By Heather Munro
This summer several groups of students from SRUC Elmwood entered the RHS Greening Grey Britain Pop up Garden competition at our national gardening show, Gardening Scotland – with some excellent results. The Greening Grey Britain Campaign accompanies the RHS report, Gardening Matters: Urban Gardens (1) which highlighted the depressing statistics that nearly 1 in 4 gardens have been completely paved over with 5 million UK gardens have no plants growing in them at all. Of course, the significant effects of this include the raising of urban temperatures; the loss of biodiversity; a negative impact on our well-being; increased risk of flooding and a reduction in air quality.
OK, so how does all of this relate to Romanian Village Farming? What did I bring back to Scotland from my Romanian study tour that I can integrate into my training and education activities? What does all that have to do with sorting out our urban gardens? Well, fairly recent sociological studies suggest that our land – our gardens – are spaces which we populate, experience, perceive and value in very different ways (2). Amongst many other things, my visit to Romania helped me to begin to understand the difference between a Romanian garden and a Scottish garden; and how a re- evaluation of our perceptions and use of our garden and landscape spaces is necessary if we are to begin to be successful at ‘Greening the Grey’.
Gardens are often something most of us in the UK just ‘do’ or ‘don’t do’ – and often just because they’re there, in front or at the back of our homes. They are someplace to park the car, and because of our busy lifestyles we like them to be low maintenance or, if we have the money, they’re a chore for someone else to do. In both rural and urban settings, many of us have, over time and for various reasons, become disconnected from our outside spaces and lost our sense of their value. In the villages and towns that we visited in Romania, the connection is clearly still there.
Monica, our host, explained some of the reasons that, I feel, explain this increased sense of value and connection. Of course, small scale subsistence farming means all growing space is valued, but she also described how land, tools and livestock were taken, for the state, by the communist regime. When the regime collapsed, she described how people were eager to have their land back, perhaps to regain the control which they had lost during that era – not just of their land, but also their identity.
During our visit to Girbovita, we saw the vineyard, hay meadows, orchards and vegetable gardens on Monica’s family farm as well as the gardens of the villagers. It was great to see and experience traditional techniques like scything, hay making, sorting out the wild boar damage and de-kerneling the corn.
These, of course, provide a strong tie to the past but also seemed to be important to a shared sense of memory and identity. I enjoyed Monica’s recollections of the games she played with corn cobs as a child.
This sense of history and identity is reinforced with garden additions like the piatra rotunda – the round stones containing the spirits of the ancestors which are so carefully placed around the gardens.
Experiencing this made me wonder whether we may have lost the sense of history and identity which anchors us to our outside spaces and is important if we are to value them again. One of the crucial questions for the Romanian villages that we visited was how to keep young people in the area. When we walked around the village it was hopeful to meet the young man who had returned to work his land and who stood proudly by his tractor for us. Whilst there may seem little to keep young people in their villages now, their ties to the landscape as a source of their history and identity seem stronger than most of ours in the UK. Maybe that tie will pull them back?
In the small farms and gardens we saw, space matters. Every part of the land seemed used to best effect. Farmers and gardeners displayed an excellent awareness of effective companion planting – essential in a small growing space. I saw peaches and grapes growing together in the vineyard and traditional three sisters planting (squash, corn and beans). Of course some Romanians value a driveway as much as we do, but rather than surrounding it with grey slabs, using their space productively means planting an orchard at either side. In our low maintenance mindset, we might fear this arrangement, but which is more work, pruning the apple trees or power washing and re-sanding your monobloc several times a year?
Visiting the traditional steep pitched roofed houses around Rimet demonstrated how much Romanian outside space has been valued for centuries. Our host Martin described, for example, how the Ash trees planted beside the traditional houses near Rimet were coppiced and used for roofing poles and haystack supports. It is clear that there was, and still is, a need to grow plants that work for the growers but also work in the environment. Monica described how, on her farm, seeds are saved from most harvested crops, including tomatoes, cucumber and maize. Of course, these have proved successful over the years, the varieties suit the climate, suit the soil type and have a good yield. Natural selection is at work here as seeds from the best fruits are selected, and as Monica pointed out, why buy or use new varieties when the traditional ones work. Few of us now practice this type of propagation. We don’t generally save our seeds, we visit the garden centre instead to be bamboozled with an array of seed packets, many of which we might buy for the novelty – interesting but destined to fail in our dreich Scottish climate (I know, I’ve been there!).
Monica felt that she had to apologise because her parents’ yard was untidy. True, it wasn’t neatly manicured and yes, by our garden standards some may have thought it untidy, but the space was used, valued, loved. Indeed this was true of most of the gardens I saw in Romania, but to me they were fabulous spaces, filled with grape vines, corn, haystacks, fruit trees, aubergines, chillies – and where there was a little room for ornamentals – wisteria, dahlias and cosmos. Even when most of the space was used up for food production, there was still a little room left for some colour.
In Romania outside space seemed to me to be valued, planted and used well. But would a return to this type of growing really work for us? Can we really change our thinking and green our grey by filling our gardens with useful, valuable plants? How would our manicured and grey slabbed neighbours respond? Perhaps not to corn or vines in our Scottish climate, but to a front garden filled with ‘untidy’ raspberry canes, tattie shaws and strawberry runners? It shouldn’t really matter.
So how will I use all of this in my professional practice? Now I’ll look at growing in a different way, and encourage my students to do the same, to questioning the perceptions, ideas and values that we hold about our growing spaces and ultimately how we use them. I think Romanian perspectives of their outside space have a lot to teach us about greening our grey.
- Royal Horticultural Society (2011), Gardening Matters: Urban Gardens, https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/pdf/…/urban…/gardening-matters-urban-greening.pdf
- Stenner, P., Bhatti, M. & Church, A. (2012), Human-landscape relations and the occupation of space: Experiencing and expressing domestic gardens. Environment and Planning A 44 (7), 1712-1727