The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

We subscribe to Sky TV for three reasons. It was a very expensive means of solving our aerial problems. Mark enjoys the sport (I only like watching cricket when we are winning and am not a rugby fan). But mostly we keep our subscription current for the gardening programmes on the Living Channel. Alas these tend to be in the middle of the afternoon and neither of us ever mastered the video recorder.

Currently Sky have two programmes running which show the very best and the very worst of English

gardening TV. The English can do it so well. I guess it is only to be expected because our New Zealand gardening traditions derive firstly and secondly (and probably thirdly too) from the British traditions. They have a wonderful history of gardening there and of gardening television. These days we are amalgamating gardening traditions from other countries as well and in the process developing what may be our own style but the debt to English gardening remains strong.

So on Saturday afternoon you can catch the last episode of a very interesting programme at 3.30pm called “Gardens Through Time”. Last week it was looking at the 1960s onwards so we must be on to the 1990s tomorrow. Watch for repeats because the earlier programmes were fascinating.

On Sunday afternoons you can catch the full horror of English gardening TV at its unbelievable worst. I had not realised they could do it so badly. It is on at 3.30pm if you want to time it for a cup of tea but you may only need to watch the first five minutes and the last two minutes to get a feel for how bad a programme can be. Called “Garden Invaders”, it is a combination of quiz show (the garden owners get to answer patsy questions to win the plants and trappings for their garden), garden makeover (but the owners are kept in the dark so it has shades of our own “Mucking In” show without the worthy recipients), with possibly the worst, most tasteless excesses of cheapskate design, ornamentation and execution imaginable. It is so bad it beggars belief. Not even high tack – merely ticky tacky.

Back to “Gardens Through Time” which gave an interesting perspective on small town gardens last Saturday. Traditionally, gardening had been the preserve of larger and wealthier land owners. And if you look at the English landscape tradition, it derives fair and square from extensive rural properties. It is the same with Italian gardening and French gardening. Money, space, power and class. In this country, we tend to have gone in for the relatively large garden based on space alone, without the money, power and social position but that is another story.

In the 1960s there was an upsurge in the development of suburban housing with the small section – very small in the UK but the quarter acre pavlova paradise in New Zealand. Along with the nuclear family and an increasing level of disposable income for the masses, beautifying the outside became an extension of keeping the indoors well. And a new approach to the small garden came about, in part (it claimed) because of the pioneering work of one garden designer, Mr Brooks. Far from working on the principles of scaling down the large garden to fit into a small space, he moved from the indoors out, seeing the garden as an extra room to the house, giving extra usable living space. The birth of the patio and of indoor outdoor flow.

From the sixties to the eighties it was pretty much anchored in the do it yourself ethic. Weekend projects and a great pride in place. Around this time, the garden centre as we know it developed – a veritable garden supermarket. Prior to this time, plants had to be ordered in advance from nursery catalogues, often with many months’ wait before delivery. But now, home owners could go along on a Saturday morning and buy all they needed off the shelf.

The pride in the do it yourself ethic continues with some and I have often seen descriptions of open gardens proclaiming “designed and maintained by ourselves”. Somehow this is perceived to be the higher moral ground to those who cheat by paying a professional or for outside help in creating and maintaining their garden – an attitude which has its roots deeply in that 1960s ethos. But our trade magazine has been highlighting in recent years the move away from “do it yourself” to “do it for me”.

This is perhaps a natural development in a generation which has less disposable time than the previous two generations at least, countered by a huge increase in disposable income. Why spend time on projects that you don’t really want to do yourself when you can afford to pay somebody else to achieve the look for you?

Small wonder that as urban sections get carved up even smaller, the outdoor space is ever increasingly seen as a natural extension to indoors. The Ellerslie display garden look.

It gave me food for thought, a context for both the large country garden and the modern designer garden or outdoor space. That urban designer space is usually incongruous in a rural setting and it is often not required to be anchored firmly in the landscape and local climate. Its relationship is to the dwelling instead, and the lifestyle requirements of the occupants.

Being Luddites in the gardening world, our personal preference remains for gardening on a larger scale with a very wide range of plant material and our house does not even pretend to have good indoor outdoor flow (it was built around 1950 before that concept had been dreamed of) although it is well set with wonderful garden views from every window. I guess we are traditionalists in the gardening scene. But I am happy to concede that I must suspend those values when looking at contemporary garden design and execution which are of a different era in social and gardening history. On which note it seems appropriate to wish readers all the best for the season and a happy gardening future in 2007.