Gardening in the Wilderness: do we need a revolution in the garden? by Lucy Masters

December 10, 2013

in Articles, Events, General Interest, Suppers

Suppers are back! Well – one is, thanks to the effort and initiative of Lucy Masters, who wrote this piece to introduce the debate. And Chris Young, editor of RHS The Garden, who will be chairing it for us! Thanks Chris.

This time we will not only have the discussion at the supper, but, bearing in mind that not everyone is within reach of London, you can join in, in the comments here. Or organise a thinkingardens supper somewhere else? Bristol? Manchester? Edinburgh? USA? Think about it – they are great fun. Good food, drink and a little socialising – and a garden dedicated discussion. What better way to brighten up winter’s gloom?

This is, sadly, a truly relevant discussion at a time when the BBC are inviting us to revive gardening by wheeling out all the old faithful presenters and all the old faithful garden features complete with the usual jolly music.

This thinkingardens supper will take place in London on the 5th February 2014. Cost will be £30 for a starter, main course, and a bottle of wine, payable on booking. Discussion free…To book contact me –

Meanwhile – the discussion starts here:

Anne Wareham, editor

(Apologies for picture quality – taken under less than ideal conditions at previous thinkingardens suppers…)

thinkingardens supper copyright Anne Wareham

Spot the famous faces…

Lucy Masters:

What can we do?

Gardening is stuck. It’s traditional, conservative and doggedly follows the same paths it has for decades. It’s seen as old and fusty, both in terms of its practice and its practitioners. A recent RHS poll found that almost 70 per cent of 18-year-olds questioned believe horticulture is for ‘drop outs’. The question of the moment is: What can be done to encourage, inspire, even just connect with today’s youth?

In response the RHS has made a series of films under the #Ilovemyjob in which ‘young trailblazers in horticulture’ talk to the camera. I was astounded by this set of videos. For a start everyone is white – isn’t that just shocking? Secondly, a trailblazer is one that blazes a trail – a pioneer. As lovely as I am sure all these young people are, they are just doing the same old things. If they were trailblazers then they would, by definition, be doing something different.

Ron Finley with his food growing revolution on the streets of South Central in LA is trailblazing. There, he is engaging in a whole new dialogue about gardening and society. (Video: here -really worth 10 minutes of anyones’ time.)

Or what about vertical gardens? They are trail blazing. As more and more people live squashed in cities, this is an extremely clever – revolutionary – way of greening of our urban landscape.


Equally, I was amazed that on the one hand there is a cry of ‘where is the youth?’ and on the other Alan Titchmarsh is replaced by Monty Don as the lead presenter of the flagship BBC RHS Chelsea program. So, one middle-aged white man just replaces another. I understand that not everyone who is young is innovative, and not everyone who is old is traditionalist. Piet Oudolf, for example, is 68 and he’s still a revolutionary. I don’t want to dismiss the established voices but in order to engage a new generation there may need to be something different once in a while. Horticultural can appear very one dimensional.

What can be done then?

Firstly, I think we need to change the parameters of what we mean when we talk about gardening. It can’t continue to just be limited to back gardens and borders. We need to include the guerilla and other more ecological and social aspects of gardening. This might be a way of engaging all those that don’t have a garden.

Why doesn’t the RHS set up it’s own Reith lectures with really interesting, cutting edge debates? It could start with one based on a Ron Finley quote:-‘Is gardening is the most therapeutic and defiant act you can do, especially in the inner city?’ I don’t want to just knock the RHS or to put all the responsibility on to its shoulders. However, they are the most well respected and visible organisation in horticulture and with that comes pressure and responsibility. I think as our figurehead the RHS needs to take its place at the very forefront of change rather than consistently appearing  conservative and old fashioned.

I also think it is incumbent on magazines and television program makers to engage in a wider debate than just what plants are best grown in a container or great vintage looks for your garden. It’s dull and safe. Not all these aspects of the magazines and programs should be lost, only just that there should be other, more challenging, stuff too. (The RHS magazine “The Garden” shows how here. ed.)

thinkingardens supper copyright Anne Wareham


The second tactic is to find a garden messiah as a force and focus of change, as a means of elevating gardening out from the doldrums of domesticity. A means of showing creatives of all ages that gardening doesn’t have to be for drop outs, but can be serious. I don’t mean boring, I mean culturally significant and relevant. I think gardening should be considered art but in order for that to be recognised it needs an artist as a figurehead.

The debate about garden as art has been rumbling along for ages. The trouble is, horticulture doesn’t have the language or the confidence to discuss itself in these terms. I have read many reviews that talk about a garden as art but none has done more than say ‘this garden is a work of art.’

thinkingardens supper copyright Anne Wareham

Michael Balston declaring ‘no turds, no alligators’

The interesting thing is that we already have a superb garden artist in Piet Oudolf. His work is clearly painterly and it has, for me, an emotional element. Below is an excellent quote from Tom Stuart-Smith writing in The Telegraph:-

“Oudolf told me recently how he works for months on these over the winter, in almost solitary confinement, and I am struck by the parallel between these drawings and the musical scores of some great orchestral colourist such as Debussy, where the complexity of the music can barely be contained on the page. The composer knows exactly the impact on the orchestral texture, for example, of introducing a few notes on the bassoon here, just as Oudolf knows the effect of adding another plant.”

Or here, Dan Pearson writing in The Guardian:-

’Planting: A New Perspective’ – The premise of the book is based on the deconstruction of his plantings, which Oudolf describes as “a complicated layering of seasonality, energy, endurance and reward – both before, during and after flowering”. Oudolf believes that his work has intellectual depth, which it does in that it is beautifully thought through on all these levels, but it is also about a feeling. And this is why it has touched so many people.”

thinkingardens supper copyright Anne Wareham

Rosy glow… how did that happen?

So clearly he is understood by many to be an artist. How then does horticulture disseminate this idea to give it strength and reinvigorate gardening so it is understood to be more than just doing Mrs Dodders garden down in Chertsey?

I understand that I have posed lots of questions and criticised much but this isn’t meant to be a droning moan of discontent. I believe that out of crisis can spring hope and change. I really care about gardening and I care that it has a future, but the statistic show it is in decline. At a time when the world needs more gardeners, in all possible shapes, sizes and colours, what can we do to help?

Lucy Masters  website and blog

lucy masters portrait


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