What We Can Learn From the British

There is a 250 year old maple tree on the original 9 acre grounds of Kew Gardens in London England that attracts a lot of attention. It is the only tree that I have ever seen that is fenced in, held up with iron supports and bricks and mortar. Planted in 1760, the year that Kew was founded by Queen Charlotte, it is less beautiful than it is symbolic. Walking through the 300 plus acres that is Kew today it is hard to believe that this horticultural treasure was anything other than spectacular. If UNESCO designated internationally important gardens as they do natural and historic sites, this would surely top the list. Truth is, of course, that it has evolved just as all living things evolve and it is not anything like the Kew of old. Gardening is, I am reminded, an art form that is in a constant state of change. I have yet to meet a gardener, Canadian or otherwise, who has determined that their work is done. Unlike a painting or sculpture, you do not just walk away from your work when you garden; you nurture it and work with the tools at hand, including the limitations imposed by Mother Nature, to create something beautiful.

Today’s Beauty is Tomorrow’s history.

It is the changes in the British habits of gardening that intrigues me.   I do not need to argue in favour of their gardening pedigree. No nation on earth has invested in the discipline of gardening to the extent and with the enthusiasm of the Brits. It is their 500 year history of complete devotion to gardening – bordering at times on mania – which speaks for itself. I first toured British gardens some 35 years ago. Suffice it to say I was very young at the time, ok? Since then I have witnessed some dramatic changes in their approach to gardening and I believe that we can learn from them.

Nature, not Nurture.

Years ago a British gardener may have suggested that no garden is worth having without the proper care and maintenance. Today the same thing holds true but the standards have changed. Take ‘naturalizing’ for example. During my recent tour of British gardens I could not help but notice that the clipped and manicured lawn has been replaced in many corners of the public show garden with areas where the lawn has been allowed to grow up and go to seed. I also saw areas where meadows had been carefully sown with flowering perennials and bi annuals that provided nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Carefully planned perhaps, but not manicured by any means. The sound of a lawn mower is conspicuously absent. We are seeing more of the same on some Canadian golf courses. Audubon now provides certification to golf courses across North America. This certificate comes with stringent conditions that include the creation of naturalized areas to attract song birds and other wildlife. If you are a golfer you will no doubt have seen signs in the ‘rough’ stating that the area is ‘out of bounds’ as ball retrieval disturbs the wildlife nurtured there. Just a few years ago such an idea would have seemed absurd.


The British love of animals is well known. Is it any wonder that Dr. Doolittle, the maniacal vet who could talk to the animals of Disney fame, had an English accent? More recently we have seen protection for toads and turtles by building tunnels and causeways specifically for them under roadways. In ‘Kew’ magazine, the garden’s official publication, 30% of the space is dedicated to news about wildlife. The London Times provides a daily ‘Nature News’ report in the main section of the paper. On July 4th there were 4 paragraphs devoted to the arrival of the Tortoiseshell Butterfly. Perhaps some day we see Canadian wildlife featured prominently and regularly in the pages of this paper. Lord knows that we have enough of it. Wildlife that is.


Anyone that has spent any time in Britain knows of their love of allotment gardens. Much more than a place to grow food, the allotment craze provides entire weekends of entertainment for whole families. Rather than driving up north to the trailer or cottage as many of us do, Brits see fit to scoot over to the allotment to set up camp. Entertainment is found in the activity of staking tomatoes, pulling weeds and enjoying some Pimm’s in the shade while bragging about the size of ones courgette. Here in Canada the interest in public garden plots is also growing substantially. Not only are we claiming a few square feet of otherwise wasted space for our own but many are teaming up with whole communities to plant and maintain food gardens where the harvest is shared equally among the participants. Allotment gardeners know the value of quality soil. They are limited to their assigned space and make the most of the growing plot by amending the soil. I recommend spreading a generous layer of peat-based PRO-MIX® Organic Vegetable & Herb Mix over the garden each spring. It is perfect for growing vegetables, fruits, and herb gardens. Vegetable & Herb Mix contains an organic fertilizer that provides gradual feeding to your plants. It also contains gypsum for amazing tomato growth, and MYCOACTIVE® Organic Growth Enhancer that will help produce vigorous growth and a bountiful and healthy harvest.

Changing Focus

 The point is that the focus is changing. No longer are gardeners interested in plants for plants sake, but rather, the new passion for them springs from a desire to create habitat for wildlife, to put quality food on the table, to bring communities together and it provides a convenient reason to be social. Yes, gardening can cure shyness. A tree that was planted in 1760 is worth preserving if for no other reason but to remind us that a mere 9 acre plant collection has morphed into the greatest botanical garden in the world where 300 people are employed in medical research and development alone (yet another reason to celebrate). From this point of view the future indeed looks exciting.

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