Pragmatism or idealism: a debate from across the Atlantic



Here’s an interesting if minor controversy going on in the world of U.K. gardening show Gardener’s World. While the previous presenter Monty Don was a resolute advocate of organic practices (assuming a definition of “organic” most of us can go along with), new host Toby Buckland, who has a more traditional background in horticulture than Don, has mentioned using both pesticides and peat as acceptable strategies, commenting that it’s better to be an “inorganic success than an organic failure.”

Buckland has frankly said he wants to help the industry that brought him success, going so far as to state, “There is a theory in gardening that you should only visit small nurseries and grow as much as you can from seed,” as he urges gardeners to buy plants and learn to embrace garden centers.

Well, I’ve got no dog in this fight, as I can’t watch the program, but I can understand both sides of it. I don’t have much success with seeds, usually buy plants, and shop at both family-owned nurseries and—less often—big boxes. (I think there may be a starker divide between local nurseries and the big centers here than there is there.) If I have a really bad problem with a houseplant that I don’t want to throw away, I’ll spray something on it (very rarely).

But if I garden pragmatically, I admire the type of idealistic, romantic view of gardening advocated by Don and others. When I read about gardening or watch something about gardening, I’d prefer to be inspired. The matter-of-fact stuff I can get from other sources, or look up as needed.

Interestingly, GW has gone from 4 million viewers to 2 million in recent years, and it’s noted that in advocating smarter use of chemicals and easier methods than seed-starting, Buckland is trying to cast a wider net.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I can’t imagine using pesticides in my garden. I would rather remove the afflicted plant. And isn’t that more pragmatic than shopping for pesticides? Of course the other, funner, solution is to plant more flowers to attract more beneficials.

    And speaking of fun, I have found growing from seed to be vastly more fun than buying a plant. And when it comes to buying plants, I live by the dictum “don’t be a snob.”

    I think if all you want to do is make a pretty garden, this guy’s advice is fine. Me, I think the obsession with pretty functions as a tyranny in the garden.

  2. I’m with Chuck B. Do pesticides ever solve any problem? Aren’t the bugs a sign that something more fundamental is wrong?

    As far as I’m concerned, all you have to do is mention a pesticide and your credibility as a gardening authority goes out the window. You are in the industrial tank–beholden to corporate sponsors, no doubt. You are not one of nature’s coworkers.

    Houseplants, of course, excepted. What you spray in the privacy of your own home is your business.

  3. Well, actually, I shouldn’t use them on the houseplants either. I just hate to give up on my jasmines and you gotta spray em to get rid of mites. The “natural” ones are usually enough tho.

    But if I had kids or pets that eat plants, I’d desist.

  4. I’m not strictly organic but do very little spraying — more benign neglect.

    But Monty Don’s book, “The Jewel Garden” is one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read on gardening. He and his wife were very successful jewelry designers, lost their business and home and everything in a bad economy.

    Started agin from scratch, lived with parents, were on the dole, and he was severely depressed as well. Gardening was a lifelong passion and brought him back from the edge. His garden success is an accidental by-product.

    I think Don thinks long term, big picture and health of the family and planet. I think it is critical that we help people to be local and sustainable. But that should not have to mean starting everything from seeds, either.

  5. How about a new twist on the organic debate……….?

    When you become ill do you visit the local witch doctor/herbalist etc for the latest blend of herbs or do you see your primary care doc for some synthetic cure?

    So after your illness leaves do you resume life as normal or try to find the causal agent and make a change in lifestyle to prevent the recurrance of said illness?

    The best thing I have herad was from Amy at the IGC where she said
    Europe is moving beyond organics and into a mind set of what has the lowest total “carbon” impact in terms of plant/food production.
    If it takes a ton of organic controls to grow something on an acre of farmland that could be done with a total lower carbon footprint with traditional methods who are we really impressing other than ourselves with all this tuff that organic is always better?
    And I do not subscribe to man induced global warming.

    The (organic is anot always the best way TROLL)

  6. But organic is the best way for long term with the earth and soil itself. But is saving an individual plant in a garden of such import that we are willing to use what ever it takes.Even at the risk of entering a cycle of continuous life support.
    Our economy is showing the results of this mind set. Our fellow inhabitants of this earth are showing signs of failure as well. The old way is not the solution…Gloria

  7. I think the jury might still be out on whether “organic is the best way for long term with the earth and soil itself.” A little Miracle Gro on your Houseplants might be a better option for someone that doesn’t have the time/space/money to brew compost tea.

    Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, I think continued experimentation, considering local conditions, resources, and needs, may be more reasonable, and practical.

    I think how we get into trouble is thinking this way is better than that way (which really means, my way is better than your way).

    There are costs and benefits to each approach. That’s why GR is so awesome, ‘cuz we can discuss them and learn something from eachother.

  8. I have trouble respecting anyone telling me that the only way is pesticide/herbicide free living. That is unless they are willing to come over to my yard and handle the rampant poison ivy and fire ant problem barehanded. Anyone that thinks their techniques are a cure-all hasn’t stepped onto my property. Some garden problems that people are out there in the trenches trying to solve are massive, not solved with a single application, dangerous to overlook, and often not the fault of the gardener in the first place. There are plenty of people just looking for the easy way out but there are also people that don’t have the resources to hire a dozen yard workers to help them win the battle.

  9. John, I have the same reaction to one-size-fits-all solutions, no matter which absolutist position they take, organic or synthetic, or whatever. Here’s a compilation of instances where people have chosen to use Roundup and you’ll see that some commenters universally condemn its use without offering alternatives in the specific situations referred to in the post.
    What _really_ helps is when people contribute to the conversation with practical solutions that look at hte big pictures. And GR readers know (thanks to Jeff Gillman) that organic doesn’t necessarily equal safe, anyway.

    One more point – I ditto Gloria’s sentiments about getting rid of plants that need life support, whether the treatment is organically based or not. That’s a basic principle of sustainability, isn’t it?

  10. I agree with Susan. What we need to keep in mind is the sustainability of our gardens. We should garden with the minimum impact on our planet, but sustaining the gardener is also important and if that means that Elizabeth buys her vegetable seedlings from the store instead of growing organically produced seeds, then so be it. At least she’s planting the vegetables and treating them organically once they are in her care. Actually, I also purchase some of my seedlings–there’s only so much I can accomplish. I can never remember to start tomatoes in the middle of summer for the second crop, so I buy the seedlings for the head start. Our first frost here won’t be until late December, so my seedling planted three weeks ago will have plenty of time to mature. Fresh tomatoes for Thanksgiving is one of the bonuses of year-round gardening here.

  11. So glad to see the tide turning on the compost toast crowd. I garden with little if any pesticide but am sick an tired of the birkenstock granola munching crowd telling me that aged manure loaded with antibiotics and steriods is better than 5-10-5 or peat moss.
    There are not enough free range chickens and cows to produce a 40 lb bag of manure let alone a cubic yard.

    The (grow your own leave mine alone)TROLL

  12. Greg,

    I hope you’re wrong. Peat moss has almost no nutrients, is inherently acidic, and most experts agree that it’s not sustainable to harvest this resource. It takes a hundred years or more in a bog for sphagnum moss to become peat. There are better ways to add humus to the soil such as homemade compost or coconut coir (pronounced core). In Florida fertilizers with high phosphorus content (that middle number) are being banned because this ingredient washes out into our waterways causes great harm.

    You don’t have to be a purist to garden sustainably. I just dug a load of well-composted horse manure from a neighbor over the weekend. It’s made a big difference in our crops and I know that it’s free of steroids ands other additives. I still keep a package of Miracle Grow around, though and use it judiciously.

  13. I d not use peat moss at all. I am a big proponent od coir fiber as i have used it in my clay soil and it breaks it up nicely.
    By the way only 1 inch is removed off of peat bogs a year. It is naturally being replaced faster than it is removed. still not a good thing to use though for other reasons.
    i aso agree on the removal of phosphorous from fertilizers. soils in my part of the world albany ny have enough phosphorous in the soil already.

  14. I had a hort. instructor tell us everyone thinks they are organic until they see a cockroach in the baby’s room. Then it is whatever it takes, as fast as possible to get rid of the bugs. The perception is the bug is worse than anything used to eradicate it.
    From a farming standpoint, glyphosate (roundup) and roundup resistant soybeans changed farming. Using one pesticide is better than the old chemical cocktails formerly required, in addition to walking the fields manually cutting out weeds.

  15. Anyone heard of Intergrated Pest management (it applies to weeds as well)? I tired of hearing about people pouring vinegar on their garden (or some other organic remedy), poisoning the soil for months, instead of using a safe product that becomes inert in a few hours. Most of the chemical problems we have with gardeners are due to a lack of reading the basic instructions for usage (or treating for a non-existant problem)! Check with your local Master Gardener program and you will see that they advocate a balanced approach to inorganic and organic applications.

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