How Does The Garden Grow?

Tradition has no haven anymore-not even in the English garden. Gone are the careful lawns with their geometric flower beds and tonsured hedges. Instead, a new generation of gardeners has sprung up to plant an eco-conscious profusion of wildflowers, water plants and ferns. "It is more a wild style now," says Gail Bromley of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. "These gardens represent a closer link with the environment than ... static plant display." These new cultivators even welcome the nettles that grow in their yards: the stinging weeds attract butterflies.

You might think that today's Thatcherite yuppies would prefer trading pounds to potting plants. But 60 percent of young, high-income Britons surveyed last year by the Henley Centre for Forecasting said they gardened-a 10 percent increase from the year before. Horticulture colleges are suddenly oversubscribed and elite gardening schools are full. Traditionalists may grumble, but the gardening industry is going with the cash flow. Sales of all garden products in Britain, roughly $1 billion in 1983, are expected to top $3 billion this year.

The gardening mania took root in the '80s as home sales skyrocketed and a well-designed garden became a factor in figuring property values. Recession kicked the bottom out of the real-estate market, but gardening continued to flourish. "Rather than spend on vacations or new homes or cars, people cut back, stay at home and invest in their gardens," says Andrew Wilson, director of garden design at the Inchbald School of Design. His one-year course in garden design is overbooked with refugees from the hard-charging Thatcher years. "They want to get out of the rat race," says Wilson. Former Lloyd's insurance executive James Bolton, now the head gardener on a private Oxfordshire estate, says, "Most people who thought I was mad to make the switch now think I was sensible to end up gardening."

The young gardeners are producing a hybrid of political correctness and English horticulture. Their environmentalism makes them eager to banish chemicals, save water and support wildlife habitats-even in London. They grow vegetables but often scatter them among flowers in what Graham Clarke, editor of Amateur Gardening magazine, calls "the potager style from France." Certainly their efforts find favor with garden retailers, who are even introducing new technology. One idea involves a computer that will design flower beds, showing them from different angles at different times of the year. "The new revolution is young and gaining steam," says Francis Huntington, head of the College of Garden Design. "Where it will take us, I am not sure. But we are pushing the boundaries forward." Digit.