Gardening in the jeans

When your job is a physical one, the clothes you wear become more than a fashion statement – they’re part of your toolkit, and need to be up to the task. At the same time, whatever you habitually wear as a jobbing gardener becomes in effect your uniform – a part of your identity – whether it’s overalls and branded polo shirts or tweeds and gumboots. Questions such as which material to choose for your trousers can go from minor niggle to major frustration in no time at all, but if I sometimes feel I’m becoming obsessed over small details, at least I’m not alone.

Social media is full of surprises. The question I sent out last week into the twittersphere was innocuous, so I wasn’t at all prepare for the interest it provoked. But we gardening folk are a passionate lot and, while in this case the subject was neither plants nor gardens, nor even cake – over all of which we manage to get fairly exercised about on a regular basis, albeit in a highly genteel fashion – perhaps I shouldn’t have been taken aback at the earnest response. 

Recently I’ve been binge-listening to the Guardian’s gardening podcast, Sow, Grow, Repeat. One particular episode, Style in the Garden, got me a bit puzzled, and prompted me to ask my fellow tweeting gardeners for their perspective upon wearing jeans for gardening.

The tweet that started the discussion

The tweet that started the discussion

Approaches to gardening clothes

In the broadest of terms, there are two approaches when it comes to deciding what to wear when gardening. The first of these is represented by the Practically Dressed Gardener. They’ve decided they’re going to get muddy and bramble-torn so, why ruin decent clothes? They may look as though the Sorcerer’s Apprentice has had one of his mishaps in the back room of the Oxfam shop, but their old clothes aren’t bothered. Conversely, the Stylishly Dressed Gardener favours the second approach, assembling a wardrobe of well-made, attractive and thoughtfully constructed pieces appropriate to the task in hand. They cut a dash in the veg patch but, gardening being gardening, and knowing no pretensions, it takes just as much of a toll on their expensive schmutter as upon that of their thrift-store clad compadre. Of course, those of us who garden for a living and need to present an image of professionalism are faced with a dichotomy – we have the need to dress after the manner of the second group, while our chosen profession remunerates us with sufficient means only to dress like the first.

So, what about denim?

I ask myself where denim might fit into this, as – surely – jeans could happily occupy a space in either of the above groups. Jeans can be dressed up or down, tucked into wellies or left swinging about above your safety mules. They’re practical, hard wearing, attractive, ubiquitous, and available at all price points. On the downside, they’re often restrictive, uncomfortable, and even a relatively short shower will render them cold, wet and heavy for the remainder of the day. 

It’s the wet weather thing that proves a sticking point for me. There’s an argument that you shouldn’t be out gardening when it’s raining. Let’s meet that head on. If you work in a big garden, you’ll have a whole list of wet-weather jobs to be done in the potting shed or glasshouses, but, working on domestic gardens, if you don’t work through the rain, you don’t get paid. Downpours and days of steady rain have are part of the job. Waterproofs are obviously called for, and these come in two flavours. The expensive, breathable flavour of over-trouser, which allow the condensed moisture inside to escape through the fabric, and, for a few hours at least, prevent the rain from coming in. If you can recommend some that don’t eventually succumb to a relentless soaking, I’d be glad if you could let me know. Then there’s the cheaper flavour, the non-breathable option, which excel at keeping the rain out, but create a nice humid greenhouse effect in which your trousers become almost as wet as if you’d not been wearing waterproofs at all. Whichever you go for, your jeans are going to get soggy.

From a practical point of view, the negatives of denim seem to me to outweigh the positives, but on the podcast its praises were being sung both by Alys Folwer, a proper, Kew trained, horticulturalist, and Taylor Johnston, not only owner and designer for women’s workwear brand Gamine, but also manager of the gardens and greenhouses at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. I was flummoxed – I would happily spend my casual days in brown boots and blue jeans, but have always considered denim impractical for a whole day’s gardening in uncertain weather conditions. Have I been missing something obvious?

Practical features in women’s workwear from Gamine. And some Felco no.2s

Practical features in women’s workwear from Gamine. And some Felco no.2s

Good enough for cowboys

After all, jeans, by their very definition, are workwear. Cowboys wore them, for Pete’s sake, how much more rugged can you get? But then again, cowboys spent days on end with a horse between their legs, and probably laughed in the face of a little chafing. I might be outdoorsy, but I’m no cowboy (in my mind’s eye, the Jack Palance character from City Slickers regards me with a sneer of disgust. “I shit bigger ’n you”). 

So there’s a certain romance to blue jeans, conferred on them from their humble origins. But a darker side, arises from the negative impact of their production, both upon the environment and upon the workers who manufacture them.  That’s why it was interesting to hear in the podcast of the emphasis placed by Gamine on things like provenance and traceability, which, while clearly atypical of a clothing brand, shows that such qualities can be considered, though admittedly at a price. (Icebreaker are another brand whose baacode traceability program  allows you to follow the wool used in their clothing back to the flock of sheep it came from). And then, while the latest, practical clothing brands for gardening include fast drying textiles with SPF and insect repellent properties built in, I’ll admit that the notion of wearing a fabric that hasn’t had its fibres spun straight out of a test tube is an appealing one.

Almost convinced, but...

I’m almost talking myself into a pair of reassuringly expensive fairly traded artisan denim work trousers, of a brand I’ve yet to discover (Gamine don’t make things for fellers. Well, you wouldn’t with a name like that, would you?). But, once again, I’m assailed by the knowledge that, caught out in a downpour, I’d be spending the rest of the day cold, wet and uncomfortable. 
Turning to Twitter rarely gives you a definitive answer, but it can surely provide an interesting debate. Having read through all the responses and associated discussions (a week later, it’s still rumbling on), the consensus seems to be that jeans are great for gardening in the greenhouse or polytunnel, or in the garden when it’s not pouring with rain. Those hardened gardeners who swear by jeans did confess, on further questioning, to have somewhere to hand where they could keep a change of clothes, and get into them without either creating a stir, or terrorising small children. So, great for my back garden, but pants for my work. Oh, haha! See what I... never mind.

The final word

I was going to leave this blog post there, when, just as I was about to hit publish, I received a response from Taylor Johnston on Twitter, which has both set the cat among the pigeons and offered some clarity on the subject. She says, more or less: there’s denim. And then there’s denim. With her permission, I’m going to end with a direct quote:

not all denim is created equally...Premium selvage 100% cotton jeans are way different than the rubbish sold with or w/o stretch. Many differences in warp and weft and dries in no time-no tricks, it’s just how it goes. I tested it in all kinds of conditions.. 110f greenhouse and freezing rain. I wear it year round in all manner of conditions and feel great. At 13 oz it’s also quite rugged...something you don’t see with rain gear which I occasionally wear on top... I look at buying great quality clothing the same way I look at buying plants and food. Would rather put my dollars toward people doing things the harder, better way for a better product in the long and short run.

What do you wear when gardening? Do leave me a comment, I really am keen to know!

Taylor’s brand is Gamine – honest workwear for women.

You can download the Style in the Garden episode of the Sow, Grow, Repeat podcast from the Guardian website here