Noel Kingsbury on “Girly Gardens – or not?”

February 25, 2008

in Uncategorized

Comments on Bridget Rosewell’s article by Noel Kingsbury

Girly Gardens…some thoughts on gender…and a plea for gorgeousness

I’ve had a look at the Ann Pearce garden, and for I’m afraid me it sums up so much of what I really hate about modern garden design – subjectively I found it sterile and unfeeling; objectively unsustainable and wildlife-unfriendly. Sorry, I hate saying this about people’s work, but we are meant to be engaged in a debate here, and I am just going to say what I think. Give me a girly garden full of flowers. Or for that matter an old guy with loads of petunias and French marigolds at 330mm intervals. Or a load of weeds.

I think I speak for a lot of people who are fed up with modernism and minimalism. We want ornamentation, detail, complexity, and BEAUTY!

It is interesting to see the topic of gender and gardens appear – it is rarely discussed, and yet when it is, gardeners find so much to talk about! Benedict’s comments about gardening partnerships I would largely agree with – so often in my work as a gardening journalist I have interviewed couples; and so often the Sackville-West and Nicolson complementarity is repeated – the men do the macro planning and the hard landscaping and the women the planting. How do gay couples manage? It would be interesting to know.

More crucially though, what interests me, in relationship to girly gardens and sterile slabs of decking/paving/anything other than grass, is how the garden tends to be claimed as male space or female space; how this changes over time, and between cultures. And at the moment I think gardening is in the middle of a male backlash, which some might want to link to wider issues of a male backlash …. look at all those sub-porn ‘men’s magazines’, ‘lad’ culture etc. The issues are complex and cross-cutting, and can be quite complex to tease apart. Here are my current thoughts:

Gardening in Britain in previous generations was actually quite male dominated – but a lot of this was about flower growing. My father (miner’s son, South Wales, engineering  worker) grew flowers. Lots of working class men did: dahlias, sweet peas, delphiniums, chyrsanths. What I find sad is that this culture of male flower-growing has really begun to die out. In its place, gardens tended to became more female spaces – I now find that so many of my audiences as a lecturer and teacher are  all-female groups, or at least, that the chaps are jolly thin on the ground. To a very large extent these women are interested in growing plants, or using plants and designing with them. I find the absence of men from the joys, the passions, and the comradeship of these garden groups frankly depressing.

Much of the current media discourse about garden design is about hard landscaping. I heard Joe Swift recently argue that gardening should be about construction. So much decking, and paving, and lying of concrete, and building walls (of stone, logs, railway sleepers, gabions). All of this uses resources, involves transport miles, all it reduces sustainability. All of it is also chap stuff. Chaps, we have more or less decided, like to design like this (although as we note, some women do as well), and you certainly need chaps to build most of it. Promoting gardens as construction sites is a great way for chaps who don’t like prissy flowers, and would rather talk about clean lines than beauty, to reclaim gardens as male spaces.

Most of the gardening public, male and female, want gardens to be spaces for plants. An awful lot of us, ditto male and female, like gardens to be what the minimalist/modernists actually despise – full of flowers. It is a rare designer, Oudolf and Bradley-Hole, are amongst the few, who seem to be able to bridge the divide. Failing someone like them, I’d rather go for girly gorgeousness any day.

Noel Kingsbury

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