The Pleasure of Radical Gardening

“Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.”
Ian Hamilton Finlay cited in George McKay’s Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden.

When I first saw the theme for this year’s Memefest Friendly Competition, my instant response to the word ‘Pleasure’ was gardening. Not very radical might be one’s first response but for me the pleasure of gardening does lie in its radical ‘roots’. Whether it’s planting indigenous Australian plants, growing organic fruit and vegetables, raising chickens and sharing the bounty with neighbours and friends or saving heritage seeds that can be used again and again, my politics underpins and is underpinned by my gardening.

Being able to cultivate a patch of land, as an individual or as part of community, should be a basic human right. And for millennia it was taken for granted. Once the commons began to be foreclosed and the world colonized, people have had to fight for their right to plant and nurture gardens. As large agribusinesses swallow up the land and patent our seeds, the need has grown for a concerted “horticountercultural” [1] politics – what Peter Lamborn Wilson calls “avant gardening” [2]. As he notes:

Voltaire’s cynical advice in Candide – “Cultivate your own garden” – can no longer be considered simply an amoral bon mot. The world has changed considerably since the Enlightenment. Meanings have shifted. “Cultivate your own garden” sounds today like hot radical rhetoric. Growing a garden has become – at least potentially – an act of resistance. But it’s not just a gesture of refusal. It’s a positive act. It’s praxis. (Lamborn Wilson, 1999, 9-10)

I know that I am privileged. I live in a house with a garden. I can afford to water our plants, feed our chickens and buy seeds. My house stands on the lands of the traditional owners, the Wurundjeri people, and it is through their dispossession that I have come to be here. It is important to acknowledge this.

Gardening is never far away from politics. George McKay’s wonderful book, Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden, traces this relationship, in a mainly British context, by examining the urban allotment movement, the politics of the Garden City, organics, the fascist origins of biodynamics, flower power, peace and memorial gardens, land cooperatives, community gardens and guerrilla gardening.

Gardens don’t just support plant and animal life. They ground our ethics and values. Tending a garden teaches patience. Plants and animals have their own time and we have to adjust to them. Being in the garden helps us to acknowledge the interconnectedness of our lives and changes in the climate, to think about what will and won’t go together and to remember that what ever is taken out must in some way be restored or returned. Our successes and failures are actually life and death issues for the inhabitants of our gardens so we need to be mindful and attentive to their needs before we can meet our own.

As I’m writing this, a Red Wattlebird has landed on the flowering Grevillea outside my window. Before I can take a photo it notices my movement and moves away. It’s a fleeting glimpse but one that recurs each day as the birds come to suckle on the sweet nectar in the winter flowering native bushes. I’m reminded again that our imposed European ‘seasons’ don’t align with those as described by Aboriginal people for tens of thousands of years. In southern Australia, the plants that are indigenous to the area flower in what we have come to call ‘winter’ but was known to the Wurundjeri people as Berrertak Darr – Karr (Cold West Wind), a time for artefact making. [https://vimeo.com/133830628] Another lesson from the garden.
What has gardening taught you? What pleasures does it bring?
Share your transformative gardening story.

[1] McKay, George, Radical Gardening: Politics, Idealism and Rebellion in the Garden London: Francis Lincoln, 2011, p.7.
[2] Lamborn Wilson, Peter, “Avantgardening” in Wilson & Weinberg (eds) Avantgardening: Ecological Struggle in the City and the World, New York: Autonomedia, 1999, pp. 7-34.


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8 years

This is wonderful. I miss gardening so much, something I always did before I came to Australia. We are doing it a bit now, on our balcony and the roof, but much less than previously.

I wonder what is specific about Pleasure in the context of gardening. I guess it is pleasure which benefits community and the individual as well as nature. The patience part I like a lot, also that gardening is connected with seasons, supermarkets aren't.

I wonder if we could speak about socially responsive pleasures and how pleasure would be conceptualized as such?

8 years

I just read this text:


On the Limits of Critique. I found it interesting to see that the author states:" I assume she doesn’t mean to be interpreted this way, but Felski’s words seem to suggest that those dedicated to critique should give up their intellectual commitments in order to satisfy extrinsic extra-disciplinary demands. From the perspective of a committed skeptic, Felski does not seem to be defending the humanities. She seems instead be asking that the mission of the humanities be transformed."

This reminds me of Memefests own methodology- the extradisciplinary approach for the sake of changing design discipline, or media/ communication discipline.

And further : "When we watch the institutions we assumed were part of the academic firmament be destroyed, the material conditions of our work become newly visible. My ultimate criticism of postcriticism is therefore that any meta-commentary about how we practice criticism — any discussion of the ethos of criticism and interpretation — must always also attend to the sociological and political-economic grounds upon which criticism occurs. Such sociological work must give an accurate description of the political circumstances that once allowed critique to prosper, in however limited a fashion, and now seek to undermine it. The conclusion cannot be that we must methodologically placate powerful skeptics — it is a mistake to believe that any method we adopt will satisfy them for long. We should instead conclude that our task is to defuse the power of such skeptics to undermine our capacity to choose whether and to what degree we exercise our critical judgment. This fight is ultimately a political fight, in which our attitudes, ethos, and rhetoric (whether critical or postcritical) will at best play a supporting role."

Now, what role does Pleasure play in all this? I think the everydayness of pleasure is something to look at. Its presence in all realms of human activity as a fact, or an aim. As such it is extradisciplinary and extra/institutional. The socially responsive part of pleasure than is overtly political, but its criticality, i think is not, but is rather immanent to its own ontology. Can something be critical without theoretical knowledge? Can something be critical without necessarily persuing critigue? Is Latours claim to “to protect and to care” for what we cherish in a way the guarantee of this invisible, immanent critique?


8 years

I like this from the same article "our critical spirit arises precisely from our positive political, ethical, and social commitments". I think you can approach any human activity with a critical mind. Once you begin gardening, if you approach it with a critical mindset, you become more attuned to so many more things that impact on us as a result of gardening or making shared garden spaces. A good example is the heritage seed movement which arose as we began to see that fewer large multinational corporations own the seed from which we get our food. This threat to our food security is enormous and it can be resisted at the grass roots level through seed saving and sharing. It can also be used to raise people's awareness about how their food is grown.

The same applies to indigenous gardening - in Australia, we are only just becoming aware of the abundance of indigenous foods and plants available to us here. This ignorance is a consequence I think of our racist past, the false belief that First Nations people were not cultivating the land. Now all of the evidence compels us to revisit the racist version of history and help to rewrite it.

I guess what I'm saying is that the pleasures of approaching gardening in this way demand attention to the socio-political and ethical frames that we bring to everyday life and they make it possible for alternatives - alternative practices and alternative ideas - to bloom.