James Bartholomew

The strange death of the English garden

Gardening is dead. It had been ailing for a long time and it sometimes looked as though it might pull through. But I knew it had finally kicked the bucket when the last of the three patches of grass I used to be able to see behind my house was replaced with a plastic lawn.

Then there was a ghastly death rattle: plastic ivy was draped over an electric gate which serves to let the owner’s car into the paved area formerly known as the front garden. And that came after the arrival of dozens of plastic balls in the neighbourhood. They are supposed to be imitations of Buxus sempervirens trimmed into a ball shape but their relentless perfection and over-vibrant colour means they don’t deceive anyone. They must be wonderfully low-maintenance. So are all the many front gardens now paved over with bright marble with only a bit of hedge at the front. The hedge is often brought in fully grown and then it quietly dies because it isn’t watered.

Yes, there are still some plants around. Where I live in Kensington, they are brought along in the vans of exterior designers. It would be wrong to call them gardeners. Their job is to provide instant, preferably evergreen, outside rooms requiring little or no maintenance. Consequently the borough has many walls covered with Trachelospermum jasminoides which is evergreen, tolerates some shade, does not grow too quickly and produces inoffensive, fragrant little white flowers about now. As for real gardens — ones that tend to be cared for by ageing widows; ones full of romance and love — they are dying out.

The planted area of London’s private gardens was reduced in size by the equivalent of 21 Hyde Parks between 1998 and 2006. The area covered by lawn was down 16 per cent and hard surfaces had increased by 26 per cent.

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