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The back garden as a cultural environment

27 January 2012

Carina Sjöholm

A place to relax or a demanding chore? Different people will give different answers to what a garden is.“With gardens, people shape their own personal cultural environments in their backyard”, says researcher Carina Sjöholm, who will be tackling the tangled world of the back garden with ethnological tools.

Garden fever is rife in Sweden. Gardening is blossoming in the media, as is the commercial market for gardening equipment. It is not only what is grown that is important; the actual gardening is emphasised as valuable.

“The ‘green room’ has become a health trend. For many people it is a reaction to the increasingly hectic pace of our society. The garden is associated with an authentic life close to nature. Even the health service uses ‘green rehabilitation’”, says Carina Sjöholm at the Department of Service Management at Campus Helsingborg.

Together with Katarina Saltzman from the University of Gothenburg and Allan Gunnarsson from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp, Carina Sjöholm has been awarded SEK 4.7 million by the Swedish Research Council for the interdisciplinary project ”Work and tools in the domestic garden – between dream and realisation”.

“We are going to study what the garden as an idea and a physical environment does to its users and what the users do with and in their gardens.”

In other words, they will go beyond the green room’s trendy surface to weed out its deeper meaning.

“A lot is written about gardens. However, few people have commented on its real meaning for the individual. By studying what people do in their back gardens we can highlight important values in our day-to-day lives and in society. It says something about the times in which we live”, says Dr Sjöholm, who describes the back garden as Sweden’s most common and most overlooked cultural environment.

Her curiosity about gardens began over ten years ago when she was on the rocky island of Åstol in the Bohuslän archipelago as part of another research project. She describes the island as “cheeky and fascinating”: small, rocky and covered in little white houses packed closely together.

“Almost no plant life survives naturally on the island. Each garden is the result of laborious care.”
When people with summer houses on the island chose to lay wooden decking over their gardens, the island’s permanent residents were indignant; the decking was seen as an insult to the island’s history.

“There and then I began to understand the huge difference there is in what a garden means to different people. For some it is about self-fulfilment and the garden is renovated in the same way as a kitchen. Others view the garden from a wider perspective and see themselves as custodians of a heritage.”

The garden can also be associated with hard work and demands. Garden trends that inspire some people may be experienced by others as heavy burdens.
“Then it is difficult to determine whether gardening is a free time activity or work. And who is the garden for? Yourself or your neighbours, who also see into this private room?” ponders Carina Sjöholm, who will soon start the project by studying private gardens in Helsingborg and Gothenburg.

Sara Hängsel