These days, you can't see the trees for the wood

People want instant gardens with decking. No wonder starlings are an endangered species
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The Independent Online

Pistols at dawn, pruning shears at tea-time: it amounts to the same thing, this venomous little spat between gardeners from opposite ends of the horticultural spectrum. In the blue corner, representing tradition - hours of horny-handed toil in all weather and a deep-rooted suspicious of most things beginning with P (as in patios, plastic pool linings, polystyrene-coated pergolas, picnic furniture, Pan, reconstituted-stone statues of) - we have Eric Robson, presenter of that hardy perennial on Radio 4, Gardeners' Question Time.

Pistols at dawn, pruning shears at tea-time: it amounts to the same thing, this venomous little spat between gardeners from opposite ends of the horticultural spectrum. In the blue corner, representing tradition - hours of horny-handed toil in all weather and a deep-rooted suspicious of most things beginning with P (as in patios, plastic pool linings, polystyrene-coated pergolas, picnic furniture, Pan, reconstituted-stone statues of) - we have Eric Robson, presenter of that hardy perennial on Radio 4, Gardeners' Question Time.

Jostling for space in the red-for-revolution corner, we have the new breed of television garden-makeover consultants, Alan Titchmarsh, Monty Don and Charlie Dimmock. In less time than it takes to dead-head a rose bush or weed a window box they will happily transform a modest plot comprising lawn, flower-beds and potting shed into B&Q's answer to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, plus decking and a water feature.

Dead-heading and weeding are not part of the modern gardener's remit, complains Robson. Nor are planting the sort of shrubs that take 20 years to flower or trees that take 200 years to grow. People want instant, low-cost, no-maintenance gardens. Rather than waste time mowing lawns and weeding flower-beds they would prefer to cover their gardens with paving and decking and buy urns full of flowers, preferably in bloom. No wonder starlings are becoming an endangered species. No matter how early the poor little birds start looking for breakfast, the chances of them catching a worm under six inches of concrete aren't high.

Robson would like gardeners to return to the time-honoured traditions of horticulture in which natural vegetation, soil, climate, position and even ambience are taken into consideration. If you've ever listened to Gardeners' Question Time you'll know how the land lies. "Could the panel suggest a pretty flowering shrub I could plant against an exposed north-east facing wall, constantly battered by Atlantic gales in a mixture of heavy clay and builders rubble? And I should perhaps mention that we have experienced problems in the past with fall-out from the local nuclear power station..."

Robson says we should be planning gardens not for ourselves but for our grandchildren. Glorious gardens such as Sissinghurst, Hidcote, Stourhead and Sheffield Park wouldn't exist, he says, if our 18th- and 19th-century ancestors had been as short-sighted, as pusillanimous, as we are. As for the millions of people who visit them every year, they would have nothing more inspiring to look at in the way of bucolic entertainment than the designated picnic area behind the Boxhill car park. I don't know how long the Duchess of Northumberland has spent revamping the Capability Brown gardens of Alnwick Castle, but half a million people queued to see them last summer and heaven knows how many more there will be this August when her much-publicised poison garden featuring strychnine and arsenic plants opens.

Millions is about the size of it, comes the answer from the red corner. The Duchess's revamped gardens have cost £42m so far. Most of us are loath to spend £400 to tart up our backyards. Robson, they say, is snobbish, elitist and out of touch. It's true that few of us have the funds to bulldoze an entire hill, like the late Lord Rothschild because it was spoiling his view, or the space to put in formal terraced gardens like the ones at Drummond Castle near Crieff. But from what I've seen of those TV programmes the plants scarcely feature. It's the accessories that cost. One woman wanted flowers to match the cushions on her new swing seat. What colour are the cushions, asked the gardener. Green, said the woman.

A friend who runs a garden centre says there are so many lucrative spins-offs from TV gardening programmes that the Horticultural Trade Association website now advertises plants they know will be featured in forthcoming programmes. In the golden age of horticulture (ie before Ground Force), B&Q used to sell around £10,000 worth of decking a year. Now it's nearer £10m, thanks to Miss Dimmock gazing thoughtfully (and bralessly) at a perfectly acceptable lawn and saying: "Mmm, I wonder if decking might give it a bit of a lift."

It's the same with water features. The new owners of what used to be my favourite restaurant in Scotland next to the Isle of Lismore ferry have installed a water feature as featured on Ground Force which, in view of its position slap next to Loch Linnhe, might seem superfluous. It has everything: ornamental spout, plastic liner, decking, phosphorescent green spotlights focusing through the gaps in the planks on to the sweet wrappers below. Apparently the owners wanted a patch of green in that corner. What's wrong with a tree?

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