Analysis: 'Good life' for consumers and suppliers?

A Garden Museum exhibition is highlighting the recent grow-your-own boom

Are we seeing a big shift in the way that we think about environment, food, nature, energy and capitalism - or is it all about feeling better about ourselves?

The new Good Life exhibition at the Garden Museum, London, until 7 March, revisits the 1970s craze for self-sufficiency. It has hosted converts from that era, including vegetables guru Joy Larkcom and Garden Organic operations director Bob Sherman, speaking about the revival of the phenomenon.

A survey by Garden Organic found that 47 per cent of people are less able to grow their own food, while 92 per cent say self-sufficiency has become more important during the financial crisis.

Yet under one-third of the 300,000 acres (121,406ha) of prime growing land in gardens and allotments across the country is used to grow food. The Garden Museum exhibition asks visitors to "discover the 100-year history behind the country's current love affair with growing food".

Exhibits cover the Allotment Act of 1908, World War Two's Dig For Victory campaign and the self-sufficiency movement. But the big question for the audience - and the industry - is whether grow-your-own is just a credit-crunch fad or whether people in Britain are really passionate about growing food.

In 2008, many garden centres ran out of seed potatoes and raised-bed products when the demand beat supply as the recession hit and gardeners took to growing vegetables ahead of ornamentals.

This year's Glee trade show proved that many manufacturers have caught up as a great many grow-your-own products were launched. In John Stanley's Wheelbarrow Project launch, the retail consultant gave ideas for garden centre promotions such as grow-your-own Christmas dinner.

Meanwhile, some growers have moved towards edibles production from ornamentals. One example is Hertfordshire-based Rochfords, which is now selling edible plants to landscapers whose clients want edible gardens among their traditional ornamentals.

At the Garden Industry Manufacturers' Association's business meeting this month, director Neil Gow said it was "critical we develop the momentum of the grow-it-yourself boom into a sustainable market".

Klondyke Garden Centres chief executive officer Bob Hewitt believes that the grow-your-own boom will continue in 2010 and fade after 2011. He said Glee was so full of grow-your-own products that buyer Allan Wilson was still catching up with leads. Garden centres and manufacturers want to make things simpler for gardeners. The big fear is that first-timers will give up if they fail in their first year.

Bents Garden Centre marketing manager Helen Bent said: "We have done a bit of grow-your-own this year but will be doing a lot more next year. We've sold seed potatoes and potato bags but next year we want to sell ready-planted grow-your-own. Some people want to propagate, but many want easier solutions. We're aiming at the marginal gardener. It is grow-your-own without getting your hands dirty."

The HTA, through its Plant For Life promotional campaign, is trying to get gardeners to grow more fruit. Its survey found 54 per cent of those surveyed grow their own, up by 22 per cent on 2008. But while 62 per cent want to grow their own fruit, 39 per cent do not think they have enough space to plant, 29 per cent confess they have not considered fruit trees and berries when growing their own and 23 per cent admit they just do not know what varieties they can grow in their garden.

At the Garden Museum event, BBC TV gardener Alys Fowler spoke to HW about her new BBC2 series A Homegrown Life. The series - which had the working title of Alys' Backgarden Supermarket - shows off her "punk-rock attitude to gardening" and is designed to inspire young people to work together to grow food and make meals from it.

She aims to make a meal a day using backyard produce grown among her ornamental plants. To make the produce last she will preserve, pickle and store food too. The PR stated: "Young, chic and urban, Alys is at the forefront of this new trend in gardening, which marries the delights of growing your own and the sheer joy of a beautiful flower garden, all in a small space.

"Good for the pocket, good for the environment and hugely rewarding."

Fowler said the internet has "democratised the process" of learning how to garden. "Once, we had to go to the RHS and do things in straight lines - I know because I did the training. Now we can type 'punk rock and gardening' into the internet. But if you don't do something about it in your community you are back to that capitalism thing."

Fowler's series, some filmed in grainy Super 8 film, shows the 30-year-old and 12 novice gardeners she signed up via Facebook trying to become self-sufficient. Fowler, who has recently bought two chickens for her garden, said the Wombles, Little House on the Prairie and the internet have inspired the new generation to take up the "good life".

Larkcom said the good life is a misnomer: "It's very hard work with no time to do anything. You go to bed dreaming of bananas."

Sherman said he became a hippie in the 1970s after rejecting rampant consumerism. He said the same thing happened last year, with the collapse of bank Lehman Brothers being "the final peak of stupidity". Differences between the 1970s and 2000s are that gardens are smaller and waiting lists for allotments are longer, he added, but the Capital Growth and Landshare campaigns for allotment space will help.

He added that the Government has recognised issues of food security and the role of home-food production. Garden Organic chairman Tim Lang said 50 per cent of World War Two production was food grown in gardens - and this can happen again. Community, environment and carbon concern are the watchwords for the future.



Plant and seed spend 2004-09 Up 31 per cent to £116m

Seeds of edible plants 2007 £45.72m; 2008, £52.66m

Young edible plants 2007 £11.01m; 2008, £14.37m

Total edibles 2004 £88.73m; 2009, £115.89m

Source: HTA Garden Industry Monitor

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