As the naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week, “The connection between the natural world and the urban world . . . since the Industrial Revolution has been remote and widening.” Attenborough has spent a 60-year career trying to narrow that gap in television programs that began as a form of entertainment and, in recent years, have become a cry for an ailing planet. “The Garden of Eden,” Attenborough says, “is no more.” He speaks with such affable authority that resistance is futile.
So we must invent and inhabit our own gardens of Eden, but where and how to begin if you are in your 20s in an apartment or 30s in your first home with a bit of land?
My general advice is to start small, learn from your successes and mistakes, and take the long view. Don’t think about creating a show garden; worry about whether the house plant you repotted is set high enough and the soil around it is firm. If you kill something, don’t despair; grow something else. Don’t get one houseplant; get five, or 10. It’s a jungle out there, but plants more than anything else want to live and grow.
Gardeners of my generation got advice and inspiration from the pages of magazines and books, and more actively from talks and workshops by seasoned and professional horticulturists and landscape designers. These are still valuable sources, or can be, but today people look to the digital realm for useful images and video. And yet, gardening is essentially a physical and empirical exercise. Your knowledge and tastes develop one growing season at a time, and I’m sorry, but you won’t learn to garden by looking at a screen. I quickly add that it’s good to get psyched about gardening by listening to a podcast or reading, ahem, a weekly column.
There is a role for digital information in getting people started because they are comfortable in this world and because, to be blunt, they have so much to learn.
This was the thinking of Mason Day, 28, and Seth Reed, 34, who work for the Ball Horticultural Co., and who saw a need to develop an app — GrowIt — that pairs newbies with more experienced gardeners.
Among its features is the ability to dial in your location and find a suitable plant for a given growing environment. The app was launched in 2015 and has grown steadily, now with approximately 700,000 participants, Day said.
He bristled at my suggestion that people simply learn gardening by doing and said he works in an industry that assumes, mistakenly, that everyone has an innate knowledge of plants. Millennials, strapped for time and cash, need to be primed before they can take on something “ that’s completely outside their wheelhouse.”
In developing the app, they showed 15 volunteers, most under 35, two common annuals and a hydrangea. “No one had any idea what the plants were,” Day said. “None.”
The power and ubiquity of the Internet are so great that the digital world is threaded into our sinews. It has connected us to others and to information like nothing that has come before. If you are reading this in Australia or Kenya or Pakistan, I salute you and the Web.
The connected world, however, comes at a cost.
I asked a landscape architect I’ve known for 30 years how his business has changed, and he recounted an episode in which a demanding client had vetoed his proposed tree species for another after looking up the substitute online. Twenty minutes of surfing had trumped decades of expertise and practice. Information is confused with knowledge.
Apps such as GrowIt may be of real value to beginners, but what vexes me is that it is not just urbanization that has weakened the link to the natural world. So too has digitization.
Market research company Nielsen reported last year that adults in the United States spent almost four hours a day on digital platforms and, if you include TV and radio, more than 11 hours per day with media.
When I walk down the street and see people glued to their smartphones, I think of a group of symbionts at their digital feeding ports. Alternatively, I think of a beehive, whose workers are driven by an intangible force to serve the colony.
One of the great values of gardening is the way it allows us to unplug from the noise and the buzz. And what better symbiosis is one in which we care for the green world and allow it to nurture us, body and soul. As Attenborough said, “It’s not just a question of beauty or interest or wonder. The essential ingredient, essential part of human life is a healthy planet.”
Start gardening with an app, if you wish, but move quickly into the garden in all its forms. There, we can work away from global warming and toward being indulgently unplugged.
If your lawn mower needs a tuneup or repair, get it done now before service shops are swamped with machines in March and April.