Death gardening, the rich and promise of designer Cornish hedges

The previous blog highlighted old people as proponents of death gardening. Another form of death gardening is practised by the rich.

I know of several examples in this part of the 12th district of Budapest where wealthy people have purchased a house with a lovely garden. The garden would typically have old trees faithfully yielding a bounty, year on year, of apricots, apples, cherries, sour cherries, plums, damsons, pears, quinces and peaches. There might be walnuts and hazelnuts, figs, and just possibly almonds if there is a nice south-facing plot with enough shelter from the wind. There will be sprays of elderberry, rambling bushes of blackberries, unkempt raspberry canes; on the ground sprinklings of tiny szamoca strawberries. For decades – perhaps for centuries – the ladies of the house will have picked these and made pies, strudels and cakes, jams, compotes and jellies; dried them or frozen them for the winter; squeezed juices and distilled pálinka.

Then along come the new owners flush with cash recently earnt. The first thing they do it clear the garden of everything, to create a uniform muddy surface. Half a day with a bulldozer obliterates centuries. Then they build their BigMac concrete and glass slab to live in. Then they turn back to the garden: they lay emerald grass, glistening with piped dew drops. They prop up a line of dutiful (but not beautiful), evergreen thujas, and apart from a few annuals in primary colours, that is as far as it goes. Oh yes – the bark mulch. Everywhere, decorative mulch.

The frequency of this scenario justifies considering it as a social phenomenon.

I try to understand the preference of the rich for death gardening.

The first cathartic act of clearing the gardening is a statement of power, control and a rejection of the past. A denial of the past. The rich of Central Europe are often from poor stock, perhaps the first generation not bound to the land. The first thing they must do, once they have broken those shackles of bondage, is to expunge any memory of it. Thus they must destroy anything which connects them to working on the land.

(This act is a rejection of Conservatism which shepherds the past on to next generations. The rich who consider themselves as on the political right are in conflict with their own stated values when it comes to gardening.)

They will try and justify the wanton destruction of a beautiful garden by saying things like: “It’s a jungle; it is disorderly; I will make something far more beautiful when I have finished.” They believe that beauty is completely subjective and it is up to them what is beautiful.

The appeal to subjectivity and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is, I think, a way to mask a more sinister truth: the need they have to make a statement of power: that act of destruction is a marking of territory, like a beech marten shitting on a stone, an affirmation of their strength and control over the environment. It is the ego screaming that this is their patch, they can do what they want, whoever came before can go figure, this is mine now, and I will show you.

This case shows that beauty is not subjective, despite the saying: someone creates a sterile plot of land barely deserving the name “garden”, by destroying a thriving, living, burgeoning, fruitful, thronging semi-wild place, full of blackbirds and woodpeckers and warblers, hedgehogs and stag beetles … and they claim the result is something of beauty? I don’t think it can be beautiful when it is polluted by the act of vanity and vandalism that preceded it.

They appeal to cleanliness and simplicity as if contemporary aesthetics had some moral authority. Aesthetic simplicity might have evolutionary, neurological benefits in that it takes less energy for the brain to process and perhaps more accessible for the simple minded, but it has no place in a garden. In a world where every living thing is under threat from man, imposing arbitrary aesthetic standards on the habitat of birds and beetles is like Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khilji burning down the Library of Nalanda in 1200 AD on the grounds that he prefers watching Neighbours to reading books and shite.

Then comes: “It is easy to maintain, I am a busy professional.” Again, rubbish. The easiest form of maintenance is to do nothing: just what nature wants the owner to do.

It might be in some cases that there is no reason for death gardening, there is no particular decision. It is just what they have seen elsewhere, on telly, in magazines and they assume that this is all there is. This is how the world is. They don’t know about wildlife gardening and the myriad of other ways of gardening with life.

But what can be done about this?

Some urgent and far from ideal measures might be needed in the short-term to save what can still be saved: councils need to place preservation orders on traditional gardens in the district and regulate the chopping of trees and cutting of bushes. It sounds interventionist, an undue intrusion into people’s freedoms. However, it is quite regular to constrain people’s freedom to commit acts of vandalism and destruction. If the rich may only enter a garden in manacles, so be it.

Then, as with any other movement for making the world a better place, change has a thousand facets which all have to align.

Luckily the recently rich are particularly impressed by what is considered to be to in fashion, and so it would be a great help to see some celebrity individuals creating disorderly wildlife gardens and then broadcasting this on social media. Ecological features could be turned into a fashion item. A friend pointed out to me Cornish hedges: these are living walls built – centuries ago (they need maintenance work every 150 or so years) – comprising layers of stone with earth in the middle, and often decorative arrangements of stone at the top.

Cornish hedge









Cornish hedge 2








More fancy cornish hedge






Cornish hedge 4


Wild flowers will be planted in the soil between the stones, and birds, small mammals, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates will make use of a labyrinth of hollow areas inside.

An enterprising gardener and stone mason could create design Cornish hedges as fashionable garden features, affording at least some habitat in the otherwise barren, minimalist space. True, Cornwall is a long way from Central Europe, but adaptations can be developed.

To some extent the damage can be undone quickly because nature’s capacity for recovery is outstanding (it will come back when we are long gone, anyway). Plant some new fruit trees, dig up the thujas and sow the lawn with wildflower mix. Put holes in the concrete border wall to allow hedgehogs through. Bury the death-gardener under the compost heap. No-one will think to look there and he, too, will compost well. Meanwhile, the spread of wildlife gardening in the richer world does give some hope –

This entry was posted in Environment, society, politics and economics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.