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Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 22:50 GMT 23:50 UK
Dig the new gardening
It's been dubbed the new sex. It can put colour in your cheeks. It can be mucky. And you can do it in front of the neighbours.
Yes, it's gardening.
Britain's love affair with all things horticultural is hotting up, reckon style watchers.
According to glossy magazines, such as Tatler, there is a revolution afoot amid the hardy perennials and herbaceous borders.
And it seems homegrown garden designers are leading the way.
Christopher Bradley-Hole, author of The Minimalist Garden and designer of a gold medal-winning plot at this year's Chelsea Flower Show, says the UK has made up for lost time.
"Britain had been stuck in the past. But now we're breaking away from the Edwardian garden, we've been freed from the shackles."
Mr Bradley-Hole says that while the British stuck to tradition, content in the knowledge of their horticultural superiority, the Germans and Dutch forged new ground.
"We thought we were the world's best gardeners and that wasn't true. We've had to catch up and in the last few years we've really moved ahead."
Mr Bradley-Hole says our growing interest in gardening is linked to the greater regard many of us have for nature and the environment.
"As our lives become busier, we tend to put more value on the spaces around us."
Tim Richardson, editor of New Eden (Wallpaper meets Country Life, according to the New York Times), says interior decorating no longer stops at the French windows.
"The garden isn't just a place to grow plants. It's a place to entertain, to play, to relax. It's a leisure space."
Mr Richardson says it is no longer embarrassing for style-conscious consumers to admit to having an interest in their backyards.
"The Percy-Thrower effect, the old-man-in-his-shed image, is fading. Go to a garden centre and the car park will be full of BMWs and they'll have a café serving espresso and carrot cake."
The old lawn and flower beds combination has fallen by the wayside as homeowners try to make their gardens say as much about them as their living rooms.
In the spirit of "modern eclecticism", Mr Richardson says anything goes in the new gardening.
Put on edge by the precise lines and hard surfaces of the fashionable minimalist look? Then try a "wild" garden.
"New Perennialism" relies on lush, seemingly unkempt, arrangements of grasses and plants - with not an inch of steel or glass in sight.
Lacking green fingers? Why bother with living vegetation at all?
"If your garden is looking a bit dowdy, why not buy some synthetic palm trees?" says Mr Richardson.
You don't even need a garden. Terraces, flowerpots or window boxes will all suffice. Cultivating coral in fishtanks also has its supporters, according to New Eden.
With the gardening market in the UK is worth more than £2bn, and growing by 20% a year, Mr Richardson says TV shows like the BBC's Ground Force have fuelled the fashion.
"At a mass appeal level, these makeover programmes have been of great importance. People have realised gardens are things to be designed."
The "horticultural establishment", he says, are not convinced by the new spin Charlie Dimmock has put on the gardening world.
"They loathe the shows. They favour gardening, growing things, over garden design."
Mr Richardson says the Royal Horticultural Society is beginning to reflect the new gardening trend.
"The Chelsea Flower Show is the most modern it's ever been, quite radical really."
Paul Cooper, dubbed the Alexander McQueen of garden design by the Times, has perhaps left the "baggage of the 19th Century" further behind than most.
Mr Cooper's designs have made use of such unlikely garden materials as rubber.
"Why not rubber? It's washable and much more sensible than concrete or stone slabs. There's so much obsessing over historicism. Concrete companies spend millions to make their products look like old-fashioned paving."
Mr Cooper, whose clients include fashion designers, City slickers and media figures, says people have woken up to the possibilities offered by their gardens.
"They think: 'We can really do something with this space.' Their ideas and lifestyle should dictate how their gardens look."
Gardening is so popular, that a recent New Eden survey found that one in four women preferred it to sex.
It isn't all a bed of roses, though. Just like the old sex, you should take time to familiarise yourself with the new gardening before taking the plunge.
And mind you don't throw your back out.
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