Evelyn Waugh saw them as timeless arcadias; Austen’s heroines swooned in them. But if gardens lie so deep in our DNA, why are they disappearing?

The comedian Stewart Lee is droll on the subject of the countryside, and why he hates it. What particularly annoys him is the otters, or rather the assumption that everyone who lives in a town must secretly long to see otters from their kitchen windows. He lives in Hackney and is proud of his metropolitan identity. Nothing to apologise for. No need for gardens. Or otters.
Personally, I did want to see them, which is why I moved out of London five years ago. They’ve kept a low profile so far, but we have seen plenty of deer. Indeed, the first time I saw a mother and fawn tiptoe past my study I thought: here’s why we moved, for this sense of living in harmony with nature. The second time I saw them, I ran outside to scare them away. The damn things had eaten all our roses.
This isn’t to say we didn’t encounter the natural world in our London garden, too. The foxes and grey squirrels were ubiquitous, of course, but there were also hedgehogs, jays and grey-spotted woodpeckers. And toads thrived there because our small garden backed on to that of our neighbour’s, and this arrangement continued all the way up the terraced road, with the end houses sealing the sanctuary in. It was what is known as a wildlife corridor.
When it comes to encouraging wildlife and communing with nature, a town garden, however small, is better than nothing. Or so I thought, because it seems that, increasingly, town dwellers think that nothing is better than something; or rather they think decking or flagstones are better.
According to a landmark study by the London Wildlife Trust, based on aerial photos of the city taken over a 10-year period, 500 “green” gardens are disappearing in London each year, the equivalent of two and a half Hyde Parks. In the rest of the country, the situation is even worse, with nearly half of all homes in the North East having paved over most of their front gardens. This pattern is repeated everywhere, with around a third in the East and the South West. Another study by Leeds University reveals a 13 per cent increase in the paving over of green spaces nationwide. Gardeners’ World, meanwhile, the BBC’s flagship gardening programme, has gone from a peak of four million viewers 10 years ago to less than two million now.
So what’s going on? Could the English love affair with the garden be coming to an end, in our towns at least? Actually, it has been more obsession than love affair. Since Capability Brown and, later, Gertrude Jekyll gave us our own uniquely English take on garden design, we have been at our happiest when we’ve had soil under our fingernails. You could say it has become part of our national identity, our cultural DNA –Shakespearean lovers had their secret trysts in gardens, Jane Austen’s heroines swooned in them, for Evelyn Waugh it was a timeless arcadia. If you were English you instinctively agreed with Cicero: if you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.
And it wasn’t just in the countryside. In the Edwardian era, the appeal of gardening spread to the town, with more than 50,000 people visiting a “Country in Town” exhibition in Whitechapel in 1906. By the time the Arts and Crafts movement came to dominate garden design in the Thirties, gardeners in the towns, and especially the suburbs, had become as, if not more, passionate about flowers, plants and lawns as their country counterparts. And now? Well, the view of the screenwriter Chris Lang may be typical. He replaced his Chelsea garden with decking seven years ago and has no regrets. “No garden in London has decent space,” he tells me. “You can’t walk in it or play in it properly with your children – that’s what the parks are for. So why pretend it’s spacious by putting down a bit of grass?
“Besides, grass is boring. What I want is a place where you can sit at a table. An extra room that happens not to have a roof. Jamie Theakston actually has shelves in his!”
Matthew Frith, the chief of the London Wildlife Trust, offers other reasons for this “alarming” loss of green space. “People just don’t have the time to garden anymore. When gardening really exploded in the Edwardian era it was to do with increased leisure time. Now there are more demands on our time, with television and the internet.” He might have a point, especially when you consider that with television comes the couch potato. But there is more to the decking scourge than laziness. The desire for off-road parking is a big factor. And there is also pressure from insurance companies to have trees removed because of subsidence.
As for rear gardens, well, Leigh Hunt, the principle adviser to the Royal Horticultural Society, thinks a lot of people take the view that the disappearance of their little garden won’t make a difference. “You tend to see a domino effect with decking, where one neighbour copies another,” he says. “Some even reintroduce ‘green’ in the form of AstroTurf, because it is cleaner and tidier and less hassle than bothering with a lawn.” The lack of rain and the consequent hosepipe bans may be another explanation for the desire for decking. Who wants to look at brown dirt all summer? May as well look at brown wood. There even seems to be some confusion about what a garden is. According to Thames Water, which is spending thousands of pounds on adverts explaining what constitutes one, a garden is any of the following: “a park, grass used for recreation or sport, allotment, grass verge or any other green space”. I ask Richard Mabey, our greatest living nature writer, what he makes of England’s disappearing urban gardens. “There might be a macro reason for it,” he says. “Governments tend to compartmentalise when it comes to planning. You have wildlife here and people there. All this messy wild stuff gets pushed into institutionally managed spaces. That sense of driving a division between where people live and grow and develop and the places where wildlife lives and grows and develops may be seeping down.”
But does it really matter? Well, yes. If these levels continue, there will be hardly any city gardens left by the end of the century. Not only is this bad for wildlife, it is bad for humans because green spaces act as lungs, helping filter the air. They also reduce the “heat effect”: namely, that big cities tend to be six degrees hotter than the surrounding countryside during the summer. Gardens also help prevent urban flooding, because soil soaks up water during storms. There was £3.2 billion worth of damage done during the Hereford and Worcestershire floods in 2007, and a lot of that was due to paving.
Then there is the less tangible cost – what living without green spaces does to our heads. As Mabey argues in his memoir Nature Cure, “It’s a shame when urban people become divorced from green spaces, because even a small garden can be a theatre for them, with insects and birds. My writing life here in Norfolk is about being in contact with these things. What it does to other people in their inner lives, I can’t say. But there is a lot of evidence to suggest that contact with green spaces can improve mental health, physical health and social integration. Recovery rates in hospitals improve if patients have a view with trees in it. That’s a real mechanistic justification for it.” This chimes with a new report by the National Trust, revealing that a generation of children is losing touch with the natural world, giving rise to a condition known as nature deficit disorder. Fewer than 10 per cent of children now play in green spaces, compared with 50 per cent a generation ago.
The wildlife television presenter and conservationist Chris Baines is blunt about the need to preserve urban green spaces. “We’re more stressed out than ever, and a garden that is alive and changing with the seasons helps counter that.” He thinks we need to appreciate how rich in wildlife an urban landscape can be. “I’m speaking to you from my garden in the middle of Wolverhampton and it is greener, leafier and more full of birdsong than an equivalent patch would be if I travelled three miles out into farming Shropshire.” But he believes we have to be practical about finding ways for man to live alongside nature. “There aren’t enough examples around of an off-road parking space that can double as a living garden. Park on gravel, by all means, but have a structure over the top which has climbers.”
But could it be that some people simply don’t need as much contact with nature as others? “I dare say there are some who are desensitised to the pleasures of gardening,” Mabey says. “There are some who claim that the city itself has an untamed wildness. The concrete jungle.” A recent Time magazine article took this line of thought further. Man has been changing the planet since the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago, the piece argues, but since the Industrial Revolution we have been living in the Anthropocene age (the age of man) – and our numbers have swelled by so much, from one billion to seven billion, there may simply be no room for nature anymore, at least not as we’ve known it. Frankly, we need more houses, not more gardens.
According to the Nobel-winning chemist Paul Crutzen: “It’s no longer us against ‘Nature’. Instead, it’s we who decide what nature will be.” No. I don’t buy that line either. So how can we change attitudes before we go too far down that route? Leigh Hunt of the Royal Horticultural Society thinks gardening programmes on television are not the answer. “We watch them in the same way we watch cookery programmes, as passive entertainment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we want to have a go at the gardening or the cooking ourselves. A lot of the work we do at the RHS is in schools, showing children how easy it is to make something grow. We try and show them that gardening is good for the soul.” According to Matthew Frith, cultural factors could also be contributing to the decline in gardens: “We are finding that for certain ethnic communities, such as Sikhs, gardening is not a big a part of their cultural heritage.” This is not to say that they aren’t interested in growing things. On the contrary, ethnic communities in cities such as Birmingham are increasingly using allotments to grow the “exotic” herbs and vegetables they use in their cooking.
This drawing in of outside influences, curiously enough, is a very English tradition. Our obsession with gardening can be traced back to the Roman invasion. The next big influence came with the Norman conquests and the introduction of small, enclosed lawns dotted with wild flowers.
According to the garden historian Jenny Uglow, the British Empire meant even more outside influences. She, for one, thinks rumours of the death of the English garden may be exaggerated. “Garden centres have never been busier,” she says. “But what plantsmen are finding is that gardeners want larger plants and pre-planted pots, so that they can have an instant garden. People have lost that sense of being patient in the garden, planning over several years.” Such trends do seem to contradict the idea that we have fallen out of love with our gardens. Indeed sales of gardening magazines have eclipsed the once more widely read category of home improvement. Sales of vegetable seeds, meanwhile, are up by more than 10 per cent on last year.
There are also signs that our politicians are trying to redress the balance. Boris Johnson, London’s self-styled “green mayor”, has set out plans to restore and improve 300 acres of park land, as well as plant 20,000 more street trees over the next four years. And the garden writer Tim Richardson has set up the Chelsea Fringe, which will hold its inaugural events across London this May, alongside the Chelsea Flower Show.
These will include “guerrilla gardening”, a free herb distribution project for stressed-out Londoners and something called the “Edible High Road” in Chiswick.
Richardson lives in North London and has replaced his own lawn with a vegetable garden. “I think it’s important to have a sense of a house as its own territory,” he says. “You want to think: this place belongs to someone, it reflects their character. This was an idea which gathered momentum with the Arts and Crafts movement but then, with the popularity of tower blocks in the Sixties, people lost sight of it. When the high-rise blocks started going up, architects would include a green apron at the bottom, but that wasn’t what people wanted – they wanted their own little box, their own individuality.”