Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Garden Times

Now that season of the sun is upon us and we are all basking in the opportunities of summer it is appropriate timing to consider the role and functions of gardens in contemporary life. If ‘an ‘Englishman’s home is his castle’ his [sic] garden is something else besides. Gardens tell us something not only about the people who have and keep them but also something more about society in general. This is not as easy as it first seems. The private garden is a complex of competing ideas, ideals and uses that reflect different class as well as tastes, aesthetic preferences, penchants and predilections, not to mention sizes, forms and functions.

The history of the private garden includes the development of the landed gentry’s country estate in which the view and perspective f the surrounding countryside was moulded and shaped to meet an ideal of an Elysium field in which order and beauty could be arranged (including suitably dressed and posed peasant farm labourers). In this the role of landscape gardeners and architects such as Capability Brown came to the fore to design and build new estates and gardens for wealthy landowners in the 18th century. Such private parkland surrounded the mansion and houses and country retreats not just of a landed gentry but also increasingly the new moneyed classed that began to appear in the 19th century. Humphrey Repton, Brown’s successor was to develop the idea of the English Garden that not only was exported to the countryside but also to bring back ideas of landscape design and aesthetics to Britain. During the 19th century as urbanisation and industrialisation turned Britain into the first predominantly urban society the need to provide access to nature in the city for healthy leisure and rational recreation for the increasingly populous working classes was eventually recognition and commitment to the provision of publicly owned and maintained urban public parks. One important figure in the 19th century was Sir Joseph Paxton who was responsible designing may of the great urban public parks in Britain that provided much needed green and leisure space for the industrial urban working class to gain access to nature, relatively fresh air and amusements, recreation and leisure in the overcrowded and polluted industrial cities.

The development of the private garden as a more commonly accessible private green space was associated with changes in residential housing design and the development of both a move to privately owned suburban urban development and working class housing with an attached garden. For many rural labourers and those who lived in tied cottages associated with some industries as well as the more large scale development of social housing in the 20th century the provision of a small garden allowed many to have a small piece of land to cultivate. This led to the ‘cottage garden’ now known as a distinct informal style of dense planting use of traditional plants and materials but which also had more pragmatic uses. Originally the cottage garden provided herbs and fresh vegetables as a necessary supplement for wage labourers as well as the opportunity to spend some leisure time in the fresh air after the working day in the factory, mill or mine.

Nowadays, the idea of the garden has evolved and changed over time as new fashions in planting and uses have developed. Take a walk along any street and observe the choices and judgements, the time and money invested in creating the front garden that presents to the street and the world an idea or representation of the house-holders public face. Or not as the case may be given that so many urban terraced streets have replaced the front garden with a paved, concrete or mono-blocked parking space for the all pervasive culture of the car. Better still, spend some time on a train or a bus, along the canal or river towpath peering into the back gardens of the houses one passes and one will see a variety of uses, styles, functions, forms as well as fads and fashions. If one takes a critical investigation over the back walls and fences of the various styles and classes of areas you pass along you can make fairly accurate assessments of the people whose gardens one can see.

In countries where the climate is more consistently warm an outside culture is lived out in which all sorts of everyday activities take place in the outdoors as a matter of course. In Britain, the garden, for those of us fortunate to have one, takes on an extra dimension as it comes in to regular use only at certain times of the year. It is very much used and viewed as an extra room in summer, (lebensraum), an outside living ‘room’ providing the opportunity not only to take a break from the inside months of weather enforced internal imprisonment that our climate imposes on us but also provides much more. In this, it gives an opportunity to study and think on how we relate not only to the (self) created nature that gardens provide but also how we act and interact, represent our identities and selves, in the outside spaces that we inhabit.

The garden is a multifunctional space that can and does reflect the aspirations, status, ideals as well as life course of those who have them. It also tells us something of the way we live and how in the garden as much as in the home or in other more commonly considered consumption and life-style spheres (clothes, music, film, TV, cars, etc.) fads, fashions and trends have become part of a huge industry. As we peer into the gardens of others or perhaps think of our own we can sketch this multiplicity of uses as well as lifestyle and identity statements that are represented in the enactment and landscape of the domestic garden.

The garden when the weather is clement is not only a place to hang and dry washing, to sit with a beer or chilled glass of wine at the end of the working day or in the permitted leisure time of weekends and holidays. It is also a ‘safe’ space for children to play, exercise and let off the boundless energy of children. In fact, we can not only glean whether or not a family with children resides in the house by the presence or absence of play equipment we can also make assessments as to the ages of the children and even their genders. If there is a sandpit, paddling pool, the ubiquitous plastic play-equipment and tricycles we can guess the presence of the pre-school age-group. Swings may be stereotypically for girls to use whilst football goals are designated male, whilst a swingball, climbing frames or trampoline is more gender neutral. There may also be play houses of all sorts, sizes and costs as well as well as enclosures and homes for pet rabbits all of which are indicative of younger children.

But the garden is more than a play area for children. As they grow older the garden matures as the inhabitants mature and take son new or different functions. One can see how different styles of gardening reflect not only individual tastes but also fashions in plants and landscape design. Take as examples how the hardwood decking, patios, expensive brick built or gas fired barbecues have expanded over the land as they have become essential elements of the garden as a leisure and party space, where dry and mud free feet can enjoy not only the al fresco dining of a picnic but also a special type of cooking and eating. The barbecue has become an essential summer experience of contemporary British summers. Similarly what was once essential elements of gardens, greenhouses and sheds (the quintessential place of escape of many married men) the range of architectural features now includes ha-has, summer houses, gazebos, fountains, ponds, arbours, arches, benches, bridges, fences, gates, obelisks, pergolas and planters populate gardens with an architectural element that is more than merely functional.

Gardens and their aesthetic appeal in terms of their planting and appearance reflect not only the individual tastes and proclivities of the owner. They also reflect the changing fads and fashions of the industry that has grown up to serve and inspire the gardener. As the graph below indicates this industry makes a significant contribution to the domestic economy.

UK Garden Products Market 2004-2014 £M
Source: "Garden Products Market Research & Analysis Report - UK 2010-2014"

Furthermore changes in gardening practice reflect and have a correlation to wider socio-economic, political and environmental concerns and issues. An example of this can be discerned from the emphasis this year on grow-your-own. There has been a tradition of the self cultivation of fruit, vegetables and herbs that is reflected in the history of not only the cottage garden but also the popularity of allotment gardening. For those not familiar with the tradition of the allotment it is characterised by the concentration in a limited place of a number of relatively small parcels of land assigned to individuals or families for cultivation. The individual gardeners are organised in an allotment association which leases the land from the owner who may be a public, private or ecclesiastical entity, provided that it is only used for gardening (i.e. growing vegetables, fruits and flowers), and not for other purposes such as business or residence. Such is the current popularity of gardening and the shortage of suitable land for allotments that in some areas particularly in the cities there are waiting lists of sometimes up to 10 years for an allotment.

A variation of this theme has been hugely successful in Cuba since the Soviet Bloc collapsed in 1989, and Cuba lost its food imports and agricultural inputs from which it depended for an adequate supply of food. The US Embargo also created a shortage of petrol necessary to transport the food from the rural agriculture sector to the city. This marked the beginning of serious food shortages that shook the entire country, but most of all Havana where urban agriculture has taken on many forms, ranging from private gardens (huertos privados) to state-owned research gardens (organicponicos), Havana's popular gardens (huertos populares) are the most widespread and accessible to the general public. These are small parcels of state-owned land that are cultivated by individuals or community groups in response to ongoing food shortages. The program for popular gardens first began in Havana in January 1991, and has since been promoted in other Cuban cities. In 1995, there were an estimated 26,600 popular garden parcels throughout the 43 urban districts that make up Havana's 15 municipalities. A wide selection of produce is cultivated, depending (on family needs, market availability, and suitability with the soil and locality. In addition to vegetable and fruit cultivation, some popular gardens also cultivate spices and plants used for medicinal purposes.

The private garden demonstrates not only a complexity in respect of form and aesthetic appeal but also their use value as not only a recreational appendage to the house but also as a more useful and necessary space for physical and psychological health and well-being. The benefits of time spent in the garden or in any green space for relieving stress, promoting physical and mental well-being was recognised by public authorities and urban park designers in the initial phase of municipal park building in the 19th century. The difference with private gardens nowadays is that we have much more choice and control over the style, form, content and use to which we can shape and mould our private green space to meet our own tastes, needs and values. This can reflect the changing habits and lifestyles but can also reveal positive and negative aspects of the state of neighbourliness in modern Britain. Summer in the garden can bring neighbours and friends together for garden parties and get-togethers, for chats and conversation over the fence with seldom seen neighbours and the sharing of plants and gardening tips. However, it can also bring conflict over the noise of parties and loud music, dog barking, barbecue smoke and boisterous children’s games, over the cutting of shared hedges. Patio or garden rage is the term given to the verbal and sometimes violent confrontations between neighbours because summer and sunshine in the garden bring into contact people who would not meet at other times of the year.

Next time you spend sometime in your own or someone else’s garden this summer reflect on its role and place in the social life of Britain and how it reflects tastes and tendencies, lifestyles and habits that tells us something about how we live and interact with nature and with each other through and in the such a taken for granted green space as the private garden.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

We were searching the internet for a book with a sociological take on gardening, for a sociologist we know, and here he is!! You beat us to it, and wrote your own!

Iain & Nina.