‘I Garden Because I Am’: A Conversation with Alys Fowler

“Although I have tried, I cannot pinpoint the moment when I knew I needed to be alone. Or, at least, that was what I thought. Now I see that it was more that I needed to be somewhere unfamiliar: a landscape I didn’t know by heart,” writes Alys Fowler in an excerpt from her 2017 memoir, Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery. A prominent and beloved face of the UK horticultural world, Alys’ career has spanned across books, newspapers and television – she’s studied at the Royal Horticultural Society, Kew Botanic Gardens and the New York Botanical Gardens; authored books on sustainability and urban gardening; presented the hugely popular BBC television series, The Edible Garden; and pens a weekly column for The Guardian ranging from topics like ‘How to Grow Globe Artichokes’ to ‘Preparing for Brexit with Home Grown Seeds’.

In 2016, Alys swapped her secateurs and pen for a bicycle and a pack raft. She began paddling the many twists and turns of the Birmingham canal network – a maritime area that spans over 100 miles! – and soon learned that a change of pace and a change of place can lead to great discoveries about oneself. Today, she is a formidable leader of the urban garden movement – passionate about creating more spaces for community gardens in disused areas, and converting unused urban spaces into bountiful forests filled with fresh produce.

Horticulturalist, garden writer and pack raft adventurer, Alys Fowler. Image by Ming De Nasty.

Please tell us about you and your life with plants. I live with a lot of plants. One could say I have a habit that borders on an obsession. Every year I promise myself I will not cover every available surface with them. Every year I fail. It’s a symptom of a small space, but I’m quite sure if I had a bigger space, I still would do the same. I’m also very motivated by my stomach. From waking moment till sleep again I’m endlessly contemplating what I can next eat and this informs a large part of the plants that I grow.

I’m endlessly on a search for that next blissful mouthful and plants are my favourite thing to eat. I dream about brassicas all the time.”

How did your life growing up impact the person you are today? My mother had a small holding in Hampshire where she grew and raised a large part of our food. She was also obsessed with gardening, so I am a direct product of that upbringing. She jokes that I learnt to answer the phone saying, ‘she’s in the garden’.

Why do you garden? In part because it is my heritage. Both my parents love being outside, love nature and that is very infectious. I garden because I am. I don’t know any other way that is so fulfilling to my well-being, my health, my happiness.

In 2017, you penned an incredibly honest, soul baring article in your weekly column for the Guardian that discussed your journey to discovering your own identity and sexuality whilst boat paddling on the Birmingham canal network. Can you tell us a little more about this time in your life? You don’t, I think, necessarily go out looking for such a process of change. It’s not like you wake up one morning and think, I know I’ll get a boat and that will probably lead to me working out my sexuality. So, it’s part coincidence, you do something that changes routine or takes you out of your comfort zone and if the time and space is right that often gives you spaces to contemplate why and how you chose to be doing such a thing.

The canals are very wild and natural in places and I was drawn to that. I was also drawn to this idea of being a bit more passive in nature, gardening takes a very active role and I think I found myself at a point where I wanted to look at things, some of those things turned out to be inward looking.”

One of the reasons, I believe, that we are so drawn to nature is the combination of its otherness and its self-containment (waves roll, wind blows, leaves unfurl despite of your being) give us both respite from our own worries and issues. And that space provided mentally offers us opportunities to see new ways of being.

I’ve heard you liken the rhythmic process of paddling to that of weeding. Do you think this similar motion, taken into a completely new environment, allowed you time to look inwards at yourself in ways you maybe hadn’t been able to before? The change of pace from paddling to gardening gave me space. Canals are flat, very slow bodies of water so there’s not exactly much to do on them. It’s not white-water rafting, so you get to float around a lot thinking about things. I think it symptomatic of any big midlife change or reckoning that people take themselves off to different environments or take up a new hobby, it may be part of the reinvention of self. You get to change the narrative about yourself. We all get stuck telling stories about ourselves that may no longer fit or be helpful with where we next want to go. A change of pace and a change of place can help with sorting out what those stories look like.

Did this time in your life change the way you saw the garden and the natural world? I carried on gardening throughout the whole thing, but I was traveling between cities a lot, so the garden did become very wild for a time, which in its own way was liberating.

I remember distinctly being both pleased and a little heartbroken that it needed me so little. I’ve always known we garden because we need to, but it was a stark reminder that nature’s quite capable on her own.”

Alys' Birmingham garden. Image by Alys Folwer

Can you tell us about your garden at home? It’s a traditional terrace redbrick house with a long, thin strip of a garden. It is south-west facing and slopes away from the house. There’s a patio and a very small front garden. It’s a polyculture, very loosely designed around a forest garden, but it’s more of an open clearing in a woodland than a strict forest garden – our lower light levels mean that too many trees in any system take away from the productivity of lower story plants.

It also borrows a lot from the cottage garden tradition – there’s a lot of selfsown annuals, rambling roses and that sort of shameless romantic muddle that one could say is just practised chaos.”

I practise no dig and it’s completely organic. I also try to keep to a minimum what I bring into the garden in terms of materials. I do have to buy in some compost and I use mains water, but in terms of plant food, supports, mulches and other material I either grow and make my own or use recycled and reclaimed materials.

This year I bought a very tiny, wooden greenhouse (it’s essentially just a tall cold frame), which means for the first time I can raise seedling not exclusively on my windowsill. It’s laughably small compared to traditional greenhouses, but it feels a bit like a palace to me. It’s such a luxury. I actually went out to smell the cedar and ended up giving the greenhouse a kiss, I felt so bloody grateful to have the space and be able to afford such a thing.

What are you looking forward to, in your garden, right now? Eating fresh broad beans and peas. Of course, there’s always somewhere you fail, but when I am home I eat strictly seasonally. Once you grow your own it’s actually very easy to no longer desire bland tasting out-of-season food.  But I am little bored of eating pumpkins at the moment.

You’ve dipped your toes into many spectrums of the plant world over the years – you’ve been a plant lover, horticulturalist, gardener, television presenter, journalist and garden writer. What are some of the most memorable/interesting projects you’ve worked on over the years? I’m hugely privileged because every day of my working life has been interesting. It’s never been dull. New York was a lot of fun in the 90s, the lower Eastside was just teetering on becoming gentrified, but it hadn’t quite happened and gardening there was just brilliant. We all had a common enemy in Giuliani, the then major, who didn’t support the huge network of community gardens, so every weekend seemed to be a wild protest against him to save some garden. I was at one when he was at a gallery (or someone else important was there) and 2000 thousand crickets were released into the space. I feel bad for the crickets now, but at 19 it seemed so thrilling and powerful that people would protest like that for gardens.

What does the future of urban gardening look like to you? Hmmm, well in one sense it is rosy. There’s a growing gang of young people exploring how urban gardening can work for them, whether that’s through houseplants or rooftops, shared spaces, community spots, allotments, food co-op etc. But that’s in part because they are being squeezed out by developers, who are squishing more and more of us into spaces for profit. My garden is small, but it’s huge compared to the average slice in a city these days. That’s very, very sad for us, for our wildlife, for urban drainage, for the urban heat island effect, for play, for the freedom to be outside of the build environment.

We need, in the UK but around the world, stricter laws about land grabbing, about communal access to outside space, too much of what we call public space is now actually private space in cities. We need meaningful laws around temporary use of space, so that people can create community gardens in disused space, but with provisions to how and where they will move onto if they do have to leave.

There needs to be more radical laws around amenity spaces being truly meaningful for the people around them. There’s too many dull, low diversity mown grass spaces that should be used for food growing, wildlife and community.”

And for god’s sake we need to do something with car parks! They should be small forests instead of denuded baked tarmac. Also, while we are here we need to sort out sustainable urban drainage with more swales and rain gardens.

We need a return to the early industrialist model of civic pride. Developers should be falling over themselves to prove that they are good citizens making creative gardens that act as solutions to water/heat/pollution. Whilst we’re at it, every house builder in the country should be forced to put up nesting boxes into the roofs of their development. Your house should come with an energy rating, a rainwater barrel and a certificate saying ‘this is a swift friendly property’. I’d be a great benign dictator!

What is an allotment and why are they so important for urban gardeners? Allotments go way back to the earliest land grabbing in UK history. When the land stopped being communal and was divvied up between the rich landowners, allotments were what the rest of the folk received. Over time, that was refined into small plots of rectangular land owned by councils and rented by anyone who wanted one. There’s been a huge loss in land dedicated to allotments and developers are always land grabbing them away from cash-strapped councils (thank you Conservatives!)

I have an allotment in a park near my house – my little slice of paradise with a shed and a polytunnel and a very lively urban wildlife population. There’s a fox that’s keeps digging up my rare garlic from Kazakhstan. I go there pretty much every day, it’s utterly heaven.

Adventure seems to be a theme that has threaded through all parts of your life. What’s the next great adventure in the works for you? I’m a little obsessed with blue dye at the moment, I’m growing a batch of Japanese indigo to dye my girlfriend’s wedding outfit. I am going to Japan in the autumn and I think I might go meet some traditional dyers to get the low down on processing, otherwise I might just be dyeing her pants and socks.

If you were a plant, what would you be? I’m certainly a shade-loving woodlander, I go too pink in the sun and I like cool feet, but I also like climbing trees. I think I’m probably a clematis. Clematis cirrhosa var pupurascens ‘Freckles’ and I have a lot in common. That or an apple tree, an Egremont Russet or Worcester Pearmain. I’d make a good wild strawberry too.

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Learn more about Alys by visiting her on Instagram / Twitter and reading her weekly column in The Guardian.

Narcissus Thalia, Korean liquorice mint and poppies in an old bathtub in Alys' Birmingham garden. Image by Alys Fowler