Alys Fowler personifies all that is good about gardening. Her infectious passion for the great outdoors is matched with a ruthless determination to educate the masses in the joys of self-sustainability. She expresses her concerns for the environment with sharp but positive intelligence, delighting in the ecosystem rather than bemoaning the perils of climate change. Driven by her need for solitude, as much as her love of community, Alys is warm, eloquent, funny, and just a tiny bit eccentric.
Known for her signature style of vintage frocks and gumboots, Alys cuts an exquisitely individual figure in the gardening world. But it’s her spirit that makes the most impact. Alys is married to Holiday, an American artist who suffers from cystic fibrosis, a complicated genetic condition that carries with it a shortened life expectancy. This painful personal challenge has given Alys a heightened sense of the rhythms of existence. She finds comfort in being a small part of something very great, and far prefers the sense of interconnectedness offered by her garden over the cult of individuality so often promoted within our culture. She is a slow gardener, focusing on the process, not the sudden transformation, believing in the doing, not the buying-in of gardening.
Alice grew up in the sleepy Hampshire village of Silchester, surrounded by chickens and dogs while her mother gardened. After boarding at the renowned and eccentric Bedales School, she trained at the Royal Horticultural Society and the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, earning herself a scholarship to study at the New York Botanical Garden in 1998. Here, she found her main influence: the punk-rock-permaculture-ethic of the community gardens in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. This thrifty, creative approach combined with Alys’s quest to make gardening accessible has informed her work ever since.
Back in England, Alys completed a masters in society, science and the environment, worked as a BBC gardening journalist, TV researcher and presented a TV series, called The Edible Garden, which was filmed in her own backyard at Kings Heath. She has also authored four books on planting, harvesting, foraging and preserving. Now involved with urban agriculture projects in the UK, Alys continues to write a column for The Guardian newspaper, and is currently working on a new book about urban beekeeping. Her punk-rock-ethic remains intact. Backed by rigorous study, inspired by the challenge of the city, Alys makes gardening desirable, and entirely possible. Her permaculture-influenced plots are a delightful jumble of the edible and the beautiful. There’s nothing mysterious or difficult about any of it–it’s all designed to be as simple and enjoyable as can be.
LIZ EVANS: So, how’s the garden looking?
ALYS FOWLER: The garden’s good! We’ve had a very late spring so it’s all a bit behind, but we’re having a nice summer here. We’ve just had a whole month of sun and now a week of tropical rain, so everything’s happy. I’ve got pretty much everything growing: potatoes, salads, tomatoes, globe artichokes, borlotti beans, runner beans, tomatillos, chillis, you name it, masses!
I’m very interested in celebrating the humble and ordinary. For me, that’s the real joy of it. I grew up with this idea that you could only start becoming a gardener when you became middle-aged and middle-class. When I went to New York and started living in a city, I realised that was a load of rubbish of course.
Part of the problem with gardening has been this dominant idea that there has to be a single type of garden.
But actually, when you show that there can be lots of different gardens, then you really open up the space. When I did my TV program, my belief was confirmed–everybody came out of the woodwork saying, ‘Oh yeah, I never really called myself a gardener, because my space doesn’t look like what they show on Gardening Today‘ or whatever they’d seen. I have a very traditional garden, which is where the show was filmed. It’s an oblong at the back of my house and it’s next to lots of other gardens. While it’s seen as tiny within that mainstream media gardening world, it’s actually quite big for a city. I think that notion, particularly in cities, of what spaces we’re going to garden, is being pushed every day and I think that’s quite exciting. You see that with urban agriculture, rooftop gardens and community gardens and people borrowing other people’s gardens to grow things and paying them back with whatever they’re growing. So it’s moving away from the traditional notion of the garden being a big large space with a bit of lawn.
I think there’s probably a fairly interesting discourse about feminism in there somewhere! For women, it’s another thing on the list, right? Along with cooking, cleaning, looking after the kids, working outside of the home. So it’s no surprise women have adopted a slightly wilder attitude to what’s a weed and what isn’t, because if you’re doing 101 tasks, you have to adopt that approach. This is how the cottage garden became the mainstay for many small houses. It’s actually quite effortless. If you have lots of straight lines, it’s hard to keep it nice, but if you just let it all jumble together it looks quite pretty. But then that becomes the female way of gardening. We women have so many identities. For me, the garden is just another part of my identity.
There shouldn’t be a dominant idea of what a garden is, because that immediately becomes exclusive. The thing that really matters to me, is that people realise they’re not the only users of that space, that there’s wildlife and other things using it.
I still have this worry that we as humans believe we own that space. We don’t at all.
The other users, the insects, the pollinators, the wildlife, even the soil, are all valid users of that space, and we need an approach that includes everybody.
The swamp of negativity that goes with eco-awareness and the grief cycle around climate change is huge. If you keep banging on in that way it’s not going to work. It just becomes easier to ignore everything and stay hedonistic and individualistic about your own personal inability in the face of this massive thing. The garden is a really good model for showing people how you can do very positive things. By learning through that space you can start to extend it to other things in your life. Most of the gardeners I know who are deeply committed to their gardens–whether organic or not–have a wider sense of ecosystems and whatnot, just because they see it play out in a very direct way. These days, technology is king. We’re led to believe it can fix everything. But the reality is, that’s not true, particularly not for systems that we don’t understand, such as massive ecosystems in the rainforest. The garden is a place where you very much learn on a firsthand basis. You can go at it with so many ideas of what you think is right, but the season will tell you. It doesn’t matter how many books you read, you have to learn to sit within the system. That’s an incredibly valuable lesson. It’s only going to become more valuable as this technological shift becomes bigger.
The other interesting thing is how the whole ecological importance of a garden is changing. Our gardens are key spaces for wildlife. When I talk to older gardeners they always bang on about design in a very egotistical, human-centric way–I will make the garden look like this, it is my bit of art and I will control and dominate it! For the next generation that attitude is not going to be possible. We need a healthy ecosystem that works, and the garden is where humankind and nature finds itself together.
I was very lucky. I had this gorgeous upbringing in the middle of rural Hampshire, with two doting parents, siblings, cats, dogs, rabbits, chickens and woodland. It was a very secure, happy place. My parents were quite old when they had me and there was a big gap between me and my siblings; my sister was 10 years older and my brother, seven years older than me, so they weren’t around much; I was sort of an only child in some ways. We were quite isolated because our house was in the middle of nowhere, so there weren’t many kids around me. I suppose it was quite a lonely childhood, although I didn’t experience it that way because I had a dog and lots of space to go and explore. It has made me quite self-sufficient, and content with my own company. I think it is partly why I’m a good gardener: I can go into that space and get quite lost. I love people. One of the great joys about adulthood for me is having friends. I still feel a complete sense of excitement when I meet somebody new. I think, Oh! you’re going to be a friend! I love living in a city for that reason, but in some ways I’m quite an awful friend because I’m bad at keeping in contact. I can wander off into the allotment and not speak to anyone for hours on end.
New York was mad. I went to boarding school, so I had become used to people!
I loved it. I went to a very rural hippie boarding school called Bedales, which was like Summerhill, with slightly more rules. It was wonderful because it put a high value on doing lots of creative things. Although, while it was very alternative it was also very privileged and there were lots of famous artists’ and rock stars’ children there, among the more ordinary middle- class kids. It wasn’t a representative mix of society, but it was very beautiful and I did a lot of gardening there. I had my own plots and grew vegetables and that sort of thing. Gardening wasn’t on the curriculum but there was “outdoor work” which included farming and sport. You could do pretty much anything. It was a ridiculously indulgent school. If you wanted to keep sheep you could keep sheep, if you wanted to look after chickens you could look after chickens, so nobody batted an eyelid when I said, ‘Well, I’m going to grow some beetroots.’
After all that I was sick to death of the rural life, and I wanted to get on with living in what I considered to be the adult world, so I was very eager to go and live in a city. I was desperate for it. So although New York was an extraordinary leap from one life to another, it felt like exactly what I should be doing. For the first couple of months I was homesick. I was young, I didn’t know anybody and it was such a culture shock, going from rural England to America.
I was used to being nice and open to everybody because I came from a small country town. Suddenly I found myself in a place where everyone seemed slightly insane and crazy.
Yes! I used to think if I didn’t get home by eight o’clock I’d get murdered, and after a while I got kind of bored with sitting in my room from eight o’clock onwards so I started tentatively going out and seeing if I’d get murdered at nine o’clock! I didn’t really make friends until I found a community garden. To begin with, I was far too nervous to ask if I could become part of it. I thought everyone was far older than me because they seemed so city-wise and sophisticated. For a long time I would just leave little presents outside the gates which I would get from my job at the Botanical Garden when they were throwing things out. One day somebody saw me and said, “What are you doing? Oh my God, you’re the garden fairy! Would you like to come in?” You can’t imagine how wide-eyed I was; everything looked just astonishing. Here I was living in a city where you could buy milk 24 hours a day. I was thrilled by every element of the city, even the horrific bits. Now I was being adopted by this bunch of gay men who thought I was fantastic and hugely eccentric, and then suddenly the world unfurled and there were parties and people to see and screenings and poetry readings to go to, and every other type of….
Exactly. What I’d read about in books suddenly seemed to be my life and I fell head-over-heels in love with a really inappropriate boyfriend, I ran headlong into the madness that is New York. I always thought I’d go back and live there and I still am a little bit surprised that I’m not living there. But once I’d finished that year I promised myself that I’d only ever go back there if I could make a bit more money and sadly, I never achieved that!
I was offered a job with the BBC and I thought I’d stay for six months. I promised myself, and everyone around me, that I wouldn’t move to Birmingham because it’s the butt of every English joke. Why would anyone want to live there, right? But it’s been regenerated since the 1980s–it takes about 20 years for any regeneration project to take effect. You can see that now Birmingham is on the cusp of turning into a really interesting city. And it’s very cheap to live here, so there’s a small interesting artistic community because you can afford to work two or three days a week and then spend the rest of the week doing your thing. It’s a small social network so it doesn’t have that snobbish London thing going on, and creatively it’s really exciting.
Also, there are some really great community projects happening, like the Urban Veg project, which is run by my good friend. A year ago our aim at Urban Veg was to unite all the projects together–maybe that was slightly arrogant because they’re all doing their own thing and it’s a very spread out city. I suppose our project is best known now for being a very successful hub from which to disseminate ideas. We’ve been working with The Big Dig, a UK initiative designed to encourage city dwellers to get involved with their community gardens.
Yes, I guess I had bold ideas that Urban Veg could work on policy, partly because public health in England has had a massive reshuffle. They’ve looked at every model–eat five fruit or veg a day, run more, stop smoking, etc… Yet we still have a population with massive issues around food, obesity, diabetes, ageing, and Alzheimer’s. The campaigns haven’t worked.
Part of the problem is that cities lack a strong food culture, so supermarkets are left to decide what people should eat.
I’m really interested in the potential for urban agriculture to create a local food identity and culture. So while no, urban agriculture could never produce enough food to feed a city, it can teach people about how food grows and it can educate people about the possibilities. In The Economist yesterday I read that the average Briton eats 200 grams of fresh food a week. That’s a terrifyingly small proportion, and it means the mainstay of most people’s diets is probably processed. There’s a strong correlation between growing your own food, the enjoyment of eating it and the broadening of food choices. I do hope Urban Veg can improve Birmingham in this way. There’s a skills gap here. People need to have the skills to grow vegetables, and Urban Veg is slowly becoming a place where people can go and pick up those skills.
Yes, this kind of thing could be conceived as an entirely middle-class bent but you’re doing it a disservice if you think that, because food is an issue for everybody. Yes, the early adopters have been white, middle-class people, but there has been a trickle down effect from that, and now people are truly beginning to address these issues. There are some fantastic projects doing box schemes. There’s one in Dudley, east of Birmingham, on some former allotments within a council estate. Most of the users have mental health issues, but they’ve been there for 20 years now and each week they send out 60 boxes of organic food to the local community, undercutting everyone’s prices, including the big supermarkets.
There really has been a shift in the last couple of years with the perception of urban agriculture. Originally it was seen as very out there–just a bunch of alternative hippies wanting to keep rabbits on rooftops. But I recently saw an article in The New York Times featuring several schemes in Brooklyn that are making considerable money. There’s nothing hippie about them. They are commercially viable.
The problem is, the minute you give something too much of a rural imperative it’s seen as wishy-washy, but the moment it makes economic sense, it’s up and running.
I think the shift is happening. Slowly.
Well, if you look closely, you’ll see that all my clothes have holes in them, usually under the arms, because I buy clothes that you’re not supposed to do anything manly in. But, yes, the story behind it all is quite simple and shallow! About six years or so after I left Bedales, I was living in London and gardening. Every week I used to take a percentage of the money that I’d made and go and look for bargains. One day, I’d just finished this gardening job and there I was in a clothes shop, looking through the sale racks when I met this girl, Tamsin Lonsdale, who had been in my year at school. She was incredibly glamorous, her mother was a model, she was living in LA doing the society thing. She’s always been this incredibly attractive woman. And there I was, wearing a Gore-Tex waterproof and terrible jeans. She just gave me this head to toe look and said, “What do you do now?” I said, “Oh I’ve just been doing some gardening.”
I’d always kept the vintage dress for the evening and the gardening clothes for the gardening, but as I was cycling back home that day across London I thought, Well I’m going to be gardening for the rest of my life, so I’m either going to be this person who wears terrible clothes or not. I thought, To hell with that, I’ll not wear terrible clothes, because I just cannot have anybody look at me like that ever again. So I went home, took the rest of the money I’d made and went through every charity shop from Marylebone all the way back to Hackney. I thought, I’m never going to be seen in Goretex ever again. It became something people were intrigued by, that I didn’t wear gardening clothes. Frocks and gumboots–that’s become the thing that everyone expects of me, so when I wear jeans everyone gets upset.
That was a behind the scenes job actually. There was very much this sense of progressing up the TV ladder towards becoming a producer, and of course, everyone thinks working in TV must be really glamorous. There was lots about it that I liked, including the people, but it’s just not me. I felt like I was getting further and further away from my garden.
It was all to do with how it feels in your late twenties, where you go from feeling really free and having lots of friends to everyone settling down and shifting into proper adulthood. For me that job was like, ‘Stay here and become a proper adult,’ and I was like, No thanks, I’m going back into the garden! Not that I’m not an adult in the garden, but it felt like it was everybody else’s perception of what I should be, and not what I knew would make me happy. I’ve always had a strong sense of what pleases me, and I’m quite ruthless about pursuing those things.
I also have a funny relationship with money. I’m hugely privileged to have come from a comfortable middle-class background. I’ve never had any hardship, but I find it very hard to give money the priority that everybody else does. Part of the reason for staying in TV is that you can make a lot of money, but that has not been a priority in my life. Like everybody, I enjoy shopping, but after a while, you just accumulate stuff that you don’t really want, and it doesn’t make me as happy as being in a garden. It’s as simple as that.
I feel like I’m less involved in it than I’d like to be if I’m honest. I always thought I’d be gardening more than I am, but it doesn’t quite work in my life at the moment. It sounds quite arrogant, but one of the things I know I’m quite good at is storytelling. I can write about it and spread the word by talking about it, and help to create a world where people feel it’s something they can talk about, and that’s a nice alternative. I love hearing about other people’s food growing projects and I want to explore more. At different times in my life, gardening has meant different things.
In my twenties it was the thing that made me different, eccentric and interesting. Now I’m older, it’s the thing that makes me similar. What will it be in the future?
I’m working on a new book with beekeeper Steve Benbow. It’s a series of letters between us. I’m learning to keep bees and he’s learning to grow flowers, so hopefully it will help people learn why it matters to garden for pollinators. Steve is a commercial beekeeper who keeps his bees on top of iconic buildings including Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London. I’m going to keep mine at my allotment because we have very low fences, so the flight path would go right through gardens. There’s an artisan baker on the allotment who wants to keep bees too, so I think it’s going to be a nice little collaborative thing. He works nights so we have to leave notes for each other about what to do for the bees. This project is going to be a lot of fun, and I’m very excited about learning a new skill. I’ve just done my first couple of inspections. I opened the hive and fell in love. Bees are what I’ve been looking for! They are amazing.
Yes. I was talking to a friend at the allotment about it recently. The allotment has a particular quality for me actually because yes, there’s a community around, but it’s also a very individual space – it’s wholly about me when I’m there. There’s this lovely by-product which is creating nice food for people to eat, but if I’m honest, it’s about me. Even if it’s just 10 minutes to go and feed the chickens, it’s still 10 minutes which are entirely mine, so it’s a hugely, hugely important space for me in terms of making sense of things. I walk there through this lovely woodland. It’s almost taking time out of the real world. An ecosystem can teach you as much as any human or any cultural thing can. It’s not wild or rare–I walk through my cultivated park to my cultivated allotment, but it is nature, and that for me is absolutely key to staying sane. It’s as simple as that.
It’s very hard living with somebody with a chronic illness, there’s no two ways about it. It’s much harder for him than it is for me and in the last couple of years his health has really deteriorated, so there is this huge sense of urgency about how much time we have left, and what will that time be like. As anyone who spends a lot of time in hospitals will know, it just takes everything out of you. It’s an exhausting space that is not very human, and it’s difficult to make sense of. For me, gardening is my way of making sense of it. I find huge solace in the fact that it’s cyclical and seasonal and it goes on regardless of whether you feel it should or not. You realise you’re just another little blip in the whole scheme of things.
We’re dominated by a society of individuals, where the individual is the all- important thing. You read any newspaper or magazine and it’s all about how to make yourself more beautiful and better.
There’s this overwhelming sense that you should be constantly improving your individual lot, and along with that, we have a massive rise of apathy and depression
But you know, you go into your garden and you notice a slug has eaten the lettuce you were going to eat, and you realise you are quite insignificant, just like everything else. I find great solace in that. It may not be everyone’s idea of happiness but I find a massive sense of relief in that. It’s a fascinating element of the human psyche. There’s nothing new, the sun rises every day. That’s really comforting.
This piece was originally published in Dumbo Feather issue 37