Digging into Some New Garden Talk

Lockdown has given many people the time to reflect on life in a different way; not snatched in moments between tasks, but slowly, gently, taking mental pathways we don’t generally explore. I have really enjoyed reading books which would normally just pile up by my bedside – many of which see gardens as a nexus for new ideas. This has got me thinking about the words we use in garden writing and how these are being added to all the time, expressing contemporary thought and research areas. You may be familiar with a lot of them but perhaps one or two will be new. I am far from being an expert on any of the following areas, so please don’t take my word for it, explore these concepts for yourself. In no particular order or logic behind their inclusion except because I have chosen them, here is a mixed salad of words and terms I have picked from the garden (without my usual dressing of images). I hope there will be something here to whet your appetite.

Modernist Greens or Eco-Pragmatists – people have been concerned about our impact on the earth since forever so it’s hard to put a date on the start of the green movement. However, when you hear talk of Modernist Greens it is in relation and reaction to the activism dating from around the 1960s. In 2005 Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote a swingeing essay, ‘The Death of Environmentalism’, in which they criticised the Green Movement as being stale, ineffectual and woolly headed, clinging to a tree-hugging worldview which idealises wilderness as being the Holy Grail of ‘true nature’ and presents humans as the scourge of the earth. Modernist Greens beg to differ. They say that there’s no point clinging to a romantic vision of some Arcadian past. We are firmly in the Anthropocene age where man has changed the world significantly and there is no going back – so let’s go forward in the best way for all the stakeholders of the planet, including ourselves. This isn’t a marginal group – they include some really respected environmentalists like Mark Lynas who champions nuclear power and genetically modified crops as essential for a sustainable planet, or Peter Kareiva, formerly Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist, who has made it his mission to loosen nature’s grip on the green movement. There’s no argument that we are in an ecological mess – it’s just about how we get out of it. We are where we are and humans are here to stay so it is time to reconcile human needs and the needs of nature.

Phenology – is the study of plant (and animal) cyclic events and how these are affected by the seasons or annual variations in climate, as well as habitat changes. Sounds a bit technical but people have been intuitively reading signs in the natural world for centuries as a way of understanding when best to plant. When I lived in rural SW France, we waited for the overhead clamour and v-shaped formations of migrating cranes to celebrate the arrival of spring. Later in the year their return journey heralded the beginning of winter. In the garden, phenology is all about timing – for instance, it’s generally thought that it is safe to plant potatoes once you see that dandelions are in bloom. It’s an interesting subject with its own historical documentation as well as annual calendars still produced to guide the gardener in different climate zones today.

Deep Ecology – this is an interesting one which will be talked about a lot in the coming years. It describes an environmental movement and philosophy which knocks humans off the top of the pile and treats us as one of many equal components of a global ecosystem.

Biophilia and Urgent Biophilia – love this one, coined by biologist E.O. Wilson, his theory says that humans have an innate and genetically determined affinity with the natural world. When we are in deficit this need to connect with nature becomes ‘urgent’.

Lunar Gardening – nope, it’s not about gardening on the moon but rather gardening in relation to the phases of the moon – sometimes called Moon Gardening too. This is very popular in France where I first came across the idea, but there are lunar gardening calendars produced in the UK, North America and elsewhere, so it’s a fairly widespread practise. It is one of the things I have been able to give my time to understanding lately and I am grateful to John Harris, head gardener at the Tresillian Estate, for his lucid writing on the subject. There’s nothing particularly outlandish about lunar gardening, it’s just about harnessing the powerful gravitational force of the moon on our planet which, as we all know, causes the sea to move tidally. To a much smaller extent, tides also occur in lakes, the atmosphere, and within the Earth’s crust. High tides happen when water bulges upward, and low tides occur when water drops down. In the case of the garden it draws water in the soil upwards or causes it to drop back down again. It makes sense to work with these rhythms, planting when the soil is going to be in a damp, upward phase, or turning over the soil to allow in air and warmth when it is in a drier downward phase. Mr Harris says it saves the estate a huge amount of money as it maximises his efforts, therefore requiring less material input and man hours too e.g. fertiliser is made much more effective when spread at a time when it will be taken down by the action of falling water levels so you need much less of it. There’s a lot to learn with nearly everything from sowing to harvesting being better if you understand the gravitational pull of the moon on liquids.

Plant neurobiology – this is an area of study which is really hot. Broadly speaking, it asks can plants ‘think’? And it is really troubling when you add – and do they have ‘feelings’? Obviously, they don’t have brains like we do but there’s the rub – research has been anthropomorphic in essence, therefore sometimes missing the point. But that it changing. I went to a lecture by Paco Calvo from the Minimal Intelligence Laboratory of the University of Murcia and he demonstrated some pretty strong evidence for, at very least, a need to adjust our point of view. He points out that traditionally one important element of intelligence has been defined as the ability to move – plants are rooted so do not possess intelligence. Furthermore he points out, that just as we are unexpectedly conceding that certain animals are so like us that we are allowing them into our club, such as the octopus – we may in the future find plants to be sentient beings and, if so, the whole basis on which ethics is founded will have to shift. A fascinating subject.

Mycorrhizal Networks – While we are very familiar with mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi – their life beneath the soil has been less well-known but we now are beginning to realise it is quite amazing. In fact, most of their body is made up of a mass of thin threads, known as a mycelium, which reach out across huge land masses, partnering up with roots of plants in a mutually beneficial relationship. Research has now revealed that around 90% of land plants are in one such mutually-beneficial relationship with this network of mycelium, which some people have dubbed ‘the wood wide web’, but which gets its official name from the work of the 19th-century German biologist Albert Bernard Frank , who coined the word “mycorrhiza” to describe these partnerships, in which the fungus colonises the roots of the plant bringing it nutrients in exchange for moisture.

But that’s not the end of it – further research suggests that plants ‘support’ each other through this network. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver believes large trees help out small, younger ones using the fungal internet. Without this help, she thinks many seedlings wouldn’t survive. In a 1997 study, she found that seedlings in the shade – which are likely to be short of food – got more carbon from donor trees.

Furthermore, other researchers have found evidence that plants can go one better, and communicate through the mycelia. In 2013 David Johnson of the University of Aberdeen and his colleagues showed that broad beans also use fungal networks to pick up on impending threats – in this case, hungry aphids. He found that broad bean seedlings that were not themselves under attack by aphids, but were connected to those that were via fungal mycelia, activated their anti-aphid chemical defences. Those without mycelia did not. “Some form of signalling was going on between these plants about herbivory by aphids, and those signals were being transported through mycorrhizal mycelial networks,” says Johnson. Wow – seems an appropriate response.

Stuplimity – the aesthetic experience in which astonishment is united with boredom. Benjamin Vogt in his book, A New Garden Ethic (2019) quotes author Robert Macfarlane when talking about a world biodiversity crisis, ‘we register that crisis… as an ambient hum of guilt. Easily faded out. Like other unwholesome aspects of the Anthropocene, we mostly respond to mass extinction with stuplimity… in which astonishment is united with boredom such that we overload on anxiety to the point of outrage-outrage’’.

Unethical Amnesia – Related to stuplimity, unethical amnesia is driven by our desire to eliminate the distress that comes from acting unethically and to maintain a positive self-image as a moral citizen. How does this relate to gardens? As Vogt says, many of us know that we should be changing our habits to help mitigate the ecological damage we have caused. But we keep repeating the same behaviours such as ‘privileging one species over another through vast stretches of lawn, ill-timed mowing, monocultures of exotic plants…’ It is a feeling I recognise in myself when I buy a plant in a plastic pot or ‘give in’ to my desire for tidiness in the garden, or choose a species that isn’t as supportive of a healthy garden ecology over another which doesn’t perform quite so long.

Japanese – two words that I like in Japanese because they express feelings that we are familiar with but have no similar one-word way of expressing them. Yūgen – a wonderful word meaning a profound awareness of the universe that triggers emotional responses too deep and mysterious for words. Kokoro – a word which expresses the undivided wholeness of mind, body, spirit and heart. In Japanese culture these things exist as one – there is no division as there is for us. I would love to have an equivalent word in English – it would be wonderful to create a Kokoro Garden, wouldn’t it?

Phytoremediation – use of plants to clean soil and water.

Landrace – a domesticated, locally adapted, traditional variety of animal or plant that has developed over time, through adaptation to its natural and cultural environment of agriculture and pastoralism, and due to isolation from other populations of the species. In plants this means a local variety of a domesticated species which has adapted largely to the natural and cultural environment in which it lives. It differs from a cultivar, which has been selectively bred to conform to a particular standard or characteristic. This is an important distinction which is an ingredient in the heated discussion over whether native plants are always the best choice in gardens and designed landscapes. I could have included a paragraph about the natives v exotics debate in this list – which starts with the question, ‘what is a native plant?’ I chickened out!

Summary – so that’s it – my little list of words, some of which encompass mind-blowingly large concepts and possibilities. There is so much rich debate and thought about ways in which gardens and gardening can help nurture both healthier people and a healthier planet. I am in awe of the people who actively spend their day researching better ways to be – power to them.

N.B. If you are worried about ordering books online at the moment during the Covid 19 crisis may I recommend the wonderful John Sandoe independent bookshop – which you can trust to be careful and considerate in the way they work: https://johnsandoe.com/

Comments 2

  1. Enjoyed this piece very much and so informative. Thank you Angel. And may I add that Alexander von Humboldt was concerned about the misuse of planet Earth by humans a very long time ago.

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      Absolutely – what a wonderful advocate for the appreciation of the importance of our relationship with the natural world. I loved his biography by Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature and would highly recommend it.

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