A Nation of Gardeners; Andy McIndoe asks if the Brits are losing their reputation...

By Andy McIndoe

Here in Britain we are proud of our horticultural heritage: gardening is this Nation’s favourite pastime and an integral part of our way of life.
Our gardens are important to us, and we lovingly tend our plots, taking pride in their appearance and cultivating them to the highest standards. Well some of us do, while some may disagree and hint that the popularity of gardening is on the wane. Certainly looking around, after a wet summer and autumn and recent wintry weather, many gardens look bedraggled and neglected – even more so than ever.

Blackmoor and Langdon at Chelsea

Not that long ago gardening seemed to be very high profile here. Hailed as the new sex, gardening had a trendier image. Men with dirt under their fingernails were irresistible; ladies with a healthy, earthy appearance were cover girls. Perhaps the celebrity focus has moved; retreated to the kitchen and entrenched itself in front of the television? Certainly the use of gardens has changed, but then it has changed many times during the last 500 years; so a current trend is perhaps just another phase in its evolution.

Gardens were outdoor rooms during one hot summer, although I am sure readers from the rest of the world may not believe we ever have a hot summer here in the UK. (Sadly your image that it rains every day has proved to be horribly accurate.) Believe it or not we all ate al fresco, learnt to burn food on the barbecue and planted our pots with colourful exotics for a time. I know that my Australian friends at Chelsea flower show will give a pitying smile at the very thought!


With increasing emphasis on environmental issues, and concerns over healthy diet, gardens have been used to produce vegetables and fruit in the last four or five years. Sales of vegetable seeds have rocketed, while flower seed sales have declined. Vegetables have appeared in pots on the patio, have been mixed into the flower borders and where space at home is limited the gardener has migrated to the allotment. But is that changing again? Is the appeal of self sufficiency losing its lustre? Recent reports suggest that in some areas allotments are being abandoned and repossessed and demand is in decline.

Veg garden

Perhaps part of the stimulus for change is the media gardening overload we suffered for a few years. At first the gardening makeover programme was fun, good entertainment, always with a happy ending. However you can have too much of a good thing and as designs became more outrageous and extreme gardening purists saw their passion becoming trivialised. Modern garden design could have been blamed by some for the decline in popularity of gardening. It all looked so easy, but then the reality that hard work is involved somewhere along the line shattered the dream.

Gazebo in Kent

The focus has been on low maintenance gardens: simple designs that require little input from the owner, after all we are all short of time in our busy lives. Many see gardening as a chore and the easier it can be made the better. But if this is true why are hanging baskets still popular? Why do we Brits fill a wire basket with delicate plants and hang it half way up a wall during the warmest weather, necessitating daily watering and nurturing? Why do we bother to grow our own vegetables when we can buy them from a supermarket at a fraction of the price? Why have a lawn that needs weekly attention for most of the year, particularly in a small garden?

The answer at all these questions is simple: we enjoy it; we like to make life difficult and moan a little. We find the results we achieve rewarding, what’s more it earns us bragging rights. We gain satisfaction and pleasure from both the environment that we enhance, and from the activity of doing it. Few real hobbies are enjoyed as they were a few years ago. Entertainment is readily available in our technology driven world so why do we need activities like gardening that involve doing things? Perhaps the answer lies in the therapeutic quality of achievement.

The interest in food and drink has increased phenomenally in recent years and there are many similarities between this and our passion for gardens and gardening. If we all wanted an easy life then we would all be eating ready meals and still be content with the Sunday roast and cold cuts to follow for the rest of the week. Instead we track down hard to come by ingredients and tackle complex recipes involving unfamiliar techniques. Good wine appears high on many shopping lists, along with tea and real coffee and balsamic vinegar is more essential in the shopping basket than sugar.

Like food and cooking gardening isn’t every Brit’s cup of tea. It’s something that many get hooked on at some time in life and once bitten by the bug it never goes away. Unlike many of our European friends who live in apartments, most of us have a garden on our doorstep. One of the reasons why those in Europe are good with their houseplants, while we are clearly not!

Impatiens trough

Looking on the bright side, as much as we moan about the weather, our climate enables the successful cultivation of a wide range of plants from all over the world. We have great gardens and great flower shows. As spring approaches and the sap starts to rise hopefully we fall in love with gardening again. Whatever you read in the media gardening is as popular as ever, and is still very much at the heart of the British way of life.

But what does gardening mean to you? How important is it where you live? Do you still think of the British as a nation of gardeners, or are we losing our reputation. Certainly when I see pictures of gardens like Longwood in the U.S. and green walls on buildings in South America and what Wes Fleming and his crew create at RHS Chelsea I wonder if we are keeping up with the rest of the world. Let me know your thoughts…………..

Tulips and pots

Andy McIndoe

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