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The Environment in the Age of the Internet

Heike Graf

5. The Culture of Nature: The Environmental Communication of Gardening Bloggers

Heike Graf

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1This chapter examines ‘ordinarypeople’s media communication about environmental issues. I have chosen the example of garden blogs. They fall under the category of topic-centred blogs; themes concerning gardens and gardening are expected and communicated through narratives, comments, and images. Based on approximately fifty Swedish and German blogs and a qualitative, difference- theoretical analysis, I want to examine how they communicate ecological concerns from the angle of gardeners’ everyday ‘banalities’. To this end, I examine the communicative patterns which increase the likelihood of interconnected communication within the blogosphere, patterns which, in turn, create virtual collectives, and can support ecological roles in the garden. Blog entries relate to the blog’s own mode of operation and that of its network, meaning that the topics addressed are those that have the potential quality of ‘embracingall the people interested in the network. As a result, blog entries addressing ecological concerns focus on topics of consumption and production through the communication frames of pleasure, enthusiasm, and mutual agreement.

Garden Blogs

2Blogging has been described as a publishing revolution, and has become, as a result, a topic of interest within media research. The bulk of existing blog research focuses on issues such as the relationships between bloggers and the public sphere, or bloggers and journalism in order to understand the increasing influence of weblog authors on public opinion. Researchers have also addressed gender and identity issues, as well as media genre issues, educational purposes, and relationships within blog communities (e.g., Gurak et al. 2004; Lopez 2009; Lüders et al. 2010; Pole 2010; van Doorn et al. 2007; Schmidt 2007; Siles 2012).

3Garden blogs, however, belong to the sphere of domestic blogs. Compared to other domestic blogs, such as craft, fashion, and interior décor blogs, the presence of garden blogs on the Internet is still relatively limited (Bosch Studie 2011). According to the commercial study Global Garden Report 2010, gardening blogging is popular in Scandinavia (as well as in the USA, UK, and China), but less popular in the German- speaking countries (the study mentions Austria and Switzerland, and presumably it also applies to Germany). Swedish gardening bloggers are largely women, as noted in the report. There are no statistics on German gardening bloggers, but here I would also assume that most of the bloggers are women.

4The oldest garden blog, written in Swedish, originated in 2005, but most blogging activity has occurred since 2008, and most blogs are situated within a blog host, such as Often in the form of a diary, one engages in the act of blogging when they add ‘posts’ to their weblog. They give insight to their thoughts and post pictures for others, allowing their audience to read these entries and provide feedback through enabled comment functions.

5Approximately 50 more-or-less regularly updated garden blogs, 25 written in Swedish and 25 in German, comprised this study. In selecting the blogs, I used criteria, such as identifying hobby gardeners, that catch a certain variety of popular and somewhat popular blogs; gender is also a criterion, although most garden bloggers are female. Of the examined blogs, 50% were created by females, 30% by men, and 20% by couples. Finally, the examined garden bloggers are ordinary people who possess a small or large garden to cultivate vegetables, fruits, trees, and flowers. Since it is their hobby, they mostly garden for pleasure. In line with many other bloggers, they see blogging as an activity pursued for enjoyment (Lenhart 2006, 7).

6The blogs selected for this study are a mixture of well-established and more recent blogs, with differing numbers of frequent readers (e.g., subscribers on Some of these blogs attract from 50 to 400 followers, with others drawing more than 1,000 visitors per month. Depending on the type and intensity of the prevailing network, Jan Schmidt (2006) distinguishes between strong and weak ties. Strong ties are characterised by manifold relationships, for instance, knowing someone not only from virtual life but also from ‘real’ life, as a friend and/or relative. Looking at the comments on the entries, it is often obvious that relatives and/or close friends follow the entries. These ties make it easier to express solidarity and to give emotional support within virtual network communication. In contrast, weak ties mainly serve as information exchange, and in some ways establish mutual influence. According to Schmidt, those actors who are heavily involved in networks and their participants are also connected to each other, and have a ‘bonding social capital’ (Schmidt 2006, 52).

7I do not want to examine what the blogs are about so much as how they address ecological issues (see also recent articles by Haider 2015, and Smith 2015), and how they are shaped in order to increase the likelihood of interconnected communication. Thus, and according to systems theory as described below, I examine the own mode of operation of the blogosphere in order to understand how ecological issues find resonance (see the foreword in this volume), or not, in the blogosphere.

8To answer my research question, I first made a list of all the topics addressed in each blog. Second, I sorted out the topics that did not deal with ecological issues. And third, I took a closer look at the topics that remained to understand how they are conditioned (a term I explain below). At first glance, the use of images differs. Hence, I divide the blogs into two types: (1) images, especially photos used as illustrations of texts, which represents approximately two-thirds of the examined blogs; and (2) photos that constitute the main content of the blog, which is then called a photo blog.

9I have remained outside of this blogosphere as a ‘lurker’, that is, as a passive audience member. However, I have had access to posted comments when they were openly published. The entries that I analyse were posted between 2007 and 2014.

Environmental Communication from a Systems- Theoretical Perspective

10This chapter is based on the theoretical perspective of operational constructivism, which considers posted content as always the result of a selection process of possible entries and images made by an observer, not by the world itself. Here, the observer perspective becomes central. Observing is complex and related to the own mode of operation, that is, to oneself, the content of the perceived information or undertaken activity, and also to the perceived blogosphere as such. It is a construction of meaning made by an observer and, therefore, contingent. But it is not arbitrary, and it is influenced by expectations, preconditions, and finally by what one's own consciousness and perception provide for meaning production (Luhmann 1987, 217).

11According to this approach, the non-human environment, i.e. nature, can only be a subject when it is communicated about in the manner described in the introduction to this volume. According to Niklas Luhmann, we take notice of nature when we are irritated or disturbed by it in some way. This communicative reaction is called resonance. By means of our own modes of operation, we try to react to those disturbances. For example, the garden blogger presents methods of getting rid of pests, as I will show below.

12In different contexts or (in the terminology of systems theory) different systems, communication can only be addressed according to communicative patterns society, or the blogosphere, or the media have established. In the news media, for example, communication about ecology in general and sustainability in particular is mainly associated with problems and dangers (e.g., Foust et al. 2009).

Difference-Theoretical Approach

13Systems theory begins with a difference and not with a ‘unity, a cosmology, a concept of the world or of being’ (Luhmann 2013, 44). Difference means that one indicates one thing rather than another. It derives from the observer’s perspective, which builds on differences. Observing means to draw distinctions. Difference also applies to the definition of systems. We cannot speak of systems without recognising that they are separated from something, that is, from their environment. For example, it is not possible to speak of blogging if we cannot distinguish it from other forms of communication. On the basis of this separation, the system, and here the blogosphere, obtains its unity and therefore the possibility to operate on its own. As a result, systems are operationally closed, but must also be sensitive to the general environments in which they function. They cannot exist without an environment.

14Systems theory avoids essentialism. It maintains that the world itself does not contain any information. For example, a blog entry about the benefits of wildflower-rich lawns says more about the blogger’s sense- making than about the actual lawn. ‘Information is information for an observer’ (Fuchs 2001, 17). It is not information if the observer cannot connect to it. To connect to it, the observation must mean something to an observer (in my case to the blogger). This applies to both those who write blogs, and to those who read them.

15If we apply a difference-theoretical approach to my field of study, we have to admit that we cannot say anything about what the blog- writing gardener really does in the garden — even if the blog is decorated with a lot of garden images and seems to display the garden’s reality. However, we can say something about the relationship of the gardener-observer to that which he or she observes. As I have argued elsewhere (Graf 2012), it becomes obvious that the blog entries we examine are related to the blogger’s preferences, to the blog as a genre and as a network, and to the various social systems to which the blog topics refer.

16Differences can already be seen with the choice of blog name. One might call one’s blog simply ‘André’s Blog’, or, more programmatically, ‘The Optimistic Gardener’, or even ‘Northern bliss’. Often, a blog will feature a motto that further articulates its specific identity, such as ‘For an unhappy person, every flower is a weed, for a happy one, each weed is a flower’ (Das wilde Gartenblog). They my also feature a brief description such as ‘Thoughts and reflections about the gardens, the dirt under the fingernails, and a little chatter’ (Fundera Grönt, see Figure 5.1).

Fig. 5.1. The motto of this blog: ‘Thoughts and reflections about the gardens, the dirt under the fingernails, and a little chatter’

Fig. 5.1. The motto of this blog: ‘Thoughts and reflections about the gardens, the dirt under the fingernails, and a little chatter’

17On the ‘About Me’ pages, one often finds self-descriptions and sometimes even a photo of the blogger. Some bloggers divulge their own or their garden’s address in order to give information about specific gardening conditions, while others, more reticent, only mention their gender and the region where they live or where the garden is situated (see Graf 2012).

18Blogging is intentional; the entries must possess ‘connectivity’, if communication is to occur. According to Luhmann (1987), communication is not the transmission of information, but the union of three components: the selection of information (what is selected to be communicated or what the message is about), the selection of utterance (of a form of communication: how the information is to be communicated), and the selection of understanding (about the meaning that is generated: is a meaning selected, and if so which one?). Connectivity is determined by the contact or relationship with something, in our case the blogosphere, that condition communication in terms of what is possible in concrete communication practices. Without these conditions, meaningful blog communication would not be possible.

19The blog entries create a chain of operations, and this happens selectively. The chain already begins with the information. Information is — in line with its standard definition (cf. Shannon and Weaver 1949) — a selection from a repertoire of possibilities. In other words, it is a selection made to communicate this and not other information. For example, on the right side column of the website we can find a list of self-determined blog categories such as ‘Weeds’, ‘Friday’, ‘Watery’, etc. We can also find automatically generated links to older entries, and links to other blogs and an archive of older posts. Furthermore, Luhmann’s communication hypothesis includes the issue of how to communicate this selected information. There is a clear difference between information and utterance. One can decorate the blog’s posted information with images; one can express the information in different rhetorical styles, in different languages, etc. What is more, information plus utterance may not get anyone’s attention (in which case the communication does not take place). Conversely, information plus utterance can be understood (in which case communication does take place). Here, understanding is not a psychological concept. We are not concerned with what a message or the author behind the message really mean. However, communication within the blogosphere, for instance, occurs when a reaction takes place, that is, when blog entries or comments ‘relate’ to each other (Taekke 2005, 14). For example, some kind of understanding is indicated by the statistics appearing on the right-hand column of the blog: a list of subscribers, the numbers of visitors per day, including the countries from which the visitors come, and a list of links to other blogs and websites. However, it is in the connecting communication (that is, comments, entries referring to other entries, etc.) that understanding first takes place — a clear differentiation between information and utterance is made.

20The central problem of being able to understand information and utterance — that is, being connectible in the communication process — is that communication is only understandable in context. In this respect, communication processes are always formed by the observer’s expectations and his or her commonly shared knowledge. Because of the dependence on contexts, communication is bound to concrete environments, to places and times. Every communicative contribution within a discourse is verified whether or not it is relevant or expected. One can use one’s own experience to set up communication in such a way that one may expect to be understood (Luhmann 1987, 140).

21The act of indicating something tells us where we are and where we might continue (Luhmann 2013, 54). In indicating, for example, that organic food is more desirable than conventional food, a blogger reveals how irritations from the non-human environment as well as the social environment (e.g., politics, media, economy, family) are processed within the genre of blogging. Applying systems theory demands thinking in relationships; meaning that the treatment of a topic about food is not arbitrary, but limited in different ways. All communication has its own mode and its own common sense. Commonality is limited by garden bloggers’ modes and hows, and not by contents and whats, as I will show in the following sections.

The Role of Topics

22Generally, communication occurs with the help of topics. In other words, topics are the essential precondition for communication, and represent what can be of interest to others according to one’s own mode of communication. Topics combine different utterances and thereby structurally link the blogosphere. In addition, they organise the memory of communication (Luhmann 1996, 28). Without posting topics there can be no network of bloggers.

23As mentioned above, blog postings on ecology can be generally understood as resonance (Luhmann 2008), that is, bloggers resonate in reaction to irritations caused by the natural environment or by the way in which the social environment deals with ecological dangers. The success of a blogosphere depends on the acceptance of the bloggers’ topics. Bloggers thus depend on people giving them attention by reacting to them with communication of their own.

24Not all topics are successful: some are ignored. Some topics, however, provoke new contributions or entries in the blogosphere over and over again. Schmidt (2006) differentiates between topics that are ‘spikes’, ‘spiky chatters’, and ‘mostly chatters’. The first are topics which attract only limited attention from observers; the second are wave-like, as they are discussed over a longer period; and the third set of topics are discussed at a low but stable level (Schmidt 2006, 58).

25Topics have a concrete or factual aspect on the one hand, and a temporal one on the other. Here, according to Luhmann, we can distinguish between topics and contributions (Luhmann 1996, 28f). In the blogosphere, contributions are called posts or entries. These entries refer to topics and can take the form of images or textual messages. Topics live longer than the individual posts do, and combine the different posts into a long-term or short-term nexus of meaning. Some posts provoke new contributions or at least comments. However, other topics are exhausted quickly.

26The observer (and in this case the blogger) can distinguish between topics and functions of communication. For example, he or she can say to him or herself and to others: if I do not explain this or that in a special way, I will end up losing my followers. This reasoning has to do with the underlying mode of communication which is both connected to social values (e.g., environmental behaviour) and to the rules of the blogosphere (see Graf 2012). I will explain this further when dealing with the various topics.

27According to news value research, and in a similar way to mass media, the blog entries follow certain selection criteria with regard to information and utterance. These criteria also influence how the information is posted. As I have written elsewhere, selection criteria such as novelty, values, identification, conflicts, and visuality guide garden bloggers’ communication (Graf 2012). For example, an entry has to tell us something new. The simple repetition of a previous entry is not expected. The issue of ecology is associated with known values such as sustainability or biodiversity, and referring to them can presuppose common acceptance and facilitate understanding. In addition, blogging about a hobby such as gardening involves feelings and emotions which facilitate the identification with an entry and therefore connective communication.

Ecology and Gardening in the Mainstream Media

28Blogging about the garden does not occur in a vacuum. It is influenced to a great extent by the mass media’s coverage of ecology, that is, of the human relations with the non-human environment. With the help of anxiety rhetoric, the news media´s coverage revolves around problems and dangers. Over time, it has become common sense to communicate in favour of doing something to combat global warming, pollution, ozone depletion, deforestation, etc.

29In contrast to news journalism, anxiety rhetoric plays a subordinated role in TV programs, and magazines covering lifestyle and hobby issues such as gardening. Gardens as ‘artificial creations within Nature’ (Verdi 2004, 361) have always been of human interest and, hence, a topic for literature, fine and applied arts, science, TV programs, etc. Communicating about gardens and gardening is rich in symbols as well as feelings: gardening offers both a spiritual and a physical dimension, and can be interpreted in practical and also decorative ways. It can also be communicated as a place of politics (McKay 2011; Graf 2014). The aim of the gardener often relates to the Garden of Eden trope: all modern gardeners are ‘engaged in recapturing Eden, if only in a limited way, and some more explicitly than others’ (Nadel-Klein 2010, 167).

30Content about garden and gardening has enjoyed high popularity in the last twenty years. In line with lifestyle media (Christensen 2008), the media presentation of gardening deals with people’s spare time, where the demands of the working life are absent. It focuses on dreams of greater well-being, and shows how these dreams can bee realised. Readers and viewers are told what to do in their gardens in order to improve their quality of life. TV programs and garden magazines focus on consumers’ desire for the new and try to feed it; one learns how to renew the garden in order to make it more tasteful. Readers and viewers are informed about the latest goods to purchase in order to be ‘attuned to the culturally befitting ways of how they should be consumed’ (Taylor 2005, 123). The garden is seen as a paradise won in ‘the struggle against the overpower of Nature’, and as ‘Nature tamed and made elegant, a far cry from dark and dangerous thorny forests or deserts’ (Verdi 2004, 361, 363).

31Gardens have become a place where issues of identity can be expressed. To renew one’s garden has to do with positioning oneself in regard to symbolic values. These lifestyle media insist that the ‘aestheticisation of components of everyday life — such as the garden — will lead to a more gratifying lifestyle’ (Taylor 2005, 123). In these makeover programs and magazines, a rapid lifestyle benefit is simulated, while principles of what is considered to be good taste and style are simultaneously disseminated. Thus, gardening is seen from the angle of pure appearance and exhibited ‘as a desirable end in itself’ (Taylor 2005, 119). Images of the perfect garden adorn the pages of glossy magazines, which Taylor describes as promoting an ‘almost clinic obsession with maintaining a coherent design’ (Taylor 2005, 119), often without consideration of climate and location.

32This trend of expanding aesthetics to the non-social environment has gained momentum in the last past ten years. It is also connected to a kind of ‘ecological turn’, as Lyn Thomas (2008, 177) has observed of British lifestyle television, where irritations deriving both from the non-human and social environment are addressed. It is not only about the pure beauty of village and garden life, but also about destructive habits of consumption that must be changed. The ‘ecoreality’ of British lifestyle programs defines a new morality aimed at changing our way of living. It emphasises individual solutions, such as a sustainable way of life, rather than mere style and appearance (Thomas 2008). Television gardening supports the dissemination of ethical information by providing advice on how to garden in an ecological manner (Bonner 2008, 31). Thus, design and sustainability need not be contradictions. Business has jumped on the bandwagon and begun to mark their products as environmentally friendly. Purchasing organic or locally produced food has become part of the green zeitgeist. Growing one’s own carrots and cabbages nicely planted together with edible flowers might also involve pleasure and the projection of a pleasing appearance. Reducing one’s lawn with insect-friendly flowers in order to halt the decline in honey bees and insect pollinators can also improve the fashionableness of the garden; such horticultural knowledge and good taste can impress one’s friends and visitors. Here, tasteful design does not come above all else, but it is supported by the moral values of environmentally friendly practice in the garden. This can go even further in other (e.g., Australian) gardening shows, where water- wise gardening is central to dealing with permanent water scarcity. Therefore, aesthetics is no longer of major consideration, as Frances Bonner suggests: ‘Regardless of pleasing appearance, good gardening here produces fruits and vegetables, especially tomatoes’ (Bonner 2008, 32). Going green is fashionable, and marks a certain modern lifestyle.

33To summarise, the content of media programs and magazines about gardens and gardening may vary, and offer something for everyone. One can enjoy a total makeover show and feel the desire to do the same or at least purchase new goods for one’s immediate pleasure; or one can observe garden design informed by ecological implications and at least consider rejecting thoughts on fashionableness.

The Topics of Gardening Blogs

34With the rise of the Internet, gardening issues are no longer reserved for the mass media but can also be addressed by individual people to a large public. Similar to the treatment of the above mentioned topics in the media, the communicative reactions of the garden bloggers to ecological concerns cohere around two ideas: domination over or partnership with nature. As such, the entries generally concentrate on two main topics: topics of consumption in terms of goods, and topics of production in terms of gardening.

35The discussion of these topics is stable and sometimes even wave- like. These are topics with a high potential of connectivity: most of the bloggers can and do refer to them frequently, and thus reveal what they think of the non-human environment. This means that if one wants to trigger further communication, ecological concerns, such as global warming, are not addressed in isolation but are folded into gardening issues (see Graf 2011, 276).

36How the bloggers put themselves in a position to recognise ecological concerns in terms of these issues is a question that relates not only to the non-human and social environment but also to the blog as such, especially the role that photos play in the blog. If photos dominate the blog, garden life is mostly seen through the lens of a camera (Graf 2012). As a result, garden design and aesthetics are in focus, and ecological concerns may not interfere with pleasing appearances.

37When addressing consumption issues, I will stress the fundamental distinction between controlled consumption and the unfettered purchasing typical of the market economy. I will not focus on consumption in terms of consuming the beauty of nature, as photo blogs mainly do, but consumption defined as consuming goods offered on the market. Hence, my examples stem from text-based blogs which include, e.g., advice to buy special garden products and not others. These types of reactions to irritations are mainly directed at the social environment, whereas topics about production are directed both at the social and non-social environment. The latter kind are generally about sustainable methods: green gardening that involves planting, improving, and preparing the soil, as well as garden aesthetics. Topics can deal with hands-on advice about ecological soil improvement and plant protection, and can also relate to reflections about appearance and biological diversity. Green gardening, especially pest control and biodiversity, is often addressed in relation to attitudes of respect (partnership) and disrespect (domination) towards nature.

38Both topics have likely to arouse the expression of emotions and values, which function as identity markers in the blogosphere. This mixture of emotions and beliefs create a personal arena of expression in order to show what the garden means for the blogger, and a need to manage one’s relations in the blogosphere.

39In the following, I want to illustrate in detail how bloggers communicate ecological awareness (or the lack of it) according to the main topics of consumption and production. I will then draw conclusions about the mode of communication used in the blogosphere of garden bloggers.

Consumption: Developing/Refusing a ‘Buyosphere’

40Julia Corbett (2006) claims that the environmental lifestyle communicated by the marketplace is ‘hedonistic and narcissistic — it’s all about your enjoyment, your pleasure and comfort, about your looking good and having the latest toys’ (2006, 93). Some of my examined bloggers adapt the semantics of hedonism and encourage consumption. They inform each other about the latest products and where to buy the cheapest plants. Hence, they create a ‘buyosphere’ (Corbett 2006, 93ff) in which bloggers use expressions like ‘I want that’ and ‘It was a real steal’, showing their gratitude for being inspired to purchase new products. This topic also contains complaints about insufficient space, from gardeners who cannot find room for the new plants they want to purchase.

41Some personal bloggers also use targeted advertisements, have commercial sponsors, and aspire to commercialising their blogging activities. As a result, they promote their own and others’ products and services, from food to design: many gardening bloggers advertise and sell their handicrafts. Besides showing commercial instincts, they all, to some degree, seem to be inspired by other posts presenting new products, plants, or garden tools. New purchases are sometimes ecologically motivated (in order to increase insect life in the garden, for example), and sometimes motivated entirely by a desire to consume.

42This latter motivation is expressed the following example, in which a female blogger tells a success story about purchasing a coveted plant at a reduced price:

This week I got a very good bargain. Was eating breakfast when I saw that they sold olive trees at City Gross. My dear colleague E was also excited so we set off with my van. We thought that they would already be sold since the ad had warned that they had only a very limited number of trees. (Landet krokus, 5 May 2011)

43The blog is relatively popular, with 274 readers (May 2015), and can be credited with a certain bonding capital. In response to this post, the author received eleven comments which shared her excitement. The post (and the blog as a whole) emphasises garden style issues, with little consideration for location or climate. Possessing an olive tree, which seldom or never bears fruit in the Scandinavian climate, has a symbolic power of trendiness in the consumer society. Olive trees are associated with the Mediterranean — that is, with leisure time, relaxation and a feel-good atmosphere. The identity-value of the tree overshadows its use-value. In addition to a plant, the blogger has also bought style and an appearance of trendiness, which can be displayed to the blogosphere.

44However, the purchase of an olive tree does not mean the same thing to all gardeners, as revealed in a comment from another female blogger, rated lower with respect to followers, at 74 (May 2015):

Mediterranean flair is this year’s catchphrase in the garden world […] and the shops follow suit. 129kr for a 1.5m-tall olive tree at a discount store. Have not fallen for it yet. Olive trees will soon be in the home of every Svensson, worth her name, I guess. Like the new harangue: house, dog, and an olive tree. (Trädgårdstankar, 12 May 2011)

45In adopting trends, this blogger makes a distinction: once the olive tree becomes part of mass-lifestyle culture, the blogger loses interest, since it can no longer be the vehicle of an individualised vision of herself. Bargains help to spread a sort of mass-culture of gardening, which this blogger rejects. There is only one comment on this post saying,

Olive tree […] yes I have two and I’m getting sick of them, do not really believe it’s my thing. They do not look so nice if I may say so. (Trädgårdstankar comment, 17 May 2011)

46To follow garden trends is to find intense, short-lived pleasure in novelties. The implication is that one changes plants each season. This kind of interest in plants produces a consumer attitude which entails constant renewal. Another blogger criticises this attitude:

Not enough that the fashion industry forces us to critically see over our closet year after year, now even the flower industry can give us a bad conscience. The potted plants trend is away from small-scale flowers, bustling flower windows, to huge soloists, the bigger the better […] I have better things to do than following every trend according to potted plants. (Günstig gärtnern, 28 Jan 2011)

47This female blogger refuses to apply an ideology of trendiness to house- plants, and thus to adopt a lifestyle culture which demands a ‘rapid turnover of identity indicators’ (Bonner 2008, 34). The fifteen responses to her post all agree with this sentiment, tell different stories on the same theme, and stress the incompatibility of sustainability and fashionable gardening trends. These trends lead to throw-away thinking, which in turn exhausts natural resources and causes ecological damage. Most of the responses stress the importance of establishing a relationship to one’s own plants, a view that is incompatible with ephemeral fashion. Close relationships with plants, and with nature, is a recurring theme in blogs that favour sustainable gardening over trend-following and constant renewal (Graf 2011). These entries show, in line with nature identification research (e.g., Milstein 2011), that nature identification practices can shape ecological roles and, more concretely, lead to the rejection of unfettered consumption.

48A more ecocentric perspective is taken, for example, in complaints about ‘careless container planting’. The containers hold plants with differing light and water requirements; these plants are selected exclusively for the sake of their decorative foliage and flowers. Here, appearance takes precedence over good growing conditions. These containers are made for a quick sale, and have short life-spans, which in turn causes people purchase more of them. This throw-away culture, which has spread to garden products, gives a wider perspective on the society we live in, as this blogger relates:

For me, it is simply an emerging disregard towards nature. I go so far as to say that these little things contribute to the growing disrespect shown to people in many ways […] For negative things always begin creeping, in small format. (Wurzels Garten, 19 Aug 2007)

49This entry received nine responses, all of which expressed approval, e.g., ‘it’s nice to know that there are like-minded people’ (Wurzels Garten, 19 August 2007). Commentators recount similar observations, and at the same time they ask self-critically if the gardening blogosphere is free from ‘sins against nature’ such as ‘thoughtlessly consuming’ the garden products on offer. This comment, emphasising individual behaviour, demands that bloggers take a critical look at their own consumer behaviour.

50Another object of criticism is the economy of abundance, with displays of a growing number of gardening products and accessories. According to this next female blogger, who has 113 followers (June 2013), such displays are unnecessary:

Currently, DIY stores, garden centres, supermarkets, and even drugstores accumulate garden accessories. The seed trays, pots, seedling transplant tools, peat pots. There are heated green houses and ‘root trainer’ for vegetables, tomato supports of all kind of materials, and for each seedling you can find the respective pot and fluid. In addition there are kneepads, huge collections of gardeners clothing from shoes to hats, gloves and garden jackets; vegetable and seed labels from wood, metal or plastic for hanging, plugging and clamping. This is really astonishing because nobody really needs those things [...]. (Mauerblumen, 30 March 2011)

51As an alternative to buying new products, the blogger shows her readers how to reuse old tin cans or even baking pans for planting seeds, how to build one’s own mini-greenhouse with plastic bottles which have been cut, and how to use plastic wraps to keep the soil moist in indoor seed beds. Finally, she admonishes her followers and readers not to buy ‘all this stupid stuff!’ This is different from the previous blogger’s discussion of the olive tree. Industry’s attempt to infuse these products with meaning and link them to lifestyle has not succeeded here. Rather, the attempt provoked a blog entry that argues for critical consumption and against purchasing unnecessary goods. The blogger received nine comments describing similar experiences of unnecessary purchasing and contributing further advice about how to reuse materials. All the commentators argue, in effect, that one must take use-value into account when purchasing something.

52This topic of abstinence from consumption includes contributions about various liquid solutions for creating the ‘perfect garden’, such as ‘lawn without moss’ and ‘flower beds without weeds’. As one entry argues:

When you are in the store you will be easily convinced that there are the herbicides you just need. What you cannot read on the leaflet is that this disrupts the micro life of the soil and may even damage the plants you want to protect. (Lindas Trädgårdsblogg, 11 April 2011)

53This blogger, who has 137 followers (May 2015), warns against buying chemical fertilisers and moss killing products. All eight responses express approval. The writers thank her for a wise blog entry and highlight critical consumer behaviour by telling similar stories.

54The range of garden products is also critiqued from the perspective of ‘respectfor nature. Such respect is indicative of the favoured relationship between humans and nature, one which Merchant describes ‘as a partnership rather than domination’ (Merchant 2003, 206). For example, one blogger, with 105 followers (December 2013), gives information about the conditions in which the poinsettia, which is very popular at Christmas time, is produced. The writer quotes from the Swedish Nature Conservation Society, enlightening the reader with information about the large amount of pesticides used in poinsettia production. These pesticides are harmful to people, especially to those who grow them, and to the environment. This observation leads to a clear statement:

If the merchant cannot guarantee toxic-free poinsettias, there will be a Christmas without them. (Njut i Din Trädgård, 14 December 2010)

55All six responders agree and demand more information about the conditions under which popular house-plants are grown. The idea is to make the consumer more informed and critical.

56These entries, in turn, inspire a whole range of entries about what to buy and what not to buy in order to undertake ecological gardening. This work should begin with the selection of the right seeds, as an entry makes clear:

It feels really good to buy organic seeds when I want to grow organically. My little garden is microscopic compared to the area that is used to produce the seeds! If I then choose to buy organic seeds, it should make a little difference? (Lindas Trädgårdsblogg, 22 March 2012)

57The process may continue with, for instance, the resolution to buy heirloom seeds and plants instead of hybrids in order to preserve biodiversity. The reader learns that heirloom seeds are, in contrast to the hybrids, open-pollinated.

58A great many entries are about purchasing the right food, meaning food that is ecological and locally grown. The following blogger, who has 465 subscribed readers (May 2015) and thus a certain amount of bonding social capital in the Swedish blogosphere, challenges his blog audience to cook with organic food. His ambition is to involve and engage the whole network, making them think and act ecologically:

By the way, today, it will be 100% organic. It feels a little better each time I do this. I’m still not 100% organic in my life, but on the way […] If you think this is a hard task, it is because I am just a thorn in your side and you wish that you could make this decision, too. Yep it is so! (Hannu På Kinnekulle, 10 May 2011).

59This blogger also thinks it necessary to change consumer behaviour. Judging from the comments, he meets with approval: some readers want to do better, some tell him they already eat organic food, and so on. A few weeks later, he returns to the subject, telling his audience that he feels good when buying locally produced organic food. He documents the claim with a photo of his freshly purchased goods (19 September 2011). He also relates how he declines to buy certain products, such as his favourite salami sausage, because the store cannot offer organic alternatives:

[…] something strange happened then, I said no thanks and left without buying my favourites, hm. I’ve never done it before. But I’m in an organic mood that I hope lasts for a long time; a vegetarian doesn’t munch a grilled beef tenderloin just because there’s no salad! (Hannu På Kinnekulle, 10 April 2010)

60Other bloggers argue in favour of ecological meat. However, not all locally produced meat is ecological, which one blogger finds regrettable:

Unfortunately, not everything they sell is KRAV labelled (organic production), but most of it is locally produced. We are trying to cut down on our consumption of meat (especially beef), but it feels good to buy from local farms where the cattle have grazed in the neighbourhood. Then it also feels good to be able to show the kids where the food we eat comes from. (Lindas Trädgårdsblogg, 8 March 2012)

61As these examples illustrate, ecological issues, understood as reactions to irritations caused by the market economy, are, under the topic of consumption, addressed from a great variety of perspectives. One can argue for both more or less consumption, and even for boycotting consumption. One can introduce values to the conversation and argue for the right or wrong way of consuming. Thus good roles, that is to say critical consumer attitudes, are mostly articulated from the point of view of one’s own behaviour (Graf 2012), and bad roles are mostly ascribed to the market economy with its drive for profit and destructive influence on the non-human environment. One can further introduce emotions in order to strengthen one’s own argument. By attributing values and norms to consumer behaviour, a social dimension of communication is actualised. It can, for example, be expressed as ‘greenbehaviour and related to the zeitgeist; to a greater or lesser degree, this is what creates bonds between bloggers in the network.

62Why do bloggers so often describe objects of consumption either as something that they ‘must have’ or something that should be boycotted? It is common knowledge that consumption issues dominate our lives. Many scholars describe modern society as a consumption society, in which to live means first and foremost to consume (e.g., Bauman 2007, Hellmann 2011). Nevertheless, not all acts of consumption are subjects of communication. Why do gardening bloggers busy themselves in addressing these issues?

63Consumption studies have shown that individual choice has increased to such an extent that every form of consumption is contingent and therefore based on a decision about what to select (Hellmann 2011, 220). The decision-making process increases the possibility of communicating about consumption. What function does the topic of consumption have within the blogosphere? Again, it is about managing relations: how do bloggers wish to be regarded by others? They express identity, and therefore preferences, in accordance with the roles they assume in the blogosphere. Some bloggers prefer to blog about recycling possibilities and to show their creativity in finding new solutions. Some prefer to blog about the latest fashionable plant they purchased, in order to mark their affiliation to a certain group of ‘modern’, trendy people. Others prefer to do both.

64The consumption issue involves feelings and fantasies and offers a wide spectrum of topics to communicate about. Goods can be ascribed symbolic meanings and ranked according to aesthetic criteria. The view of an olive tree in the garden can start someone daydreaming, which can then lead to a blog entry about the great feeling of having got a good deal in purchasing the plant. Communication about consumption issues ensures that all readers are more or less involved and hence interested — that is, it is a topic that ‘embraces everyone’ (Slater cit. in Hellmann 2011, 242) and so increases the possibility of connective communication.

Production: Developing Green Gardening

65Gardeners’ blogs about improving the soil by growing organically, being sparing with natural resources such as water, and avoiding the use of pesticides for pest control are embedded in an array of ecological concerns. I have not read a single post advocating the use of pesticides or chemical fertilisers in order to get a bigger harvest. My educated guess is that if some bloggers were using pesticides, they would not write about it. One male blogger did a poll among his followers, asking how many used synthetic fertilisers and pesticides: 39 bloggers answered, of whom 64% never used these products, while 36% did (Wir Sind im Garten, 31 January 2010). However, it seems an unwritten rule that the network communication of gardening bloggers mainly revolves around some form of green gardening. Posting a statement in favour of pesticides would cause the blogger to lose followers. Accordingly, there is a recurring pattern among gardening bloggers of making clear statements like the following:

For me, it is obvious not to use toxins or chemical fertilisers. I want the garden to grow from a land where worms and microorganisms feel comfortable. I like the idea of having a cycle in the garden where I use plant remains and grass clippings that become soil, which I can then grow in. To disrupt the soil ecosystem with environmental toxics does not feel good. (Lindas Trädgårdsblogg, 14 April 2011).

66She received eight responses, all of which were positive; some thanked her for making the statement, and wanted to follow her example.

67Nevertheless, gardening is not without disturbances. A great number of entries are about pest control; for example, what should one do when the Spanish slug invades the garden? Here again, entries suggesting non-toxic methods are at the forefront. Much advice is given: different sorts of traps are shown and their function explained — beer traps, overturned flowerpots, grapefruit halves left overnight, or coffee grounds placed on the top of the soil to protect plants against attacks. Where this invasive slug is concerned, entries often express negative emotions and describe vivid behaviour, as the following female blogger shows:

Jahapp, so, it is time again. May I present: The first Spanish slug! This brazen creature has dared to show up on my terrace […] Immediately, I went back into the house and took a pair of pincers and a small plastic bag. Went for a walk in the garden and got together a small bag of ‘good & mixed’ that I put in the freezer. I think, it is the easiest and least messy way to get rid of slugs. Obviously, it should be the least painful, too. After few days in the freezer they have fallen asleep forever and you can throw the bag in the trash. (Trädgårdstoken, 11 June 2010, see Figure 5.2).

Fig. 5.2. The first Spanish slug in the garden

Fig. 5.2. The first Spanish slug in the garden


68To most of the bloggers, discovering the first slug is an inducement to write about different ways of killing them. This meets with approval. It is considered fair to kill slugs, if the deed is performed in a manner that causes a minimum of suffering. One male blogger compares his slug killing with the ‘massacre’ at Wounded Knee and accompanies it with a photo of a pair of scissors next to bisected slugs (Nervenruh, 21 July 2011). Slugs, and especially Spanish slugs, give rise to loaded language and emotive arguments, which provoke further communication. Since these arguments mostly connect to shared, negative connotations, the expression of negative feelings is likely to meet with sympathy and further communication from the blog community. The topic of slugs has the potential function of allowing, and perhaps also directing, strong negative emotions in communication. Here, the line between respect and disrespect towards nature is drawn: in plain English, slugs do not deserve respect.

69However, this sentiment does not apply to all bloggers. Under the heading ‘One always does things differently’, a female blogger, whose entries often show a clear identification with nature and an ecocentric point of view, describes her different way of dealing with pests:

[…] I wish the slugs in my vegetable garden ‘bon appétit!’ instead of killing them, and I’m delighted to see all the happy weeds in the patio slab gaps. (Mauerblumen, 27 May 2011)

70This blogger, who has 113 followers (June 2013), received six comments. None of them explicitly discuss her unconventional attitude towards slugs, but in a general manner they praise her ‘individualism’ and ‘humorous writing style’, accompanied by ‘wonderful photos’ of columbine flowers. However, the comments do not address the topic of slug control; on this subject there is no further communication. The garden blog community seems to agree: when it comes to pest control, there are limits to one’s respect for nature.

71When bloggers write about identification with, and respect for, nature, biodiversity is a recurring theme, especially where green gardening is concerned. This tendency can conflict with the recommended gardening methods. Two bloggers (a couple) prefer to leave dead trees standing in order to support a rich insect life.

We don’t like to cut dead trees, if we can think of another use. Dead wood is good for small animals and can be an element to create structure in the garden. (Das wilde Gartenblog, 9 August 2010, see Figure 5.3)

72This method is illustrated by the picture above, which shows the tree skeleton being used as a trellis. All four responses praise this ‘great idea’. By explaining the importance of insect diversity, the bloggers defend this exceptional trellis against possible critique as an ‘ugly’ garden design. Here, forms of sustainable gardening function as a means for getting likes. Had the bloggers not explained the reasoning behind this trellis, they would probably not have provoked comments or further communication, since positive feedback is the norm in the gardening blogosphere (Graf 2012).

73Another issue which leads to a discussion of style versus sustainability is the lawn issue, meaning the obsession with cultivating the perfect lawn. A female blogger asks provocatively:

What to do against the English lawn? No matter, what gardening magazine I open at this time — the very big topic is currently not only about spring flowers but also about the so-called ‘English lawn’: a dark green, dense turf, free from intruding plants such as flowers, herbs and different types of grass. There seems to be gardeners, who actually want to have a lawn in the garden that looks like artificial grass, is ecologically useless, and needs a lot of care and chemicals. (Mauerblumen, 3 April 2011)

74This female blogger, who attracts attention by contradicting conventional views and styles of gardening (e.g., the usual method of dealing with slugs), gives advice about how to increase the biodiversity of a mono- cultural lawn. Of 13 comments, all but one agree with her, saying for instance that ‘This is also an anathema to me!’ They stress the beauty of flowering lawns and tell more stories about improving biodiversity.

75Soil improvement is another topic that, because it raises controversy, gives rise to many entries. Pros and cons of different soil improvement measures are discussed, and each blogger can make claims regarding her/his successful method without losing face. When the subject of sustainability is discussed, relatively new soil improvement methods can be introduced, as in the following entry:

Constant watering is not our goal, neither to acquire tons of fertile soil from elsewhere. Both alternatives make little sense, ecologically. It costs money, and energy, and does not change the underlying problem. We rather continuously work to improve the soil in order to increase the humus component that better keep nutrients and moisture. (Das wilde Gartenblog, 2 June 2011)

  • 1 There is no data on the number of people who follow this blog.

76These bloggers1 (another couple), whose blog explicitly specialises in sustainable gardening, introduce a new form of soil improvement by using terra preta, that is, a mixture of charcoal, pottery shards, and organic material. The couple shows how to make terra preta and how to create a flower-bed using it. Their first results are displayed: vegetables that grow better than in ordinary beds.

77All of the fifteen comments are positive, expressing gratitude for news of this innovative method of soil improvement and adding more information about it. The blog entry has something distinctive to tell that gets attention and evokes further communication.

78The preparation of garden beds is a topic that leads to discussions about whether the soil should be turned or not. There are two categories of entries, divided by their recommendations for preparing the soil. One group of entries claims that turning the soil is essential. Another group, which highlights sustainable gardening, holds the opposite position. The following entry belongs to this latter category:

Good soil is ACTIVE (Living) — that is one that can develop a happy ‘soil life’ among microorganism, earth and plant roots. This would naturally be disturbed when one comes with a spade and turns it. (Das wilde Gartenblog, 10 November 2010)

79This blog recommends mulching, in order to conserve moisture and improve the fertility of the soil. The entry provoked 16 comments, mostly expressing agreement. Only a few bloggers took into consideration the soil texture, and recommended digging in some cases, mainly when clay soil was in question. However, most of the commentators gave further reasons for mulching rather than digging, and added that this method saves energy and time for the gardener; they concluded that mulching is the best way to develop a healthy garden. In this blog, no divergent and competing opinions were expressed, even though there are possible alternative ways of improving the soil. By investing one’s own descriptions of digging with values — in this case, that good soil means special digging practices — the blogger is attempting to direct the reader’s understanding and invite his or her acceptance. Generally, values function on a basis of mutual agreement, that is, as long as they are not challenged. The comments that follow seem to indicate that this move has been successful: the entry is not challenged. But values can also be controversial, and the result can be a loss of readers and followers. Therefore, the addition of values to self-description is meant to direct communication, that is, manage it so that the blogosphere produces the desired relations, on the grounds of specific normative preferences. However, values have a limited range of application; they do not, for instance, give concrete instructions on how to deal with soil improvement under different conditions.

80But not all bloggers communicate environmentally conscious gardening behaviour. As mentioned above, blogs dominated by photographic illustrations do not address environmental issues nearly as often, and if they do, environmental concerns are complemented by aesthetic considerations. In many cases, it matters little whether someone wants to cultivate a Mediterranean plant in a northern climate, or create a jungle atmosphere in a dry area by extensive watering. If one can present wonderful images from one’s garden, one will gain respect and admiration in return.

81The focal points of ecological concerns are primarily soil improvement, biodiversity, and pest control. In line with systems theory, the expression of green gardening behaviour can be understood as highly selective resonance, that is, as a reaction to bloggers’ own ideas of what can be done in reaction to ecological danger. It conforms to the norms of the blogosphere with respect to subject matter and the manner of communication.


82Blog entries are the outcome of a network of connected and related observations. They cannot be understood merely as representations of what is going on in the garden. There is a lot more to an entry. As a social means, entries must possess connectivity if communication is to occur. Hence, blogging has the function of managing relationships in the blogosphere, meaning that in the context of the blog community, communication is framed in such a way that entries are constantly coordinated with each other. By expressing preferences, a writer establishes a blog identity. The success of a blog depends on the acceptance of these uttered and visualised preferences. It means, that someone pays attention by reacting to the entries with further communication.

83Topics belong to the precondition of communication. With respect to the examined garden bloggers, the most successful topics are those that have the quality of ‘embracing’ everyone interested in gardening and addressing ecology in some way, including issues of consumption and production. Addressed from the angle of gardening ‘banalities’, such blogs have the potential to enhance connecting communication. The content of the topics shows the resonance, that is, how the bloggers react to irritations of both the non-human and the social environment.

84The topic of consumption can be addressed from several different perspectives; it is possible to argue for more or even less consumption without being aware of ecological consequences. However, topics concerned with production in home gardens are generally dominated by arguments for sustainable gardening, at least in text-based blogs.

85How these topics find resonance in the blog entries relates — according to Luhmann — to the mode of operation that is particular to the blogosphere. In other words, references to ecological consequences such as climate change are seen from the point of view of the garden blogger, who is influenced by various preconditions, including his/her own consciousness, perception, and expectations of blog communication. To put this in concrete terms, resonance in the form of topics relates to the following communicative conditions understood as modes of operation:

86The form of the blog: This is mainly determined by the use of images in the blogs. Photo blogs show gardening from an aesthetic, through- the-lens point of view. This produces a preference for constant renewal. Text-based blogs allow for more differentiation and, therefore, are more likely to display expressions of ecological awareness.

87The blog identity: This defines the establishment of relationships. Blog relationships will be jeopardised if a blogger, in contrast to developed expectations of the blogger’s views on consumption, biodiversity, ecological pest control, etc., transforms the blog into an environmentally unfriendly one, e.g., by arguing for the use of chemical pesticides. By adding values to self-descriptions, a blogger directs the understanding of his or her entries; if this guidance is challenged, the result can be lost readers. Accordingly, the values expressed are expected to conform to the values of those visiting the blog.

88The blog communication pattern: This is characterised by communication frames of pleasure, enthusiasm, mutual agreement, and also hope (e.g., for better results). These blog networks have established a feel-good atmosphere, in which suggestions for improving sustainability and arguments for purchasing new, trendy plants meet with general approval. This feel-good atmosphere stands in stark contrast to the apocalyptic anxiety rhetoric of the news media’s coverage of environmental issues. It is striking that comments almost always express agreement and often even admiration. The worst that can happen, apparently, is to receive no comments. This communication culture derives from the content: gardening as a mutual, pleasurable hobby. The blogs resemble lifestyle media in that they focus on personal pleasure and well-being (Graf 2011, 2012).

89The general environmental morality of society: Communication involves morality, meaning what one ought to do in order to behave ecologically. Within the circles of garden bloggers, it has been considered common sense to prioritise sustainable gardening in communication, to work towards increasing biodiversity, to economise the use of natural resources, etc. For example, one can expect approval if one shows that one buys locally produced food or bee-friendly flowers. This may explain why communication about damage to the environment, for example by the use of chemicals, is almost entirely absent.

90This mode of operation acts as a filter for selecting information from the non-human environment (e.g., one’s own garden, nature, the weather) and the social environment (e.g., the economy, the media) in order to organise blog communication. Blogging is not so much about convincing people with different opinions as it is about coordinating the network of people who share similar interests and opinions. Bloggers and readers probably follow the blogs that share their values: If one is passionate about sustainable gardening and wishes to learn methods for doing it better, one may follow the blogs that are dedicated to this practice. If one is primarily passionate about garden design and garden renewal trends, one may follow blogs in that stream instead. Readers are unlikely to read, or get involved with, blogs that hold views opposed to their own.


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Das wilde Gartenblog,

Fundera Grönt,

Günstig gärtnern,

Hannu På Kinnekulle,

Landet Krokus,

Lindas Trädgårdsblogg,



Njut i Din Trädgård,



Trädgårstankar comment,

Wir Sind im Garten,

Wurzels Garten,


1 There is no data on the number of people who follow this blog.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 5.1. The motto of this blog: ‘Thoughts and reflections about the gardens, the dirt under the fingernails, and a little chatter’
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Fig. 5.2. The first Spanish slug in the garden
Crédits Trädgårdstoken,​2010/​06/​sniglar.html
Fichier image/jpeg, 152k
Titre Fig. 5.3. A tree skeleton as trellis
Crédits Das wilde Gartenblog,​2010/​08/​09/​baumskelett-als-rosenstaender
Fichier image/jpeg, 143k


Heike Graf (heike.graf[at] is Associate Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Södertörn University, Stockholm. Her research and teaching centre around environmental communication, with specific interest in theory and digital communication. Recent publications include ‘From Wasteland to Flower Bed: Ritual in the Website Communication of Urban Activist Gardeners’ published in Culture Unbound: Journal of Current Cultural Research in 2014 and ‘Examining Garden Blogs as a Communication System’, published in the International Journal of Communication in 2012.


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