The ethical cost of gardens


'Ethical gardens' by Chris JohnstonI am a modest fellow. Friends — true friends — will agree. They will confirm that I am not given to vulgar exaggeration of my achievements, few as those may be.

This I say for no reason other than to give weight to the claim that our garden is, without question, the most picturesque in this garden-conscious neighbourhood of ours. In fact I must go further: our garden causes passers-by to turn their heads and point in admiration.

Just what do these passers-by, admiring, see when they pause their evening summer stroll to enjoy our garden's splendour? They see a solid, red brick bungalow of modest proportions, with front steps and a porch. Across the woven wire fence they will not ignore a blazing bougainvillea, and round about a cottage garden ornamentangle of lavender and stock, a purple sage, geranium and pendulous wisteria.

We work together in this garden, man and wife, to make a splendid place. It is central to our sense of identity and to where we live our lives. It is a place in which we labour when there is work to be done, and where we sit, and where children play and friends may laugh with us.


The garden takes our time, as is the way of spring. And we labour in the dry heat of summer, while flowers bloom and tendrils curl with growth for the coming season.

On occasion, neighbours gather in our garden with their drinks to pass the time. Conversation leads to a future under threat of the warming of the earth and the inevitable changes to lifestyle this will mean. There are as many views as those who speak.

Some, they tell us, have purchased storage tanks, piped via an elaborate pumping system to toilets, to all corners of the garden and to a high-pressure hose to wash the 4WD. Eileen is consumed with guilt. Even the watering can, when she applies it to a narrow band of rose stalks along her fence line, causes minor paroxysms.

Louise says: 'I won't flush my toilet with drinking water — I refuse.' Dianne stands in a succession of buckets under the shower. I'm not sure of the family round the corner. Behind their high wall is a lush garden. They are not given to carrying bath water. I'm just not sure ...

Our gardens must survive. For this each has their moral way ...


Me and my wife are positioned, ethically and in terms of commitment to sustainable practice, somewhere near the middle. Asked if we are scrupulous we must answer, somewhat evasively, 'to a point'. We teeter on the moral brink. We apply what could be termed a morality of everyday life; a form of situational ethics.

In this we are cognisant of the urgings of our leaders; and we are sensitive to the ethical norms that have emerged in our neighbourhood around the watering of gardens.

But also we may sleep a little late and water past our appointed hour, or run a quiet dripper while away from the house if a watering day is missed. Then we reassure one another that 'it's still the same water — no more, no less'.

Can I defend the stance that we have taken? Only inasmuch as it represents the level of behaviour that 'we all' will employ when told by our leaders what to do, then left by them to 'self-regulate'. It is a holding pattern, in anticipation of clearer guidelines and regulation.

Government must get to this, but it is not there yet. At present our leaders are the media. From there we learn 'the science', the vanquishing of skeptics, what others do, and the skirmish of political debate; and from this constellation of ideas we form our personal principles of urban sustainability.


This garden must survive. It is of our soul.

So we will do what must be done, based on a shrewd judgment of what, to us, is reasonable. We are waiting for the definitive statement. We are waiting for stouter boundaries to be declared, for laws to be written which will eliminate righteous indignation and snivelling deception as the dominant forces at work in the suburbs. And while we wait the jungle law applies. We are lynch mobs to those whose practice we despise.


Mea culpa. Mea culpa.

Elizabeth Farrelly (Blubberland: the Dangers of Happiness) is disarmingly frank in her treatise on the perils of happiness:

'I drive too much ... I buy too much ... I use too much water, energy, air and space ... For my own future, as well as my children's, I must change. And yet — this is what's weird — I can't. Cannot abandon comfort, convenience and pleasure ... Can't stop doing it ... My experience, in short costs the planet more than it can afford.

That's us! We know what we should do; but can't; but don't; but won't.

There is a cycle to this life. Slowly, fitfully, our quarter-acre has been transformed in ways that make us pleased across the little joys and melancholies of our lives. It is a part of us, our bodies, minds and souls, and of all our lives have come to mean.

And now, faced with the drying of the earth and threats to life, as it has come to be lived, we must bring new knowledges to bear. We must teach ourselves new lessons, painfully learned, of dwindling resources and the uncertainties of a future we have not lived before.

And when the rare rains fall in the night and send the smell of the earth, we lie in our bed and sigh with pleasure.

Roger TrowbridgeRoger Trowbridge has explored 'the social condition' through positions in community organisations, government departments, and the Social Science Department of RMIT. His writing has been published in Griffith Review, Australian Quarterly, Thirst and New Matilda.

Topic tags: roger trowbridge, gardens, ethics, drought, water restrictions, climate change, global warming



submit a comment

Existing comments

great to include gardening and horticulture in the ethical debate
Maggie Power | 16 April 2009

Great article! Be assured that by working in our wonderful gardens, we are saving the government money on health care, as gardening keeps us healthy both physically and mentally. We can grow fresh vegies, fruit all the while knowing that there are no harsh chemicals being used, no industrial fertilisers that contribute to other health conditions and not to mention saving money at the supermarket. It also gives us immense pleasure makes us happy, makes our neighbours happy.

Gardening is our sanity break. If someone is ill, we can give them flowers from our beautiful tended gardens, a friend is sad, a flower makes them glad. We share our bountiful rewards by offering those near to us fruit, vegies and flowers in turn, saving them money.

Therefore, young people around us learn the life lesson of giving is the greatest pleasure and letting our children/grandchildren see that pleasure come forth, all the while, seeing how plants grow, from little buds to whole cauliflowers or cabbages.
Philippa Boyington | 16 April 2009

Easter this year has indeed been blessed. Our gardens received their first significant rain in a very long time. Plants that have been languishing under water restrictions are now smiling and reminding us of the great joy of renewal.
Margaret McDonald | 16 April 2009

i liked roger's article. it's in the tradition of peter timms's 'australia's quarter-acre' and margaret simons's articles from her time of subsistence living in the blue mountains. i think the 1/4 acre block has enormous potential for cultural values like real and slow food, cutting food miles, reproducing something of a natural cycle into our lives. the skills and wisdom we acquire growing some of our food on 1/4 acre, preserving fruits and veges for the winter, pickling, etc are all good skills. a balance of rainwater harvesting in tanks and flat terraces, and using grey water, goes a long way on 1/4 acre if the basic design is good. it's ok to grow flowers too, they give so much pleasure. it's nice to mix flowers and herbs and vegetables, we have fruit trees with pumpkin vines growing over them and climbing roses around our vegie patch. chickens are a wonderful part of the cycle on 1/4 acre too. it's easy and you learn as you go.
tony kevin | 17 April 2009


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up