Sunday, 9 August 2015

Ignorance and Bliss.....

Knowing What You Don't Know

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.
Donald Rumsfeld

Gardening customers of mine will be used to the sight of me working away quite happily with a small and discreet single earpiece, usually stuck in my right ear. Why always my right ear, I don't quite know...? The left earpiece usually sits tucked inside my T-shirt, unless of course I am listening to music (a dead give away!) when you'll see me all wired up in glorious stereophonic sound. Having never been asked in over 5 years of working, last week two customers of mine asked me what it was I was listening to exactly? Well, I can hereby reveal all.... 

There are a few regular Radio 4 podcasts I download each week: a couple of gardening podcasts; the weekly R4 documentary; The Report; Thinking Allowed, Analysis; Desert Island Discs, that kinda stuff. Then there's some Radio 5 Live shows, such as Fighting Talk (to keep me up with the sporting world) and Danny Baker's Saturday morning show. These all make for some great radio, and I would recommend them all.

Occasionally, I may also be listening to a teach yourself French lesson. Although that's a dead give away as well... if that's the case you'll soon see my character suddenly change from a happy-go-lucky, South of England gardener to that of a rude and nonchalant Parisian - Boff! If ever you've received a somewhat petulant shrug from asking me to clip the Bay tree, I can guarantee I was probably listening to Michel Thomas teaching me conversational French and as a result had come all over all Francais! Well, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Whatever!!

Anyway, what has this to do with gardening or horticulture I hear you ask? Well, the topic of ignorance was the subject of a recent Radio 4 documentary I listened to... and it got me thinking. I'm guessing that was their aim after all? It was a well-put together analysis on how the state of ignorance is actually preferable to that of owning or acquiring knowledge. I agreed very much with their arguments, and what's more, I always have believed in the value of not knowing... or at least in the a state of knowing that you don't know. Which, when you think about it, knowing that you don't know something, is far from ignorant. Confused? Read on McDuff!

You see, the state of 'ignorance' can be quite an open and receptive one. You are certainly not blinkered by thinking that you do indeed know something: not overly-confident... certain... arrogant even! No, pas du tout... as they say in France. Knowing you don't know something renders you an empty vessel, open to learning and discovery. You can research it for yourself, gather the facts up and come to your own conclusions. For example:

1 - I've always thought horticultural students often make the best gardeners. Yes, their knowledge may be a little lacking: maybe they don't know the name of that plant, which family it may belong to, the aspect it prefers or what pests and diseases it may attract. In that respect, yes, they may be a little horticulturally ignorant. However, if they are both honest and open about it, they are usually keen as mustard to find out, for both your benefit and theirs. They are not blinkered by what they think they know, or even by what they have been taught... just very interested to find out for themselves. I have seen more damage done to plants and gardens (incorrect pruning etc) by a so-called expert than I ever witnessed from an honest and open student, who's ultra keen not mess up! 

Yes, of course I understand that such a student will, in the process of both learning and experience, actually get to a point of knowing... or will they? We are all, pretty much, slaves to our egos, and there's not many people who like to confess to not knowing something, especially when they sell themselves as both qualified and experienced. But, hey.... let's be honest, the so-called 'facts' surrounding best horticultural practice seem to change all the time: plants get renamed and re-classified into different family groups all the time. A plant's preferred site, soil and aspect seem to differ according to what book you're reading! Personally, I've seen Calla Lilies (Zantedeschia) and Ligularia growing quite happily in some of the driest, most unfertile borders I've ever worked in! So, who in reality really knows anything? And don't even get me started on the so-called 'acid lovers'..... ??

2 - It's the same with the Gardeners Question Time panel. I mean, how often do you hear them say that they simply don't know the answer to a question.... not very often I can tell you! Also, how many times does a question get answered completely differently by every member of the panel? Almost every time!

I guarantee, the answer to a question such as 'what plant do you recommend for my tiny front garden... it only measures 6x4ft? will no doubt produce answers such as these:

Peter Tong (or is it James Wong?) will no doubt recommend a rare cultivar of mangetout only found in the foothills of the Peruvian mountains.
Ol' Bob Flowerpuff will also implore you to grow anything edible... but do please first slaughter a goat and bury it 5ft under the crop.... dig in a boot load of road kill whilst you're at it! All good organic stuff.
Lil' Chris Beardshaw - always seeing the beauty and potential in everything - will no doubt build you a mini Versailles... and still come in at under £100... even with the pleached limes!
Pippa Greenwood will warn against growing anything there at all... unless of course you can encourage the ladybirds to eat the aphids... and frogs to eat the slugs.... the Carrot Fly to beat up the Capsid Bugs... and so on! Otherwise, it's simply not worth the risk.
Sarah Raven will have you grow anything, so long as it can be cut down and used in a lovely bouquet, as table posies for your daughter's wedding, or as bathroom decoration.... or floating in a bowl of water.
..... and all the while, Eric Robson will be repeating his mantra 'onwards and upwards', followed by, 'and can we have our next question, please'? I swear, they are the only two lines he ever utters! 

I am, of course, only jesting. I love GQT. Although I must confess a preference to Radio Ulster's Gardener's Corner with Cherrie Mciiwaine - check it out if you can.

Gunnera manicata, a plant I once heard GQT suggest (and not ironically either!) as an ideal plant for a small garden - I kid you not!

Anyway, you get the idea. Although gardening, with its strong links to the subject of botany, could be described as something of a science, I certainly don't feel it's as black and white as, say, mathematics. I imagine 50 + 50 has always equalled 100, and no doubt always will: very little to dispute there, me thinks. But as we know, plants are very different;  somewhat ephemeral, transient, impermanent in nature.... always changing and always adapting.

Facts really don't lend themselves to plants very well. I also believe that a certain degree of openness, together with the humility of some good, honest ignorance, is probably what's needed to keep one's curiosity and wonder of nature most fully alive. 

'and now... it's back to the weeding'......

Until next time.... thanks for reading!

Marc. Le jardinière

(Mrs O. Le photographe)


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