Sunday, 20 September 2015

Stuck in a rut

Once every three months a copy of The Alpine Gardener drops through my door. This is the quarterly publication of the Alpine Garden Society, a society of gardeners who are particularly interested in alpine plants, woodlanders (things like Trilliums etc.) and an interesting selection of other bits and pieces that come under the group's remit. This is most definitely a more specialised gardening society, with no interest in fruits and vegetables, trees and shrubs, or designer gardens. The society hosts dozens of shows across the UK (to which everyone is welcome). At shows there are benches full of the many interesting plants on which the society is focussed, ranging from fairly common through to extremely rare, as well as plants for sale, cakes, books, seeds... you get the picture.

The other society I'm a member of it the RHS, the Royal Horticultural Society (if you're outside the UK). The RHS is a much broader spectrum organisation, with interests in every area of horticulture. The RHS performs trials on different genera and gives best performers an Award of Garden Merit (AGM), holds big flower shows, spends bucketloads of money teaching young children to grow food, has four RHS gardens, publishes a monthly magazine....

A few months ago I began to realise that I've become a little bored with the RHS. I've been a member for over 10 years, but I've come to the conclusion that I'm just not RHS material any more. Yes, I do get to visit the garden at Rosemoor free of charge (but how many times can you visit before you get too familiar with even such a lovely garden?), but the magazine feels bland and uninspiring and I haven't been to an RHS show in years. When the magazine drops through the door I open it, flop out all the advertising stuff and flick through in case there's an article that interests me. I read Roy Lancaster's articles, and sometimes something unusual like Matthew Pottage's fantastic attempt at getting gardeners to suppress their horticultural racism and look with fresh eyes at conifers, but on the whole I'm done with the magazine and pass it on to my friend after about 30 minutes of reading. It's not that the pictures aren't good, or that the magazine is in any way badly written, it's just so terribly familiar and, I've come to believe, basic.

This isn't a post about being a horticultural smartarse; this is a post about learning. Gardening is a learning process. Simple. You buy your seeds, sow them, grow the seedlings on, plant them out, enjoy them, and you learn from your successes and failures. You also learn new things from TV and radio, from magazines and from other gardeners. Gardening is a process of constant learning, and even the most experienced gardeners are still learning lots of new things. This is where I've become increasingly at odds with it all; I'm starting to feel that horticulture is stagnating. I know that the garden year is a cycle, and that this cycle repeats itself each year, but there is a wealth of knowledge out there that is untouched by the horticultural mainstream.

Nobody seems to want to break out of the mainstream. Every year Monty Don sows his sweet peas in the same way and at pretty much the same time, and magazine regurgitate the same tips and advice, only with slightly different wording and a few new articles dropped in to persuade people not to just reread last year's edition (good tip though!). There's a formula and those who generate media content are happy to follow it, tweaking it as they go. What happens though when you, as a gardener, want to break away from the mainstream and build on your knowledge, when you don't want to be an amateur gardener any more?

There are specialist plant societies around for various parts of horticulture, and even the RHS has The Plantsman magazine for those who want more depth on the plants themselves (although you pay £29 on top of your RHS membership or pay £37 if you're not a member), and there are groups like the RHS Rhododendron, Camellia and Magnolia group you can join (again for an additional fee, and I can't work out if it's £20 a year to be member and an additional £25 if you want to receive bulletins... and I presume that the society is completely separate from the RHS membership). What we are decidedly lacking is a broad spectrum gardening organisation for gardeners who have outgrown the usual mainstream content, something that goes into more detail for those who already have the basics covered.

As I say, this isn't about about being a smartarse know-it-all gardener... this is about progress. At the moment there's a yawning gap between the basic end of gardening and the specialised end, and bridging that gap is, I believe, key to helping gardeners gain more skills and knowledge. There is a thirst for knowledge in horticulture, and trapping gardeners in a perpetual state of amateur isn't helping anyone anywhere, not least the gardeners themselves.

So what do we do? Is it time the RHS launched an RHS+ membership (maybe sending the quarterly editions of The Plantsman out instead of The Garden), or do we need a new broad spectrum garden society for those with enquiring minds?

What do you think?