Sod It! Radical Gardening?

In Articles on 15 August 2011 at 5:23 pm

by George McKay

When I began writing my new book Radical Gardening I was really struck by the words of the contumacious gardener-artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, from the independent green space he renamed Little Sparta in the Scottish lowlands: ‘Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks’. But how can a garden be an attack, a flower a critique, a trowel an agent of social change?

Radical Gardening is about the idea of the ‘plot’, and its alternate but interwoven meanings in the garden. There are three. First there is the plot of the land, the garden space itself, how it is claimed, shaped, planted, and how we might understand some of the politics of flowers. Then there is the plot as narrative or story, whether historical or contemporary. The book draws on a small but persistent tradition of writing which sets itself against the dominant narratives of gardening. I trawled through many old and new anarchist and socialist magazines and leaflets to find some of these. Third, there is the notion of the plot as the act of politicking, sometimes a dark conspiracy but more often a positive, humanising gesture in a moment of change. So the ‘plots’ of Radical Gardening are the land itself, the history of the struggle, and the activism of the political conspiracy.

These plots show us how notions of utopia, of community, of activism for progressive social change, of peace, of environmentalism, of identity politics, are practically worked through in the garden, in floriculture, and through what art historian Paul Gough has called ‘planting as a form of protest’. But not all are positive—some are sobering, or frightening, for within the territory of the politically ‘radical’ there have been and continue to be social experiments that invert our positive expectations of the human exchange that occurs in the green open space of a garden. So I write also about fascist gardens, of how for the Nazis the land and its planting were pivotal to their ideology, of the notorious herb garden at Dachau concentration camp (run on the biodynamic principles of Rudolf Steiner favoured by many senior Nazis), of the SS ‘village’ at Auschwitz, as recalled by Primo Levi, with its domestic normality of houses, gardens, children and pets—and the garden paths paved with human bones. Such a fetishising of the land bolstered a murderous ideology: the suspicion towards Jews or Gypsies, as wanderers and nomads, were confirmed precisely because of their lack of a relationship with land or soil.

There are contemporary troubles too here: the British National Party, for example, has a campaign site entitled Land &People (not such a distant echo in its title of the Nazi Blood and Soil doctrine). On it the BNP argue that ‘Land & People say the choice between allocating land for locals—to utilise as allotments—or for “development”—building to house migrants—is, as they say, a “no brainer”!… Only British Nationalists will put the engine of immigration into reverse and, in so doing, save our countryside’. The BNP has also argued for the planting of old English varieties of apple trees as part of its campaign to preserve a pure and rustic national culture. In spite of being neither English nor a nationalist I myself have planted a ‘lost’ local heritage apple tree in my Lancashire garden (it doesn’t fruit as much as the Bramley bought end-of-season from B&Q for a fiver, thus probably explaining why it was lost). But nonetheless can we say that the discourse of horticultural purity and nativism—and even more so of native vs. invasive species—maps uncomfortably on to the politics of extreme nationalism and xenophobia?

The Tea House at Kew Gardens after an arson attack by the Suffragettes, February 1913.

My book is modest in its ambitions: all I want to do is to convince the reader-gardener that those notions of a horticountercultural politics you suspected were in your earthy practice and pleasure (I agree that you probably didn’t called them horticountercultural politics) have a rich and challenging tradition, a significance, as well as a trajectory of energy and import that makes them matter for our future. ‘Why’, asks writer-gardener Jamaica Kincaid, ‘must people insist that the garden is a place of rest and repose, a place to forget the cares of the world, a place in which to distance yourself from the painful responsibility with being a human being?’ I follow Kincaid, and other writers like Gough, Kenneth Helphand and Martin Hoyles, each of whom has helped shape my own understanding of the garden as a place that actually confronts and addresses the cares of the world. Helphand’s Defiant Gardens in particular, a study of gardens in the most unlikely of wartime settings (such as planted by troops in First World War trenches or in Jewish ghettos), with a stunning set of archive images from military and holocaust museums, made me completely rethink what might be definable as a garden. Martin Hoyles’ several books about gardens, class, history and politics were wonderful sources for me, too.

My position is not a forced juxtaposition of plant and ideology. Think only of the English radical writer William Cobbett, who declared in 1819 that ‘if I sowed, planted or dealt in seeds; whatever I did had first in view the destruction of infamous tyrants’. Or the early twentieth century revolutionary playwright Bertolt Brecht who observed, with startling accusatory power, that ‘famines do not occur, they are organized by the grain trade’. Or the Peace Pledge Union’s white anti-war poppy, or the 1960s hippie placing a flower down the barrel of the National Guard’s rifle—these are moments of ‘flower power’. Or the female Colombian activist speaking recently to western buyers on behalf of the 40,000 women working in the pesticidal Colombian flower industry: ‘Behind every beautiful flower is a death. Flowers grow beautiful while women wither away’. Or street artist Banksy, one of whose most famous images is the masked rioter throwing not a petrol bomb but a bunch of flowers. Or the simply expressed ecology of Richard Mabey in his new book Weeds, in which those despised and targeted plants are championed for their green resilience: in fact, weeds ‘may be holding the bruised parts of the planet from falling apart’. These horticultural and cultural snapshots illustrate a compelling and enduring connection between plant and politic, a radical gardening.

In his recent book Nowtopia, Chris Carlsson writes of a politics inscribed in the very act of ‘slowing down the gardener, making her pay attention to natural cycles that only make sense in the full unfolding of seasons and years. In a shared garden [especially], time opens up for conversation, debate, and a wider view than that provided by the univocal, self-referential spectacle promoted by the mass media’. Climate change, peak oil transition, community cohesion, the environment, genetic modification, food production and policy, diet, health and disability—the garden is the local patch which touches and is touched by all of these kinds of major global concerns, whether it wants that kind of attention or not. In a sparkling collection of autonomous essays from a decade ago called Avant Gardening, Peter Lamborn Wilson comments wryly that ‘“Cultivate your own garden” sounds today like hot radical rhetoric. Growing a garden has become—at least potentially—an act of resistance. But it’s not simply a gesture of refusal. It’s a positive act’.

Community activist-gardener (my book is full of these kinds of casually ambitious combinations) Heather C. Flores has written of being as ‘radical as a radish’. For Flores (I’m guessing that’s a pseudonym) ‘radical’ (like radish, from radix, Latin, meaning root) is an essential attribute of gardening, in the sense that ‘it comes from, and returns to, the root of the problem: namely, how to live on the earth in peace and perpetuity.’ A simple enough problem, and one in Flores’s view the garden can help solve. While Churchill stated to Siegfried Sassoon that ‘War is the natural occupation of man … war—and gardening’, I am more interested in the peace garden movement.

Rather than what Helphand calls the ‘antigarden’ of a war-ravaged landscape, I explore the CND-influenced peace garden of the type produced by left-wing local authorities in public parks in the 1980s, many of which are still around in some form. You could make a standard peace garden in a public park with a modest pagoda, some Peace roses, maples, cherry trees for spring blossom, and one or two small pine trees clipped in cloud shapes—this cluster of plants and structures signified a political statement of anti-nuclearism, bringing a piece of Japan to the British park, as a gesture of solidarity and memorialisation. A real political planting is in operation here—the design and construction of a polemic landscape. There is a wonderful recent example of a peace garden commemorating Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp in Berkshire. Perhaps post-Fukushima we will revisit and freshen up some of our remaining peace and anti-nuclear gardens.

Hyde Park revolutionaries and ravers,
utopian cranks and simple lifers…
permaculturalists, suffragettes and flower children,
allotmenteers and guerrilla gardeners—
a constituency of unrealistic pragmatists.

Curiously perhaps, the cosy and familiar space of the British allotment is a profoundly political—and in fact, I argue, anti-capitalist—environment, and an enduring success story of radical gardening. In their classic book The Allotment, David Crouch and Colin Ward point out that the very term contains a political position: ‘the word “allotment” implies deference and allocation, qualities that indicate a relationship between the powerful and the powerless’. Yet the fact remains that this willfully anti-capitalist state-sponsored horticulture is as radical a practice of gardening as any in government policy. The allotment’s anti-capitalism is most clear in two fundamental features: first, the astonishingly low rents charged for plots by local authorities, which is a powerfully consistent rejection of spiraling urban land market values; second, the legislative fact that, by and large, produce grown by allotmenteers cannot be sold commercially for profit. The standard treatment of a surplus or seasonal glut is to give it away: the allotment is predicated on a social and economic practice defined by, in Crouch and Ward’s term, ‘the gift relationship’. In their view, an anarchistic ‘combination of self-help and mutual aid … characterizes the allotment world’. Furthermore, in a nationwide public socio-horticultural experiment that has endured and transformed itself for over a century, it is on the allotment, among the bean frames and sheds, the DIY glasshouses and the patchwork of dirty labour, that we should look in Britain for a quiet seasonal radicalism. It’s not just me saying this about allotments and grow-your-own—Brighton media autonomists SchNEWS have put it more characteristically:

Growing your own grub is [as] sustainable as you can be—and you’re not at the mercy of some greedy corporation bent on controlling and profiting from your every mouthful to boot. Take a look in your local supermarket and the crap they want us to eat—it’s a toxic food society, and you could be growing your own additive-free, unpackaged, fresher, tastier grub—free of charge!… One of the [other] many benefits aside from the pleasure you can derive from planting yer own, is that you’re much less likely to throw away perfectly good food….

And what was it the old Russian émigré anarchist Peter Kropotkin wanted to remind us of a century ago? ‘Let every beginner remember that the superior gardening of the French, the Flemish, the Jersey and Guernsey gardeners, and the work of the English greenhouse growers and florists, is the result of their collective experience’.

Kate Evans, cartoonist

In January 1999, during his lamentable campaign against New York’s wonderful community gardens, made by local people since the 1970s on the city’s innumerable vacant lots of ‘waste’ ground, Mayor Rudy Giuliani said that ‘if you were totally unrealistic you could say everything should be a garden’. Well, through my book I tell of many instances of people being ‘totally unrealistic’ about gardens. From Hyde Park revolutionaries and ravers to utopian cranks and simple lifers in garden cities like Letchworth, organicists and back-to-the-landers, permaculturalists, white poppy pacifists and separatist peaceniks, suffragettes and flower children, allotmenteers and guerrilla gardeners … such a constituency of unrealistic pragmatists (they are gardeners, after all) is in my view quite a good social grouping with which to dream of, to make a better world—or, failing that, to lower the ambition to a less unrealistic level, to make the world slightly less bad than we are currently on track for. Radical gardeners should be part of the solution here.

In the East Anglian Fens of 1840s England, a utopian community was established at Manea Farm to make a new world—money was abolished, there was intensive agriculture and a cricket pitch, free love, militant feminism, even an independent press. Colonists likened themselves to Robin Hood and his foresters and dressed all in green—men in a green habit, women in green trousers. In 1920s and 1930s England a curious uniformed youth organisation was one of several established. The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift was a non-militaristic alternative to the Boy Scouts movement, whose most significant achievement would in turn be its offshoot, the Woodcraft Folk. Members marched in green (in the 1930s they became known as ‘Greenshirts’ as opposed to the fascist ‘Blackshirts’), and some threw green bricks at protests outside Downing Street and London banks. In 1970s London a small group of activist-architects called the Street Farmers dressed in green boiler suits, were environmental radicals who advocated the ploughing up and planting of the urban streetscape. And today’s Green Blocs of radical protestors constitute the environmentally centred part of the global anti-capitalist movement at demonstrations.

Crossing centuries, each of these movements (if not too grand a term for some) dressed in a shock of green clothing, a semiotic marker of some combination of romantic outlaw, a focus on nature, a radical and often unpredictable critique, an environmentalist belief and lifestyle, perhaps even all of these at the same time. Together they form a stylistically consistent and surprisingly persistent strand of the critical rejection of dominant society, and an energetically creative social mobilisation around questions of land, even of horti-counterculture. In my book I am not simply saying that all—Manea utopianists to Kibbo Kift, Street Farmers to Green Bloc—were radical gardeners, but also drawing attention to the historic presence of uncompromising greennesses during times of social change, idealism or agitation. To ‘sod it’ for the radical gardener is not a cross phrasing of resignation or defeat, but a green action of positive defiance for social change. As the slogan goes, ‘Resistance is fertile!’

George McKay is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Salford, UK. He has written extensively over the years about alternative cultures and music, the cultures of radical politics and social movements, in books like Senseless Acts of Beauty: Cultures of Resistance since the Sixties (1996), DiY Culture: Party & Protest in Nineties Britain (editor, 1998), Glastonbury: A Very English Fair (2000) and Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain (2005). His latest book, Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism & Rebellion in the Garden, was published in May 2011 by France Lincoln. His next, Shakin’ All Over: Rock, Popular Music and Disability, is published by the University of Michigan Press in 2012. He maintains a website at

  1. […] more here: ‘Sod It! Radical Gardening?’ in STIR (August 15, 2011), and then read the rest of the articles in the magazine too…. […]

  2. […] Excerpted from the introduction by George McKay in Stir magazine: […]

  3. Wow! That is an interesting slant.

  4. regarding lost apples we need new varieties as much as the old, not from the men in white coats but from many seedlings.Throw your apple cores into hedges or onto waste ground. Apples from such trees used to be known as pippins, but ironically todays “pippins” are from grafted trees. Every grafted tree is a clone of a single tree which may have grown a century or more ago. Not only can diseases spread easily from clone to clone but these trees are effectively very old. Fungi, microbes and insecs will have evolved considerably since the first graft was taken.

    Consider this analogy: A garden is like society, the gardener the goverrnent. The gardener wishes to get the maximum yield (tax). Some gardeners regulate their gardens intensively removing every last weed, pruning every tree, cultivating every inch like the dictator of a police state. Others believe that he who governs best, governs least, that chaotic nature has its benefits. Some invest heavily in fertilisers, manure and pesticides, others feel that this causes innefficiency. Some gardeners take too much and invest too little bankrupting their natural capital. In a truly anarchist garden there is no gardener everything is consumed by species living within the garden,.To participate in this system people must be a part of fhe garden ecosystem

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