As I was developing my gardening chops back in Tennesse, I began to see England as my horticultural mecca. Oh, the cottage gardens, the RHS shows, the gardens at the grand and stately homes of the National Trust. My co-workers and I at a garden center in Knoxville mused over the gentle mild climate and the range of plant material that can be grown.
And all these things are truly wonderful, but I guess it’s human nature to think the grass is always greener on the other side of the pond. For example, my garden is rife with slugs. I can’t grow my beloved hostas. (This isn’t true of all of England, but it’s definitely true in my South London garden). And the lack of a good hot summer in recent years has meant that it’s nigh on impossible to produce a perfect, sweet home-grown tomato served up fresh, still sun-warmed seasoned with a sprinkle of salt. (Heaven).
However, in terms of just plain gorgeous flowers, gardening in England is bliss.
But what’s more interesting than the difference in growing season or bloom time is the difference in gardening culture. Clare White has posted a piece on garden blogging at Talk About Local in which she observes that front gardens are not public spaces, not places to necessarily stop and chat or to make yourself available for social interaction with your neighbours. Instead, garden chat is done through societies and in truly public gardening spaces – i.e. allotments.
Front gardens, if you even have one (I have a moldering overgrown hedge in a narrow strip between the sidewalk and my front window) are cool boundaries. There is some tradition in the UK of front gardens as display spaces, but by and large people’s private gardens are just that…private. Clare cites the Watching the English book by sociologist Kate Fox for an analysis of English gardening behaviour. A great book no doubt, but I gave up on it after the first chapter revealed that I had been doing the vital social ‘weather-chat’ all wrong.
Where I grew up, there’s a porch culture and sweeping gardens are the norm. It’s true that modern houses in modern developments are more focused on the back porch. But in older neighbourhoods (like Fort Sanders where I started gardening) there a sidewalks and wide verandas where people can sit out the front and make themselves available for garden chat. Serious gardeners use their front spaces for display and for informal competition.
My good gardening (and it is pretty good) is completely private. Even my next-door neighbours can barely see how my gardening puts them to shame. I miss the competitive and showy elements of gardening – and yet I would never re-embrace that culture here by joining an allotment (there’s probably a 50 year waiting list anyway) or a gardening society. I’d rather the passing world notice, stop and chat – than take my produce someplace else. I could join the yellow book, open garden scheme – but I feel my tiny garden isn’t really worth that and I don’t want people coming through my house to admire my silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row.