Everything old is news, here

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Fiona (of Fiona-and-Jim) said if I hadn't ever seen it, she'd bring a copy down to show me. I hadn't, and she did. "It's only 79 pence a week, and you get a free packet of seeds! It's really good."

So my first copy of Garden News was a gift, and the free seeds (the packet glued to the front page so that you couldn't remove it without tearing a hole in a headline) were a new kind of petunia. Since then I have thrown caution to the winds and I buy my own weekly copy.

I like the paper's unpretentious approach and feel; it is decidedly unglossy and looks splendidly grungy on a coffee table.

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If you get wet soil on its pages, it doesn't matter. It is tabloid newsprint with lots and lots of color, and not a sign of "good taste" anywhere. Its headlines (the unpunctured ones) are a delight: "FUCHSIA ALERT." "Ex TV newsman in new rose scoop - Page 8." "Go wild with a formal pond." "IN LOVE WITH LAVATERAS - Page 19."

The paper has lots of money-saving offers: "SAVE MONEY ON COLCHICUMS. SAVE MONEY ON ONION SETS FOR AUTUMN PLANTING. CLAIM YOUR FREE BULBS. SUMMER OFFER, 10 PERCENT OFF."

And in among all this, in sound vernacular not requiring the slightest hint of a PhD, is solid advice.

But there is, to my mind, a central element of self-contradiction about the very idea of garden news.

Surely gardening is at root a welcome escape from modernism, from accelerating change, from the new - and news. Significantly, I have not once heard a radio blaring on the plots. The disasters and politicking of the world at large are, I think, locked outside the main gate by most plotters.

The pursuit of gardening plays happy havoc with your sense of period and era. (The difference between, say, hand-weeding in 1999 and hand-weeding in 1299 would be hard to distinguish.) Joe Gallagher or Big Ted digging up their leeks bears striking resemblance to a gardener doing the same thing in a 15th-century woodcut. They are blood brothers across the centuries, even if Ted doesn't often show up on his plot in medieval jerkin and hose.

A recent Garden News issue had a page headed "What's New." I remember at Chelsea some years ago ("Chelsea" being Britain's premier horticultural show) one of the exhibitors complained mildly: "Every year you journalists ask what's new!" (I hadn't, but I didn't interrupt: One doesn't look a hobbyhorse in the mouth.) "You want new gimmicks and new hybrids. But very little ever changes in horticulture." True. But this doesn't deter the inventive.

The Garden News's "What's New" page tells of a new hoe - the "Circlehoe" - to "wipe out weeds." Of new windbreak netting. New blue feed for greener lawns. New vibrating lines to scare birds. A new organic wetting agent to renovate old compost. And a "new" kind of double-flowered cowslip.

My immediate reaction to the cowslip was negative. Rarely does a "new" hybrid of a wild plant improve on the native original. Plus, double is bad, single is good.

I admit, of course, that hybridizing vegetables over thousands of years has wrought in them great betterment. After all, their wild ancestors can be so unpromising that it's amazing anyone thought of eating them in the first place.

But new vegetables are sometimes mere fashion-plants, fun to try, but still decisively upstaged by the reliable old-stagers.

I might try that hoe, though.

*A weekly series about a municipal garden in Glasgow, Scotland.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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