Friday, January 30, 2009

Rags to riches… to rags?

A family building a stone wall in their garden in Lillängen in Sweden in the 1940's. Courtesy of Lokalarkiv for Nacka kommun.

It is difficult to stay unaffected by all reports of doom; just this morning, the Financial Times warned that 50m people could lose their jobs, and that the “economic pain will be worst for 60 years”. And as usual, nobody seems to know extend of the damage; new casualties seem to be surfacing every day. It feels like when the frost takes the seedlings and buds, leaving you to wonder just how much of the crops will be affected the next autumn.

Andy Sturgeon's Cancer Research UK Garden at Chelsea Flower Show in 2007. Picture taken by me in 2007.

Christopher Lloyd inspired many of us by his fantastic writing about his plantings and garden at Great Dixter. Picture taken by me in 2007.

Within gardening and garden design, the prosperous period that started in the 1980’s and continued until 2007 (with a smaller hick-up of an economic crisis in the beginning of 1990’s), now seems to be coming to an end. During these years, we have seen a mix of greater affluence, more leisure time and ever-rising house prices, which have made property-improvement extremely worthwhile in most “Western” countries from Europe to the US and to Australia. Most of us have enjoyed better possibilities to invest in our housing and to spend money on our interests and hobbies. We have not only gardened, but also travelled to see other people’s gardens and diverse garden shows; we have spent ever increasing amounts of money on gardening books, magazines and equipment of all kind, much of our interests fuelled by the media. Many historical gardens have been restored and we have been able to visit them and learn about them in a way that was not possible earlier. Some landscape architects and garden designers have risen to a star status, creating new trends for the rest of us to follow. Just look at all the kitchen gardens (or potagers, as they often are referred to), greenhouses, gardens with native plants, or grasses and other “new perennials” made during this period; in addition to a keen interest in gardening, all of them also require financial resources that can be used for other than basic daily needs.

A sandpit beautifully fitted into to cliffs and made of local stones in the front of my house in Saltsjöbaden. Picture from 1936. The oak tree behind stands still there.

I am not trying to be overly dramatic, but if the economic situation continues to deteriorate, will we look at this period within gardening as the “last golden decades” of the 20th century, a bit like we talk about the “golden afternoon” of the Edwardian era in Western gardening, just before the First World War broke out in 1914? And the next interesting question is, what kind of gardens will we be making now? Some of us, of course, will not be affected at all, but with a predicted 50m unemployed people in the world, many of us will have no extra money to spend. The plunging housing prices will make fewer of us keen on investing in our homes and gardens, which means that architects, builders and garden designers will face harder times. As for so many other domestic services, people will probably spend less money for the maintenance of their gardens. And will we be able pay for new plants, tools, decorations and gadgets for our gardens? Not likely.

Planting between the cliffs with Solomon's seal, Polygonatum multiflorum, geraniums and sea thrift, Armeria maritima. All plants were typical in the 1930's, easy to grow and divide.

It might not all be gloom, though; seed companies will probably experience a new upswing, as many more of us will discover the delights of not only growing our own vegetables, but also other plants from seeds, for much less money than buying them pre-raised from the garden centres. In a similar kind of economic climate, the 1930’s gardening articles in Sweden were telling how to gather seeds from the nature to make a lawn, an effort that many of us would think unrealistic today, used as we are to the ready-made lawn turf. Old gardening techniques might also get an upswing, with taking cuttings and layering techniques rising to new popularity. All of this has a positive effect on the climate, as transport and watering of pre-potted plants in their plastic pots will diminish. (Not that I have anything against the nursery industry in general and I am very sad if many very talented and knowledgeable people in this area lose their jobs to the recession).

Gardening in the 1960's in Sweden. Courtesy of Lokalarkiv for Nacka kommun.
With fewer resources available, we will probably see sustainability both in terms of labour and other resources as an important goal within garden design. Will someone still want to import a water feature in Chinese marble carved to imitate renaissance fountains in Italy, and keep it flowing with spotlights lightning up it at night? Probably not. Instead, we need to use less of energy, less of earth's resources and probably less of our own time, and at the same time create gardens that satisfy our needs for recreation and enjoyment. And we will hopefully continue to explore the possibilities of native plants and recycled or locally sourced materials, as our choices need to be sustainable. Even here it is interesting to look at the 1930’s, when garden designers and landscape architects embraced the thoughts of “modernism” as the solution to design problems in similar times of distress. In Sweden, this often translated into gardens with native plants and designs that were well suited to their environments, just like the picture of a sandpit above shows. It will be very interesting to see how we will continue to express ourselves through our gardens, while we face the challenges of our own time.


Gardeness said...

A very thought provoking post, and wonderful photos from the past. I've become more interested in organic/sustainable gardening since we bought our home, and especially since we had our son (almost 2 years ago). I take solace in knowing that I'm reducing our footprint on this earth, and in dire times I'll have a bit of knowledge on how to feed my loved ones. Thanks for a good read.

Lavender and Vanilla Friends of the Gardens said...

A very interesting post. Wait and see. I look on as people try to make their footprints smaller. Great photos of earlier times I remember so well. As long as I can remember I have tried to leave small footprints, to be gentle with nature,since I read "Silent Spring" published in 1962. People would look at me like I was weired not using pesticides on my roses and vegetables. In 1974 when I came to Australia DDT was still available and much worse! Agent Orange is still available and used.
To the economics; my vegetable gardener warned not to invest here and there he said a crash will come. It took longer than he thought it would because the financial market was propping up dead paper. Now a lot of people are experiencing hardship they have not expected. Perhaps it is good for nature if not so much rubbish is produced as people can not afford to buy it. I have always despaired at all the plastic rubbish toys and all people don't need to live but still buy in huge quantities. Sorry, that my "rant" got so long.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi Gardeness, I agree on that the only thing to do is to keep thinking how to reduce one's own footprint, and also learn our kids to think about this. And hope that enought of us will wake up and try to do the same. It easily sounds a bit pretentious, but we really don't have an alternative...

Titania, good to hear from you again. I totally agree with you about all the "stuff" that is around us; having kids today is a constant battle against an overflow of toys and goods, which they and we ourselves really do not need. I am not good enough in standing against, but I am trying to. And as you say, hopefully something good comes out of this recession, and at least some of us learn to live with less.

Antigonum Cajan said...

I do enjoy that kind of informal garden, never seen here, even though
with proper plant selection, it could be done in the Caribbean.

Great post, pictures. Until next.

nilla|utanpunkt said...

Agree withe comments above, truly thought-provoking and interesting. I feel, and fear, your asumption is correct. But, hopefully, there will be new solutions rising (isn't a crisis the best starting point for new ideas). Spending a lot of money and resources (watering, fighting weeds, mowing, adding nutrition etc) keeping up huge lawns may be a thing of the past...

Daniel Mount said...

Like a garden, like Chance the gardener said in Being There, our lives go through cycles. Here we are in Winter again after a very affluent and long summer. But winter gives time to reflect , to dream, to imagine how the next spring will look. Lets hope we will proceed with a wiser view of life on this earth. Thanks for your beautiful thoughts and photos. D.

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Lovely to see you visiting my blog, Daniel. For the moment, it really feels like we have some serious thinking to do... just referring to my post about the bush fires in Australia.

FlowerLady Lorraine said...

Thank you for this post.