I can't fully describe how deeply I’ve fallen in love with gardening since I first bought a pot and some compost 3 years ago. I’ve moved from a few pots, to an allotment, to being able to design a garden of my own and the more that I garden, the more that I learn about the benefits to my wellbeing, but also that it’s both a creative and political practice.
Why do I garden?
I love everything about gardening aside from slugs, clearing up and bending down. I fell in
love very quickly, and learnt I love sticking my hands in mud and getting stuck in. One of the things I didn’t expect was to look forward to unexpected sensory things, when I think about the summer I’m most excited about the smell of tomato plants which smell like a floral tomato and it floats through the air when you brush against the stems of the plant.
Gardening is also great for your physical and mental health. Since 2019, 13 GPs in Lambeth in London have commissioned gardens to support their patients wellbeing and community gardening programmes consistently see feedback noting how gardening has improved people’s mental health.
Garden As A Creative Practice
It feels very obvious to say that gardening is an art form and act of expression. But it’s also a creative practice that develops over time, and you don't need to be designing grand Italian style gardens to have a gardening practice. My gardening practice is inherently lazy - I don’t have the patience for anything that needs a lot of care, it is a partnership with nature where we guide each other - nothing is going to grow if the world doesn’t want it to and I don’t have the skills to make it. My garden is a working plot that looks like constant chaos, but I’ve accepted that it’s life. A constant building site with a space for reflection and snacks tucked away.
Gardening is a form of expression, they can show things like playfulness, or portray an image and ask the audience to consider - take a look at Birmingham City Council’s garden they took to the Chelsea Flower Show in 2018 or Little Sparta, the garden of Scottish writer Ian Hamilton Finlay. Little Sparta mixes poetry with sculpture and planting and was named as one of the most important Scottish art works of the 20th Century.
But you don’t need a huge budget or any grand plans to explore gardening as a creative practice, all you need is some growing media and something to grow to start your journey.
Gardening as a political practice
A lot of what gardening as we know and understand it comes from what ethnobotanist James Wong calls ‘live stamp collecting for posh people’. Post industrialisation, as some middle class people moved up the social ladder, gardens were seen as a way of legitimising your wealth and portraying that you were now a member of the new upper middle classes.
But even before this, the way we consider gardens is steeped within colonisation and empire. A lot of the plants that we consider staples, everything from tomatoes to dahlias were bought back as ‘curiosities’ from newly ‘discovered’ land, and the first botanical gardens’ role was to grow these plants and trade them across Europe.
In fact the entire field of botany in the west is rooted deeply in imperialism, the names of plants and the dates they were ‘discovered’ are based on European names and dates and completely erase the knowledge of indigenous cultures around the world. Earlier this year, I went to ‘Botany, Trade and Empire’ a conference from Kew Gardens which explored their Miscellaneous Reports Collection, a huge collection of notes, leaflets, letters and other documents with no other home. The conference looked at Kew’s role in colonialism and empire, and asked how an institution like Kew could acknowledge its past and use its archives to start to decolonise its work. The whole conference is available to watch online.
Looking more recently, gardening is being used a tool for community organising and community cohesion. Tayshan Hayden-Smith started working with communities near Grenfell Tower to create guerrilla pop up gardens to give residents a space to come together and process. Whether intentional or not, using public land to create space for those disenfranchised is a political act.
Returning to James Wong, my favourite ethnobotanist, he certainly seems to think that gardening is political, and his views link back to where we began - that gardening is also a creative practice and form of expression. ‘’The only logical conclusion is that if you believe gardening should be a politics-free zone, you don’t consider it a form of art on a par with music, sculpture or cinema, but instead just a sort of frivolous pursuit of decoration.’’ (Wong, 2020)
National Gardening Week is an initiative by the Royal Horticultural Society and takes place from the 26th April to the 2nd May.