Weed 'em and reap plenty of satisfaction
What's become of the UK's make-do-and-mendiness? Recent years have seen dramatic falls in the number of people rushing out to buy large tins of cream paint and put up wonky shelves, with Homebase reporting, just before Christmas, that it planned to shut a quarter of its most unprofitable stores as a result. It's not just Homebase: most DIY shops currently report a trend of increasing uninterest in any actual DIY. They've had to start hawking us flouncy cushions and accent lighting, in fact, just to make ends meet.
The national decline of enthusiasm for doing it ourselves may at least partly be because years of trying have demonstrated that the results are quite often terrible. The UK may have talent, but not at wallpapering. And wandering out the back of the badly installed kitchen, the rule applies in the garden as well.
As a direct consequence, lately we're a nation prone to ring up someone else to come and do it, from laying patios to putting up fences. For most people, the equation relating "quantity of free time at the weekend" to "number of minutes they'd like to spend laying new paving" leaves a clear winner every time.
Through the years, many novel trends have promised us complete liberation from horti work. There was "low-maintenance gardening", the 1980s buzzword, where a patchwork of shrubs, small enough to eliminate pruning, would provide "ground-cover", also dispensing permanently with the need to weed. Then the 1990s saw the arrival of decking, which promised a similar End To All Hoeing, as the garden disappeared under a patchwork of wooden squares.
There were water-permeable membranes that would lie just under the soil, preventing weeds from growing sufficient roots; there were new and ingenious weedkillers. Come this spring, and my neighbourhood is full of the smell of artifical turf: evergreen and destined never to require mowing, re-seeding or weeding (though you still have to wipe up the fox poo, I gather).
Judging by estate-agent brochures, the 2015 dream garden has become a clean minimalist box, completely connected via a seamless junction to the glass-walled kitchen, and floored with the same material, with one or two things growing in a corner for a bit of leafy decoration.
One of the things I think about when I ponder these glossy images is whether gardening is about destination or process. Are we gardening just to get there, or for the journey?
The same question applies to exercise: do you exercise mechanically, in a state of boredom, getting it out of the way and just aiming to use up calories - or is it a break from your day, a moment to stop and ponder, to snap out of reality and indulge yourself for a little while?
For me, it's the latter. And I suspect the same is true of my approach to gardening too. Yes, I do feel happier when the pruning is finally done, coming home to a neatly cut wisteria, pricking with furled buds. But I also, deep down, enjoy the provocation to get outdoors on a grotty day, to engage with the world outside. Some people just want the task done and out of the way; others don't see the point unless they've taken part in doing it themselves.
So, though I can see the appeal of every single one of those labour-saving innovations - and have tried many - I'm pretty sure decking and AstroTurf will never make an appearance in my garden. I like the gravel with the wild violets seeding themselves; I like the impromptu sandpit that turned into a mud pile when combined with a sprinkler. It'll never be a white minimalist box, but I get the satisfaction of thinking I did it (almost entirely) myself.