Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Book review – ‘Radical gardening’

Posted by wcmlibrary on August 10, 2011

George McKay has kindly sent us a copy of his new book, ‘Radical gardening’, for review and for our collection.  If the review below, by library volunteer David Hargreaves, whets your appetite, pop in and read it!


George McKay is Professor of Cultural Studies at Salford University and has produced a work which challenges the complacent perception of the garden as a private space filled with decking, non native species and the latest preoccupations of television gardening programmes. The presentation of the land, history and the politics of the garden is done in a lively fashion with some interesting and thought provoking characters and movements. The chapters on the Organic movement and Peace in the Garden are the strongest but the former would have benefitted from much more emphasis on the links between Organicism and Italian fascism rather than a preoccupation with Germany. The links between the notion of the ‘home soil’, dictatorship, the perceived failure of democracy and the ‘natural’ leadership role of the aristocracy which characterised the interwar years is fertile ground which McKay could have explored more. Suffice it to say, however, the chapter does remind one that it is necessary to place ‘radical’ organisations like the Soil Association in historical perspective in order to ensure that what might now be seen as ‘progressive’ can be better understood.

The examination of the ‘polemic landscape’ of the garden in terms of the war memorial & the peace garden is one which is genuinely illuminating. The ‘masculine domination’ of the military garden and the expression of power and control which emerges from the control of landscape are important starting points for understanding the political meanings of the garden space. The influence of order in garden design is contrasted with the destruction of war, the imposition of military disorder upon a landscape which is well illustrated by the look at the symbolism of the poppy.  As McKay says ‘even flowers talk of war and peace’ and this is well illustrated by consideration of the peace garden as ‘public social space of the park reframed within a discourse established by the contemporary peace movement’. Whilst it is noted that most of these are small in scale and ambition, the role of the Peace Gardens in the regeneration of the centre of Sheffield is well presented.

The presentation of the garden as a ‘liberatory zone by disenfranchised or marginal groups in society’ starts off in a promising fashion but the presence of the Diggers and the story of St George’s Hill in the midst of accounts of the hippies of San Francisco and the growth of the Pop Festival rather diminishes the importance of a significant series of events in English history. That might well reflect my (mis)understandings of cultural historians but the work sometimes seems to give the reader no sense of the relative weight of each component part. Some readers might be comfortable with such an approach, it does have the advantage of making links and exploring contrasts which a more mainstream work on gardening would have rejected. This is perhaps best illustrated by the re-appearance of the Diggers in the chapter on guerrilla gardening. But the work is content to explore the presentation of that link without an accompanying critical analysis. The presence of many diverse cultural references sometimes add value to the work but one gets the sense  of walking round a rather over- planted garden where the significant and/or beautiful plants have to compete for attention with the flashy but inconsequential. (But, as any cultural studies writer would point out, exactly by whom and why can such judgements be made?)

I should mention the very imaginative use of photographs to accompany the text and the comprehensive endnotes which allow the reader to pick up some of the many threads of the issues presented here.

This is worth reading and especially with a view to thinking about gardens more openly and following up some of those important threads.


George McKay. Radical gardening: politics, idealism & rebellion in the garden. London: Frances Lincoln, 2011.


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