This piece was published in The Spectator on the 8th of March 2014 under the title ‘The War on Beauty’:
Next week is ‘Hug a Slug’ week.
Well, come on, you did believe it for a couple of seconds. We’ve all grown so used to the fog of humourless eco-rectitude that has settled over our gardens that you probably didn’t even blink. No right-thinking (let alone left-thinking) person these days would dream of paving their front garden (bad for drainage), using a bag of peat-based compost (very un-green) or a nice toxic pesticide. It’s all too feasible to imagine we might suddenly to be told by the RSPCA that slugs had rights too.
The apparently innocent world of gardens, dedicated, you might suppose, to pleasure (both private and in the public sphere); to aesthetic delight and intellectual challenge, has been taken over by the righteous brigade. We must fill our wheelbarrows with guilt and garden for the planet rather than for the fun of it. And this message doesn’t just come from the controlling left, but from the heart of the establishment, the home of the glossy Chelsea Flower Show and garden swank: the Royal Horticultural Society.
A recent article in the RHS magazine, The Garden, gave frivolous gardeners a ticking off: ‘British gardeners ship supports such as bamboo canes in from around the world. We generate rubbish that has to be driven to the dump. We use petrol or electricity to power lawn-mowers, man-made nitrogen fertilisers to keep things growing, and peat-based composts because we believe they help us grow things a little better (and more cheaply) than peat-free alternatives.’
So should we then stop growing vegetables and fruit? After all, canes and fertilisers are used most by those who grow carrots and lettuces and both are largely unnecessary in an ornamental garden. But of course the eco-politics aren’t that simple. For the RHS and for the green lobby, supermarkets are evil, so it’s moral to grow your own food — although of course they’d prefer you to grow it nicely. In their ideal world, lawns, borders, elaborate and aesthetic designs would give way to vegetable beds tended to by Luddites with push-mower, sickle and machete. Abjure the slug pellet, the weed-killer and anything useful is the message, and get out there like a medieval peasant and put Tesco out of business. And this depressingly puritanical view of gardening as a worthy activity is now being wished on small children. The RHS now has a ‘Campaign for School Gardening’ — ‘To encourage all schools to get growing, and to acknowledge the right of every child to get involved in gardening.’
But growing an acceptable carrot is the not the best our gardens can give us, and in this miasma of controlling self-righteousness the principle point of a garden is being lost.
I have a garden — four acres of it. We made it from two fields because though I don’t like gardening one little bit, or find the hard work uplifting or redemptive, I love gardens for their beauty — which of course is and always has been their principal point. I wanted a garden for the pleasure of the garden itself, not as a place to do gardening.
Mankind has cultivated the land for food since the Neolithic era, but gardening for the sake of beauty began as far back as ancient Egypt, where elaborate gardens were made as places to escape and meditate. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and we can be sure that was not because they grew the best giant squashes there.
If children are to have gardens inflicted on them, it might be best if they could also learn that they can be so much more than places in which to practise growing things: that they can be places of great joy and delight for all the senses and even the brain. It would be wonderful if they could learn to appreciate the aesthetics and philosophy of our great gardens, old and new, by visiting them. It is frustrating to visit the show gardens at Chaumont in the Loire Valley and see parties of enthusiastic schoolchildren being introduced to the complex philosophical concepts behind the gardens there, by teachers who take this aspect of the gardens with a seriousness which in this country is reserved for examining slugs and snails.
The demands and constraints of eco-correct gardening and the eternal preoccupations about the health of the planet seem to me to be soul-destroying and wearing. And destroying souls is the opposite of what gardens or gardening should be doing. Creating beauty is a serious business, as artist gardeners have understood throughout history.