Sunday, 12 January 2014

Little boxes of smoke and mirrors





They are the horticultural equivalent of ‘Pot Noodles’, ‘Cup a Soup’ and instant coffee - you just have to add water to get results. Instant gardens in a glossy box, or so all the marketing would have us believe. Gardening ‘kits’ for those who do not usually garden.

You probably got one for Christmas from a non gardening relative who knows you like to dabble with a hoe, and who thought it would be your dream present. They are certainly easy presents to buy and wrap, but what function do they really perform ? Do they promote easy gardening for lazy gardeners, or can they be a fast lane into a new passion, aiming straight for the heart of a novice?

There are many different kinds of ‘Instant Gardening’ kits, but at their core they are very similar. Essentially, the spectacular box contains all you need to grow whatever is inside, so all you have to do is to add water. There are seeds or bulbs, compost, a pot or two, and often a label and a set of instructions. Nothing more. They are overpriced and overpackaged, usually marketed mercilessly at the novice gardener and children. Most of these kits retail at around ten pounds, which makes the contents extremely expensive.

 A gardener, a real gardener, who has a potting shed or a greenhouse, will always be able to conjure up a pot and some compost. A novice gardener will have none of these things and could, perhaps, be discouraged from the whole seed - sowing experience because of this. It could be argued that the ‘Sow and grow’ kit could encourage the unprepared novice.



So, should gardening be packaged and marketed and neatly presented in a box, or is the rite of passage that quest for the seeds, pot and compost ? So much of personal gardening experience is learned through trial and error, through over watering or under watering; pruning or not pruning; sowing seed or taking cuttings. Maybe the kit takes little of that away, just presenting the essentials, then letting you learn all that nurturing on your own.

There are other Gardening kits for even lazier gardeners where the seeds are PRE SOWN on a little mat for you, so you don’t even have to go to the trouble of opening the seed packet and sowing them yourself. But, isn’t one of the joys of gardening, tearing open the packet and tipping the seeds into your hand, feeling their shape and texture, wondering what is going to emanate from them. Seeds are extremely tactile things, and a sunflower seed, for example, is something  to be savoured. Seed mats rob you of all that pleasure, and all those chances to learn. If you literally just add water to pre - sown seeds, do you feel any ownership of the seedlings which follow ?



For an experienced gardener, a ‘Sow and grow’ Kit can be more of a barrier to creativity than anything else. A passionate gardener will have not only been making lists for months, of all the seeds they wish to grow, and researching varieties, pondering over different cultivars, colours and flower types. Again, this is part of the pleasure and the learning process, and the Instant Box takes away all manner of choice. It dumbs it down.

So who is the marketing aimed at ? Quite a lot of it is aimed at children, and if it takes a kit like this to get them gardening and give them a lifetime passion, then why get sniffy about it ! However,there is a tendency to be a little cavalier with the truth, and the graphics on the box can be far more exciting than the contents. I imagine that if a child received a box promising ‘Monster Plants’ next to an illustration of a dinosaur, they would be a little disappointed with  the Asparagus Fern, Snapdragon and ‘Moving Plant’ seeds, which are inside. The box promises more. Likewise the ‘Grow your own Gnome Garden’, which consists of  utterly non - gnome-ish bluebell, honeysuckle and primrose seeds. If I was eight or nine I think I would be bitterly disappointed by the contents of the box.The graphics on the box often do not truly represent the contents, and let’s say, they can be the product of an over- active imagination. For example, the ‘Grow your own Christmas tree’ kit, sold  this Christmas and aimed at children, proudly crows, ‘All you need to grow your own Christmas tree in this box’. Although that is undoubtably true, they do fail to point out that the large, bushy tree shown on the box would probably take 10 years to grow to that size.



Although some garden make over shows would have us believe in Instant gardening we know, deep down, that there is no such thing. A box can instantly provide the things you need to promote growth ( seed, compost and container) but the irony is that it still all takes TIME. You can’t hurry Mother Nature, and she works at her own pace, just as she always has. Some of the ‘easy to grow’ seeds in the box can take weeks or even months to germinate, if indeed they ever do. So, in reality, the seeds will take as long as they have always taken and the mantra remains the same - wait, tend, nurture. And repeat. If you don’t do that, there will never be any healthy plants at the end .

So, boxes of Instant gardening can produce gardeners, in that they can kickstart the process by making the initial stages as easy as possible. They gather all the necessary ingredients for growth together so that the non gardener can get cracking immediately. But gardeners, real gardeners, are not made or unmade by amassing a pot, seeds and some compost. Anyone can sow seeds. The gardener emerges in the watching, the waiting, the watering, the nurturing and ultimately the deep satisfaction felt in the result.

10 comments:

  1. Everything you say is true. I'm sure these are aimed at the non-gardener, and there's no harm in getting started this way. I fell for my share of these (Instant Hummingbird garden, etc.) before I finally got wise to the con. Although I confess that I like the idea of dumbing down seed starting, since apparently I am not smart enough to do it properly.

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    1. Hi Sarah, yes, anything that gets a non gardener going is worth it !

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  2. Well said. Not having a carrot to pull out of the earth the day after planting is a major+++ disappointment for my little grandson. He still loves the garden for the digging and planting and even weeding. Slug removal is the highlight of the day. All the while he is learning and patience will come. Perhaps there is an opportunity here to market more honest boxes both in content and price.

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    1. Hi Susan, yes, fantastic idea, honest boxes are the way forward. I suppose the ideal would be to make them ourselves for friends & family, then they could be tailored exactly to the individual ... and cheaper !

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  3. You've made some great points Jane, smoke and mirrors indeed...but anything that starts a budding gardener on their way is a good thing.

    Jen

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    1. Can't argue with that Jen ... it was planting up a window box that got me started and you can't get smaller or simpler than that !

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  4. I completely agree with all you say, Jane. These kits do seem marketed as 'quick fix' gardening, but could well lead to disappointment when the novice gardener realises more time and effort is needed. If they do spark a life-long interest in gardening, then of course they can't be bad, but I wonder how often this does happen (for a start, they might give the impression that gardening has to be very expensive).

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  5. I agree Wendy, and we know that there is no such thing as 'instant gardening', and that it relies on very dull, worthy virtues like patience ! Nothing glamorous or exciting about that !!

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  6. Personally, I want the box that grows monster plants because I've never grown a monster before. Are they carnivorous? Exactly how big will the monster be? Can I tame it, name it, and snuggle it at night? I always see kits like this on the sale rack at the end of the season. In America's non-gardening culture, I don't think they're very popular. Maybe they need different monsters. :o)

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    1. Now I don't know quite how to break this to you,Tammy , you may be a teeny weeny bit disappointed ... and , while, we're at it , there's a conversation we need to have about Father Christmas ... :-)

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I really welcome comments and have learned much from them, over the years of leaning over the virtual garden gate ...