Posted by: lialeendertz | March 1, 2010

The horticultural is political

I was raised by a pack of feminists. That’s a vast over-simplification (and sounds a bit rude: be assured that I do mean ‘pack’ in the most positive sense of the word, sisters) but  my mum was a single parent and had a big, supportive gang of single-mum friends, who were always around and who were a big influence on me. ‘Consciousness raising’ meetings (doesn’t that have a wonderfully 19th-Century-Improvement-Society ring to it?) were held at our house, Spare Rib was the first magazine I ever leafed through, and I remember being pushed along a Women’s Lib march in my pram.

And so a phrase that has rung through my ears all my life is ‘The personal is political’. It was a catch phrase of the women’s movement and means, in part, that the personal choices you make in your day-to-day life affect the wider world: if you run yourself into the ground fetching egg and chips for your man while he hollers at you from the sofa (I’m imagining him in a string vest, and having a good old scratch while he’s at it) you affect the lot of women everywhere. Even behind closed doors you are moulding the political landscape by your actions.

I am telling you all this partly because of a comment I got from uber-blogger VP on my last post on forest gardens. She says, oh so innocently: ‘If I remember correctly the permaculture people are rather keen on promoting forest gardening’. My first reaction was to stamp my foot and shout my four-year-old son’s favourite phrase of the moment ‘I know that.’ But then I reflected, and I realised I have been being coy with you, trying not to scare you off by being too worthy, or serious, or militant, or strident. VP’s comment, and several others, made me realise that if I leave stuff out you lot are going to fill in the blanks yourselves (clever sausages that you are) and leave me stamping my foot and wishing I’d said it first. And the truth is I am a bit worthy, serious, militant and strident, so I’m going to have to come clean and tell you about the Grand Plan.

These women were obviously keen that their daughters take on this message (and the sons too, for that matter – oh, the poor sons…) and so a sense of personal and social responsibility was fairly well drummed into me. Perhaps because of this I have always felt a little frustrated at the inward-looking nature of gardening. Gardens are not meant to be affected by the wider world. We close our gates, heave a sigh of relief and blissfully tend our own little patch, determinedly oblivious. What happens in my garden is between me and my lawn edger, and let no man cast asunder. But then there’s permaculture. Permaculture is different because it does look at the wider picture, it looks at the problems and the opportunities that exist in the environment surrounding a garden or a piece of land, and finds solutions based on ideas from the natural world. The very first bit of permaculture I came afross was Bustan Quraaqa, a permaculture farm in Palestine which I wrote about for The Guardian gardening blog here (in fact, if you can be bothered to look, you will see a comment from one of my mum’s pack, using the very phrase I’m banging on about). The permaculturists running this farm are tackling major, heart-breaking, life-wrecking problems – the ground pollution caused by the lack of sanitation or rubbish collection and the diverting of rivers from Palestinian land to water Israeli farms – with composting toilets, community composting schemes, the sculpting of rain-harvesting ‘swales’ and by planting ‘desert agriculture’ crops carob, dates, apricots and capers. It is about plants and design, but it’s also about people, and problems, and solutions. It’s political.

To me it’s exciting that gardening techniques can hold such power. I truly do appreciate the beauty of a perennial border in its prime or a well-fertilised rose that is pumping out blooms, but I suppose all those womanly talkings to sunk in, and I do, actually, believe that the personal is political, and, although it really isn’t cool to say it, I don’t believe that ‘it’s only gardening’. Gardeners have such an opportunity. We have the skills, the leaning and, above all, the land to make an impact on the world. Land has always meant power, and just because our parcels of land are small, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t exercise this power for the greater good.

Which brings me to that Grand Plan. The Grand Plan is to make my small, urban garden as self-sufficient in everything it needs as possible – this means fertilisers, plant supports, water, waste disposal, even power, everything I can think of – because most of what we consume creates a problem for someone, somewhere. For the same reason it will eventually, I hope, produce food. The forest gardening idea is obviously a major part of this. The permaculturists are, as VP says, pretty keen on promoting forest gardening, and I think it is because this is our ‘desert agriculture’. It mimics a native habitat, and so should come pretty easy, once it’s going, without vast inputs of materials, energy or time. And this Grand Plan is really why I set up this blog, because if I tell you about it, I have to do it too. It wont – I promise – all be like this, I will lighten up next time, but sometimes you have to get things off your chest, come clean, and get a bit worthy, serious, militant and strident. Otherwise VP will nip in and do it for you.



  1. Fab post – I really enjoyed it. Nice to read a post that made my brian work and think. I understand and can relate to your Mum and her gang completely and suppose I have a similar view to life although maybe not as strident!! The personal IS the political as I try to get across to my parents. Backing your Grand Plan all the way, although I wont be following suit just at the moment.

    Your description of the woman fetching fishnchips reminded me of Shirley Valentine

  2. I notice that the RHS journal, The Garden, is promoting the very bad habit of adding fertiliser to perennial flower beds and borders. Is anyone going to protest?

    And not convinced by Flowerdew’s downer on shredded bark as a mulch, in Gardens Illustrated = deterring people from useful recycling.

    I think there’d need to be a bit of protesting that sort of stuff as well as blogging?

  3. Good for you – glad you came out of the proverbial closet and let us all in on your Grand Plan! There is nothing like a bit of public accountability to make sure we achieve our goals.

    As a reader it is also nice to know in advance what direction a blog writer is going in – it adds to the anticipation and enables us to go on the journey with you.

    I do love ‘The personal is political’ that’s a great way to frame it. I feel the same is true in our gardens. If one person doesn’t care enough to do something, it has a knock on effect. And of course the reverse is true.

    This is my first visit to your blog – I will be following your progress with interest from now on.

  4. Blimey what did I unleash? 😉

    Fab post and I think we’ve been worrying at similar issues from different starting points. How we deal with a growing population, peak oil and the ever pressing need to produce more of our own food over the next few decades really puts the wind up me when I really stop to think about it.

    ‘personal is political’ is such a good way of putting things. I must remember that phrase the next time Soilman and I have a debate on this subject.

    I’ll never forget when one of our school leavers came back and donated a subscription for ‘Spare Rib’ to the school library. In spite of being at an all girls school, it was delightful to see most of the (nearly all spinster) teaching staff squirming in embarassment!

  5. I like the way the short comment by VP made you think. The personal is political was drummed into me too, but in a different environment. Interesting how it permeates so much of what one’s life and shapes one’s view.

  6. Couldn’t agree more Lia. Our gardens are part of the landscape, and the fact that we put little diddy fences around them and call them ‘ours’ is neither here nor there. Gardens are not islands, we are not masters of them or anything else, as is ably shown every day (but that we do so well to ignore).
    I’ve always found the gender divide in gardening to be fascinating; women tending more toward growing, men toward control – hedges and lawns. Of course there are many expert amateur and professional men who grow and nurture, but often there is a gender element to this – biggest Chrisanthemum flower, heaviest onion, most floriferous orchid, etc.
    We were making a forest garden at Harlow Carr before I left (a work in progress still) and there is a great one up the road from HC at Sleningford. In the meantime I’d just like to see gardening mags desist in promoting inorganic veg growing techniques for perennials. Lazy journalism, outmoded techniques.

  7. Hello Lia, I like your stroppy blog and I’m glad you were raised by a pack of feminists. Kate

  8. I noticed you rumbling on Twitter about no men commenting on this post so rushed home in order that I could be the first: I was expecting something terribly contentious but actually it seems quite the opposite.
    Rather than the anti-male chanting I was expecting we have an outline of your very sensible (and, I believe, not exclusively female) grand plan. Although I do believe that most of the gardening we do is not terribly serious and it is “only gardening” and I get a trifle agitated when people come over all serious about herbaceous borders. I also appreciate that growing stuff can be extraordinarily bonding and powerful especially when it involves survival rather than prettiness.
    Good post and I look forward to seeing the plan come together (something which in the words of Hannibal Smith on the A Team, we love)

    I’m not convinced that many people wear string vests any more. I must do some research: I bet Bob Flowerdew has one.

  9. I do apologise for disguising myself as a biscuit in the previous comment: forgot to click the right button.
    Anyway, it is me, James.


  10. Your readers might also be interested in this discussion of gender issues in the garden world:


  11. Helen – I think i might have been thinking of Shirley Valentine too, but what she says is ‘chips and egg’, which is just lovely and always sticks in my mind.

    Anne – thanks for the link through to the gender and gardening discussion – really worth a read everyone – and you’re right, such things do need to be taken up with gardening mags etc… maybe as I get braver. I’m not sure about the wood chips one, I reckon there are better ways to recycle your woody bits, but that’s a whole other post…

    Rachel, VP, Kate – apologies for lumping you together, but I am glad the phrase hit the spot with all of you. I do love getting comments and the way they make me reassess what I am up to, so thanks especially to VP for taking this so well!

    Matthew – that’s a really good way of putting it, that gardens are part of the landscape, despite our imaginary territorial markers. Very nice.

    Hi Kate – Thanks. Yeah, me too…

    James the Biscuit – it isnt a particularly feminist post at all, actually, is it? Must try harder. I suppose i was just wanting to lay out my own motivations for being a bit worthy every now and then.
    Of course people wear string vests. I saw it on Rab C Nesbitt the other night. Now there’s a man…

  12. Oi! A pack of feminists indeed! It is now quite a distant memory of ‘how it was for women’ before the feminist movement’s day, (read The Women’s Room by Marilyn French to experience it!). I do however know that not all the issues have been won yet.
    However it would be great Lia to feel that your early life experiences have a different political impact in the important issues of today. I have to admit that there was no time for gardening alongside those marches and meetings!!
    As always in haste…
    Love Mumx

    • Ooer. Sorry mum, probably should have run all that past you first! Your lot made things a great deal easier for us lot, for sure. by the way, we did have a very small apple tree, and a quite massive amount of fennel, I seem to recall, so not an entirely horticulture-free upbringing x

  13. I am eternally grateful for the feminist movement – not least because I have just watched the first two seasons of ‘Mad Men’ and am still in a slight state of shock.

    And I also believe in ethical gardening – a phrase that no doubt will make James throw up on the spot! I was raised by a father who passionately believed in sustainability, recycling and a need to always question the impact we’re making on our planet. It wasn’t a laugh-riot but it did give me a set of principles which I try to uphold today.

  14. Lia, I love you to bits and your colloquial style generally hits the spot but I have to disagree with your use of a “pack” of feminists. Packs have a top dog, compete like mad and bite one another!

    While our group of feminists had their differences, I don’t remember anyone biting. What we did do is to support one another pretty well unconditionally. This is one of the central points of “personal is political”. How you organise, how you think about others and the effect on them of everything you do is vital. Gardening is no different. Making sure you discuss with your neighbours where you put that fence, asking permission to lop off a branch of their tree which blocks light in your garden, allowing your beautiful climber to be included in their scheme are all political acts.

    I am delighted that the next generation are re-discovering the feminist approach but sad that it seems that every generation has to discover it again and again (including my own) and it has yet to become part of mainstream thinking.

    Enough of the worthy and serious! As an enthusiastic amateur gardener and one of the group/team/folly? of feminists who helped influence your move into horticulture, let me say how proud I am of the work you do, personally, and your generation do, men and women, to change political thinking in many walks of life.

    • Oh blimey, now Annie’s here, I’ve really gone and done it. I didnt actually think you lot read this.
      OK i used the word ‘pack’ to grab attention (you’ve got to get this gardening lot by the throat or they’re off in seconds), but i also meant it in the sense that you all looked out for each other, and for each other’s children and that there was a feeling of cameraderie and community. But you’re right, I perhaps didnt think the analogy through sufficiently!
      This post isnt, as you probably noticed, meant to be particularly about feminism at all, but about living a politically aware life, and how we, as gardeners, have a greater chance to do that than most. But I will try and write one about feminism some time as everyone seems everso keen x

  15. Oh yes, was and am a feminist, marched and read Spare Rib at university in between dancing and getting drunk. Now am a gardener aiming for near self sufficiency and frequently failing. I am glad to hear of your grand plan. I have one too but I have not yet been brave enough to declare it. You might flush me out if I keep following yours.

  16. I’ve not come across ‘the personal is political’ before, but it so aptly and succinctly reflects what I feel and am trying to achieve. Take for example, my newly built (and not yet very green) green roof. It was a personal choice to have a green roof, but interesting to see how the affects have rippled out. This was something new for the architect, the builder and the local building inspector, as well as my friends and neighbours. They may all currently think that I’m bonkers – “Are we going to see you up there with the lawnmower?” was one remark from my neighbour – but if it makes one more person consider the issues of rainwater runoff and biodiversity, then I will be happy.

  17. Whilst I suspect I never marched to anyone else’s tune I certainly did my bit for women’s rights, like Elizabethm marching and arguing in between dancing and getting drunk. The turning point for me was reading Marilyn French’s ‘The Women’s Room’. It would be interesting to re-read and see if it still holds any of the same impact. Also drilled into me at University that all actions had political impact or resonance. Sadly most of my leftwing and/or feminist friends sold out in the end buying second homes and 4x4s and living an entirely self-interested lifestyle. (Whereas I, being less principled in the first place have since found it easier to stick to those principles I have.) Sorry seem to have strayed off permaculture somewhere down the line..

  18. Hoorah! Well done for speaking out and sharing your Grand Plan with us. As feminists and permaculturists, we at Urban Fringe Dispensary wholeheartedly approve!
    We’ve got a Grand Plan too actually, which I’d like to share with you all and see what you think.
    We’re hoping to build the knowledge back into city folk to enable them to grow and make some of their own medicine. See what we’re up to on our website, or come and have a chat over a cup of herb tea…..
    In the meantime, all power to your elbow, Lia.

  19. And when we used to work together with Tim, I thought I was the strident one !
    Keep it coming.

  20. I did indeed miss this the first time around, mostly as i was running courses when you tweeted – so please do repimp for a few days more regularly, although not as regularly as some feel the need obviously..

    What a fab Grand Plan, i do hope you don’t think of some brilliant ideas I wish I’d thought of, that would be awful. Can you run them all by me first so I cn filter out some?

  21. Good luck to you! I wish more of us were political and passionate in our garden endeavours. Country Mouse and myself feel very strongly about planting natives for wildlife, and it’s made a big difference in our gardens. (I buy my veggies from the organic farmers at the market; they need my support as well).

    Regardless, it’s important to have reasons for why you garden how you garden. Just to please the neighbors is not a good reason.

  22. Dawn – worthy types of the world unite! we are building a consensus here. I’ll make the wholemeal houmous sandwiches. Just try not to look at James over there, sipping champagne out of prize peonies.

    Liz – Sounds wonderful, and all part of taking responsibility for our impact on the landscape, and I am glad the phrase hit a chord with you.

    elizabethm and Arabella – I seem to recall, if they dont mind me saying, that there was a fair bit of dancing and getting drunk for my mum’s lot too.

    LisaD – nice grand plan of your own, very good.

    David Hide! – how wonderful to find you here! This will sound corny but our chats in the potting shed were very inspiring to me and definitely helped set me on the road to trying to think in an alternative, left-leaning way about the way we garden. All in the depths of Wisley too – way to stick it to The Man eh?

    MarkD – Phew, was getting slightly panicked not to get a comment from my chief commenter. Can sleep at night now. Delighted you approve.
    By the way, one can subscribe to email updates at the top right of the page to be sure one never misses a thing, but I know you like to live on the edge a little.

    Town Mouse – welcome! I think what is exciting about these comments is finding how many people already are political and passionate about their gardens, but it is definitely something that could be talked about more. your garden sounds great.

  23. Having been severely rebuked by Jane Owen recently for a post Haiti-whinge about us garden designers being ineffectual when it comes to important things in life, this thoughtful post has given even more food for thought and restored a little self-esteem. Thank you.

  24. Another lovely and thought-provoking piece. I had gardening drummed into me as a child and had to find feminism and politics; now I find it hard to separate the two. So I look forward to more stroppy forest gardening!

    PS. I think I spotted a protest slogan hidden in your piece: “gardeners for the greater good”

  25. Cleve – For high-profile designers such as you to get into permaculture would just be wonderful. There is loads you can do. I am only at the start of looking into it all myself, but have found a good starting point to be Permaculture Magazine. On the Haiti point, you might be interested in this post from Punk Rock Permaculture (you can follow him on twitter @gaiapunk) about permaculture relief corps in kosovo and haiti

    Frugilegus – Thank you. Encouraging how many people are arriving at a similar place, by different routes. We’ll need a slogan for when we march on Downing St.

  26. What an interesting post. Gardening exercises my arms and arse quite well, but rarely my grey matter.

    Although I don’t come from the feminist station, I do end up at the same terminus as you, Lia: that the ‘personal’, in gardening, IS political. That our choices, in our gardens, do have a wider impact than the local. That we need to be careful, and husband our resources, and not use pollutants and chemicals and all the horrible paraphernalia of 21st century agrichemical farming.

    The only part of your piece that made me flinch (and only mildly) was this:

    “…because most of what we consume creates a problem for someone, somewhere”

    I know what you mean. I don’t even dispute that there is truth in it. But if the personal is the political, this world view has its own dangers; implying, as it does, that our very existence (dependent upon consumption, to at least some extent) threatens others. That by eating, drinking and heating our homes we are threatening others’ survival. And that therefore all resources – all – must be divided and shared and strictly allocated. For the noblest of reasons: to guarantee nobody’s consumption hurts anyone else.

    If you follow this thinking to its logical conclusion, you run collectivist agriculture and re-education camps on Khmer Rouge model to guarantee ‘fairness of distribution’. There are some in the permaculture movement, it seems to me, whose writings suggest they would not find some of this unwelcome.

    I most certainly do.

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