Radical plots: The politics of gardening

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Gardens can captivate, relax and delight. But they have also been the setting for political statements and bloody protests. George McKay argues that we must dig beneath the flowerbeds and see the turf wars instead

Gardening is suburban, it's a leisure activity and a TV-makeover opportunity. Its origins are religious or spiritual (Garden of Eden), military (the clipped lawn, the ha-ha and defensive ditches), aristocratic or monarchical (the stately home, the Royal Horticultural Society).

It's a practical, hands-on, common-sense thing we do – and Britons do it a lot.

For millions of us, gardening is our regular pleasure. But there is an alternative route, through history and across landscape, away from practice and into ideas, that explores the link between, say, propagation and propaganda, or pomegranate and hand grenade. Just think of the words of the radical gardener-artist Ian Hamilton Finlay, from his contumacious green space called 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?

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 – 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. There are fascist gardens (for the Nazis the land and its planting were pivotal to their ideology): the notorious herb garden at Dachau concentration camp (run on the biodynamic principles of Rudolf Steiner which were favoured by many senior Nazis); 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.

There are also contemporary troubles: the British National Party, for example, has a campaign website entitled Land and People (not such a distant echo in its title of the Nazi Blood and Soil doctrine): "Land and People say the choice between allocating land for locals – utilise as allotments – or for 'development' – building to house migrants – 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 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 the politics of extreme nationalism and xenophobia?

Any notions of a horti-countercultural politics (I agree that they probably don't called them horti-countercultural politics) that gardeners may have imagined were in their earthy practice and pleasure have a rich and challenging tradition, a significance and 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?"

Kincaid and other writers – like Gough, Martin Hoyles and Kenneth Helphand – have 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: Making Gardens in Wartime 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.

This isn't 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 20th-century revolutionary playwright Bertolt Brecht, who observed, with startling accusatory power, that "famines do not occur, they are organised 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 Guardsman's rifle. 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, whose most famous images include the masked rioter throwing not a petrol bomb, but a bunch of flowers. These horticultural 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 and food 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 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 that, in Flores's view, the garden can help solve. While Winston 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'm fascinated by 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. Perhaps with Fukushima we will revisit and freshen up some of our remaining peace and anti-nuclear gardens.

Curiously perhaps, the cosy and familiar space of the British allotment is a profoundly political – and, I believe, anti-capitalist – environment. 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 wilfully 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 spiralling 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... characterises 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 glass houses and the patchwork of dirty labour, that we should look in Britain for a quiet seasonal radicalism.

Sometimes the garden has been the target of political attack and in British garden history among the most notable of these campaigns were the garden attacks by suffragettes in the early 20th century. These were done with a very clear understanding of the gender relations underpinning land and garden (after all, the new gardening colleges for women then springing up were teaching other – or perhaps the very same – suffragettes careers in horticulture). So some suffragettes damaged male-only golf greens with acid spilled secretly at night to ruin the next day's playing.

The most notorious of these acts – reported as "female vandalism" – was the targeting of Kew Gardens in 1913: first the smashing of the Orchid House and then the firebombing of the Tea Pavilion. As one horticultural magazine described events: "Kew has been marked out by the suffragettes as one of the scenes of their exploits. They smashed a quantity of glass in the orchid house, and in a manner that one can scarcely accredit to sane adults,wantonly tried to destroy the plants".

In January 1999, during his lamentable campaign against New York's wonderful community gardens, made by local people since the 1970s on vacant lots of "waste" ground, Mayor Rudy Giuliani said that "if you were totally unrealistic you could say everything should be a garden". Well, there are countless 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, biodynamicists and back-to-the-landers, permaculturalists, white-poppy pacifists, separatist peaceniks, suffragettes, 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 and to make a better world – or, failing that, to lower the ambition to a realistic level, to make the world slightly less bad than what we are currently on track for. Radical gardeners should be part of the solution.

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, 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 England during the 1920s and 1930s 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 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 in protests at Downing Street and banks.

In 1970s' London a small group of activist-architects, the Street Farmers dressed in green boiler suits, consisted of environmental radicals who advocated the ploughing up and planting of the urban streetscape. And today's Green Bloc 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 – and had 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.

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 greenesses 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. 'Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism & Rebellion in the Garden' is published on Friday by France Lincoln (£12.99). To order a copy for the special price of £11.69 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk

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