Last week found this column shaking its hoary head over the awfulness of celebrities and the cult attached to them. This week it sees a use for people who are famous for being famous.
Dr Stefan Buczacki, a horticulturalist and one-time chairman of Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time, has got himself fearfully worked up about the dumbing down of gardening coverage in the media. “On gardening pages, in gardening magazines and on television gardening programmes, I am frequently confronted by folk who are full of enthusiasm and good teeth, but remarkably deficient in experience of horticulture,” he chunters.
Apparently, it’s all the fault of “lifestyle” TV, the craze for shows about cooking, interior design, and gardening. “These programmes use their subject as entertainment,” says Buczacki. “But real gardening is not about the quick fix and the makeover. It is about the measured, methodical craft of horticulture through the seasons.” Where, oh where, he laments, are the Vita Sackville-Wests, Percy Throwers, and Fred Streeters of yesteryear, people equally adept with hoe and pen, people who knew whereof they spoke?
His outburst happily coincided with the news that ITV’s latest gardening show is to be hosted by Kim Wilde, daughter of Fifties rocker Marty and herself a pop singer. Buczacki concedes that Charlie Dimmock, the bra-less Juno of BBC’s Ground Force, is a qualified horticulturalist, but adds that the programme has nothing to do with showing people how to garden. To which one must add: “Too true, mate, and long may it last.” For if there is one thing that gardeners need after a day of mulching, sweating, and cursing, apart from a steadying drink, it is a little diversionary entertainment. And for the male at least, the unrestrained bounce of Miss Dimmock gently sweating amid hollyhock and aft of wheelbarrow is, paradoxically, uplifting.
Buczacki’s scorn for celebrities who tread on his patch is understandable (though we might take him a little more seriously were it not for his beard and bow tie, giveaway hallmarks of an aspirant celeb), but his assertion that gardening is a measured, methodical craft is hogwash. Gardening is about disappointment, frustration, and pain. There is no sterner measure of the gulf that lies eternal betwixt humankind’s dreams and their fulfilment than the humble plot we call a back garden.
It is sometimes said that we are a nation of gardeners. That is not true. There are those who garden and those who do not, and of the two, the gardeners are the wiser, more rounded people. Gardeners have known what it is to plan, till, toil and sob and to see their efforts brought to ruin by an enemy that comes not as single spies, but in battalions.
Only a gardener knows what it is to put up a six feet length of cedar trellis and, when the scratches are healed, the bruises subsided and the splinters gouged out with needle and tweezer, see the first zephyr of spring knock it into the plot beneath, which Nature, somehow sensing a plan for lupin and petunia, has sown plentifully and successfully with nettles. Only a gardener knows what it is to dig a plot: to swap soundness of sciatic nerve and spinal disc for a collection of builders’ rubble, bits of blue and white china, half a ton of soggy clay, a Marmite jar and the buckle of a snake belt.
Only a gardener knows what it is to fork in farmyard manure and sow the stinking earth with fantasy: to picture a yield of fresh produce, flavoursome potatoes, carrots, celery, succulent radishes, gooseberries, raspberries, and blackcurrants; to see that hope tantalisingly take root, sprout, and flourish until Nature, judging the moment to perfection, snaps her fingers and in comes an invading army of slugs, snails, weevil, aphid, blight, mildew, and canker.
Only a gardener knows what it is to own a killing field soaked in canine piddle.
There is nothing quite like a garden for putting life’s torments in perspective. A garden teaches you to meet disaster and more disaster and treat those two impostors just the same. Above all, when sunshine percolates scented air and bird song fills the trees, there is nothing in the world to compare with an English garden: bouldered, weed-strewn, alive with poisonous insects and landmined with half-buried hosepipe and abandoned rake, there is no finer reminder that we are not put on Earth for pleasure alone.
So when Buczacki chides the armchair gardener for sitting back (having found the bodily position where the contusions hurt least) and seeking solace in the cathode company of toothy, pneumatic, wellington-booted beauties, he is denying the most deserving, humane, long-suffering, patient, tolerant, and well-rounded beings among us the pleasure of harmless reverie. We male, gnarled gardeners, steeped in failure and scarred by experience, know that lip-glossed, nailed-varnished Kim Wilde is not for us. Not even when she dead-heads and pots on. We know, too, that the only bra-less gardeners likely to cross our gardens are ourselves, and we are not up to cavorting, especially not with all those potholes and ant hills about.
So leave us alone, Buczacki. If we want to know what’s gnawing at our lettuce and rotting the roots of our hostas, we’ve got shelves full of books to tell us. If we want to dream, we’ve got Kim Wilde.