Monday, 10 October 2011

Brothers In Arms: Finding a Generation of Gardeners

Radishes: The first thing I ever grew

I am, according to a recent RHS press release, part of a lost generation. A generation whose gardening skills are eclipsed by those of our parents, grandparents and, increasingly, our children.
Enthralled by my first row of radishes sown aged about four, under the wing of my botanical uncle, I got the bug early and continued through a childhood of growing sweet peas and foraging fruit. I loved natural history, botany and biology. I wanted to be David Attenborough when I grew up. Or Gerald Durrell. Or the Swiss Family Robinson. Or to present Tomorrow’s World.

But whether too deep in classic children’s literature or just a bit slow on the uptake, it never really occurred to me that my keen, green fingers were a generational anomaly. I didn’t care much, either. I figured that they would grow into it, cos lots of older people are into gardening, right?
Right. According to the RHS 55% of people were taught gardening in school in the 1950s and it is kind of activity that sticks with you. Eighty percent of the grandparents surveyed said they liked to garden.

When I started work at Which? Gardening in 1999, one of the questions that I was asked at interview was ‘how would you engage children in gardening’. I forget exactly what I said, but I got the job. And, as I stood engagingly at flower shows, what emerged was that it was not the kids who were the problem. The children would stop and look at sweetie-bright tomatoes and mangetout, be fascinated by the shapes and textures of exotic fruit...before being yanked away by a parent tutting “Come ON! You won’t like those!”.

But children have now been the target for well over a decade (40% are taught horticulture at school). So long that  the media mostly won’t touch interesting school gardens because they are SOOO 2004.  It is now the parents of those children to whom gardening reaches out. And, reaching out to novices of my own generation (1% of whom were taught gardening in school according to the same press release), I recently did a series for beginners in Kitchen Garden magazine, charting the highs and lows of my own gardening antics.*
Discussing the state of affairs with m’ esteemed colleague @malvernmeet on twitter, she opined “Come on RHS, how about doing something for grownups as well as kids?”

Well, yes. But also, come on grownups. Ok so it may not have been cool to garden in the 80s. Lace gloves and big hair don’t really lend themselves to digging and weeding. Maybe our own parents were too busy trying to surf miners strikes, property booms, greed is good, incipient economic downturn, shoulder pads and lunatic prime ministers to take their post-punk asses gardening. (With our new romantic, material girl asses, presumably).This analogy is wearing thin. Maybe the 80s was the decade that invented parental inadequacy**. I want it all and I want it now.

But now we can reclaim the borders, the allotments, the secateurs. Think Greenham Common and gay pride – you know how it’s done. So, brothers and sisters of the lost generation get yourselves down to Wisley. Stick red roses in down the barrels of umbrellas and fruit shoots, defuse the turf war between our parents and our children who both want the place to themselves. Enjoy. As Nike said, circa 1988, Gardening: Just Do It. 

*I grow stuff, I experiment, I muddle along. Comparatively experienced perhaps, but can I make it quite clear that I am not competing with the big boys here. Medwyn Williams should not lose sleep.

**Interestingly, no one mentions the ‘60s and ‘70s in all  this. Possibly because no one can remember whether they were gardening or not.


  1. I have been increasingly irritated by the obsession with getting children gardening and I think that if our generation is the so called lost generation then it is down to organisations like the RHS. My sons (18 & 20) are very knowledgeable about horticulture although they try not to let on. Why, because they visited gardens with me as young children, flower shows etc - generally bribed with cake.

    The argument seems to be that we need to engage children with gardening so they are healthy and eat well but as Jamie Oliver demonstrated with his school dinners effort it doesnt matter what you teach children if you dont have the support of the parents.

    The RHS, Gardeners World etc etc should be engaging with our generation.

  2. I've been thinking about this a lot since our twitter conversation last week.

    I suspect part of my reaction is jealousy because I didn't have a gardening mentor as a kid and I'm wishing I could have experienced all the fantastic initiatives I see on the go now.

    However, I also believe there's plenty of people out there like me, who see the bright shiny 'kids package', which is very well communicated by the RHS and wonder exactly what the RHS is doing for them.

    We forget there's Chelsea Flower Show et al., the RHS gardens (though my nearest 1 is a 2 hour trip away, thus making it difficult to pop along regularly for my fix of inspiration and learning) loads of events, the RHS trials, etc. etc.

    Perhaps it's a lack of feeling it's 'My' RHS that's the problem, even though I'm a member and been to loads of scrummy things? I also believe there's a big communications/partnership exercise needed (despite record membership numbers) to get people like me to connect with the RHS. I've been saying this on my blog since 2008!

    I'd also like some of the shiny colourful things on offer to children - I'd like a bit less tweed and stuffiness please. It's interesting that quite a few of us said recently on Twitter that we'd also like to go tree climbing at Wisley with the kids when some recent RHS publicity said it was on offer at their gardens. We all want (and need) to play from time to time.