Thursday, 6 December 2012

Slow gardening and a good book


I thought I was ahead of the pack a few years ago when I came up with the brilliant new idea of Slow Gardening. I was on my way to a Slow Food event and thought this concept transposed simply to gardens.

Then, a few months later at a talk by Sydney horticulturist Bernard Chapman I heard that traditional Japanese gardeners would sit at the site for a new garden for maybe six weeks before even starting to think about a design.

Today I discover Karel Čapek, inventor of the term 'robot' and writer of The Gardener's Year (as well as War with the Newts...), was writing in 1931 about an American millionaire seeking advice from an English country gentleman on how to achieve a 'perfect, even, level, fresh, everlasting...English lawn'.


The reply was "It's quite simple. The soil must be well and deeply dug, it must be fertile and porous, not sour or sticky, not heavy or thin; then it must be well levelled so that it is like a table; after than you sow the seed and roll the ground well; then you water it daily, and when the grass has grown you mow it week after week; you collect the cut grass with the sweepers and roll the lawn; you must water, sprinkle, wet, and spray it daily; and if you do this for 300 years you will have as good a lawn as mine."

A little later in the same book (The Gardener's Year) Čapek estimates it will take him 1100 years to grow all the plants he finds interesting. Clearly gardening takes time, and good and interesting gardening takes a long time.


Back in 2009, when I welcomed people to a Slow Food Bush Food Picnic at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, I said (and I've covered this before) that slow food fits perfectly with the approach we take to gardening in botanic gardens. This was not to say that our staff didn't work hard - they most certainly did and do - but good gardens take a long time to grow. This particular one, on Sydney Harbour, had taken 193 years, so far.

So I encouraged the picnickers to plant small trees. They would not only get better established specimens but have the satisfaction of creating something to be enjoyed by their kids, or their kids or friends. I said we should treat a garden as a process, not a product (echoing it turns out the Scottish poet and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay, who famously said a garden is not an object but a process).

I then broke into my oft repeated refrain about growing plants we like rather than plants we think are worthy. At the picnic we were about to eat local food, and lots of local bush food. I said I encouraged growing local plants in gardens but more importantly, any plants as long as they don't harm the environment around us. My three rules for gardening, also oft repeated, are: no toxic chemicals to survive, not escaping into the bush, and relying on as little potable water as possible.

So looking back, I think I was onto a good thing but plenty of people have been onto it before me. I also accept that I don't have the patience to be a good Japanese gardener: I'd have to read a book or listen to music or walk around in circles...well, you get the idea.

Still I do like the idea of spending a year or so with a garden before making any changes. You need to see it in every season and every light. Only then can you really make the best of the place and the plants already there.

Or at the very least you can get some good book reading done. And on that front, I'd suggest Karel Čapek for something a little different.


Images: the lawn is at Powis Castle in Wales, the tiered floral display from the Princess of Wales Conservatory at Kew Gardens, the two book covers from a web trawl, and the picture of me in Green Park wearing a t-shirt with the phrase je ne sais quoi translated into Mandarin is by Lynda.

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