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Is it time we ditched the word ‘gardening’?

Updated: Jan 21

Re-posted from The Guardian

The term might seem inoffensive, but it’s loaded with cultural baggage

James Wong Sun 28 Aug 2022 03.15 EDT

Fascination with the natural world seems hardwired into our most basic human instincts. There is not only a beneficial effect from spending time in green spaces – as shown by the way it can reduce stress levels and even speed healing times in hospitals. But a growing body of scientific evidence now shows we don’t just like plants, we have a physical need to be around their beauty. So, here is my question: why, even as a nation of gardeners, do we struggle to get people involved in gardening? I’ve been sitting on panels for more than a decade as industry bodies, media outlets and charities try to address the increasingly worrying question of how few young people are interested in horticulture. With garden societies closing, course places going unfilled and nurseries shutting shop, it’s becoming quite urgent. Yet, in the past half decade, I have been incredibly reassured to see the flowering of interest in horticulture in the digital world, on platforms such as Instagram. This isn’t a mindless popularity contest of pretty pictures either. Connecting people from all over the planet with similar interests, these groups have now spawned a whole new generation of horticultural societies – ones that are not necessarily organised by traditional geographic boundaries either. In the past two years or so they’ve even set up their own real-life horticultural shows at which, slightly depressingly for me, I am now decades older, not younger, than most attenders. These younger plant geeks generally don’t consume traditional gardening media, rarely visit the major shows and have developed their own horticultural norms and culture in a few short years. The really encouraging (and yet perplexing) thing is, this is entirely a grassroots movement created not because of, but I’d say almost in spite of, the world of traditional gardening.

The good life: harvesting pumpkins. Photograph: Tom Werner/Getty Images

To me, one of the key issues behind this is the many euphemisms for “gardening” that are used, particularly online. Take a look at the hashtags they use and you’ll be presented with #plantdaddy, #plantparenthood, #crazyplantlady and #urbanfarmer. The words “gardener” and “gardening” feature rarely on these accounts which, ironically, are all about gardening. As a scientist who studies our cultural relationship with plants, I would argue that what can seem like generic terms to the initiated actually come loaded with cultural baggage. In particular, those appended by the word “proper”, which suggests an incredibly narrow way in which to garden and an even narrower sense of just who is allowed to participate. Despite having worked in the horticultural industry for almost two decades as a trained botanist, even I am rarely called a “proper” gardener when I attend a horticultural event. The higher the event’s perceived status, the less likely it is to happen. As exciting as this unfolding of a parallel horticultural universe is, I can’t help but wonder if it means a huge lack of sharing of information, skills and plants across generations. My question to plant lovers is: do we need to ditch the term “gardening” to reach new people? Or do we need to reclaim the word by demonstrating it to be more inclusive? I am tempted to say the former, but rather hoping for the latter. Follow James on Twitter @Botanygeek

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