it’s limitations and it’s assets. In the long term such insights will be essential if you are to develop a truly sustainable and integrated landscape that can produce food, medicines, seeds (for propagation or sharing out with others- make your plot a community hub!), craft and building materials, fibres, dyes, and much more.

This certainly isn’t to say that productive landscapes should be about visually dull utilitarianism. Form follows function, and all the permaculture gardens I’ve ever seen are places of great beauty. But this kind of beauty flows from the relationships to be found in natural eco-systems, at once elegant in their simplicity, yet at the same time diverse in their complexity. Furthermore, a well-designed permaculture garden has many other ‘uses’ beyond simply ‘growing stuff’- play area (for kids or adults…), spiritual retreat, open-air art gallery, wildlife sanctuary, tree nursery, nattering with the neighbours, yoga and mediation space, bio-diversity storehouse or somewhere to dry your washing.

Above all, the permaculture garden should be somewhere for relaxation and enjoyment, not yet another place to get hung up about whether or not you are ‘doing it right’ or meeting others’ expectations. For me, there’s nothing like our small urban garden on a summer’s afternoon. The bushes and trees are literally dripping with grapes, cherries, apples, loganberries, blackcurrants, strawberries and raspberries, whilst burnet, sorrel, rocket, mints, Welsh and tree onions, chives, lovage, lettuces, day lilies, marigolds, poppies and other edible leaves and flowers fill the salad beds. Buddleia and evening primroses scent the warm air and frogs and newts plop into the pond. Blue tits search the trees for bugs whilst starlings polish off the cherries that are out of human reach. Cuban or dub grooves drift from the open kitchen window and I’m under the shade of the quince tree in a deck chair with a case of fine local beer and a good book- truly the embodiment of ‘the designer as a recliner’, and much better than watching the telly any day…

Graham Burnett, 2005. This article originally appeared in ‘The Idler’,