Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gardens are Frivolous

Gardens are Frivolous: So go outside and get silly.

Readers of this blog know that I am endlessly fascinated by planting design in all its historical and contemporary forms. The human impulse to arrange plants for our own pleasure is so utterly frivolous and entirely unnecessary that it attracts me even more as a topic of study. Farming and vegetable gardening are logical, right? After all, we need to eat. But ornamental gardening is a deeper mystery. It is as if gardeners are compelled by some atavistic duty to scratch in the dirt like hens.

Remember: I make a living designing, writing, and teaching about gardens, so I have much to lose by claiming that garden-making is frivolous. But let’s be honest: it is pure silliness. We ornament and embellish our dwellings with flowers; we weed and mulch to prevent natural succession from happening; and we create little dioramas of nature in our yards. The more I think about the whole pursuit, the more absurd it is to me. I wonder what anthropologists from another planet would say about these rituals.

Hold on, you say: there are many good reasons for gardening. Yes, of course, there are many reasons for gardening and many benefits of gardening, but ultimately, none of these really justify a garden. Nor do we need a justification. In fact, I’m personally weary of feeling the need to defend gardening, of trying to turn it into a solemn or academic subject. It isn’t.

So what if it’s silly? Yes, exactly! So what! Accepting that garden-making is frivolous is the first step of liberating it from all those forces that try to tame it: the real estate industry, good tastes, garden designer’s need to justify themselves, eco-evangelism, or the horticultural industry. It frees us to take risks, act foolishly, and embrace failure.

That gardens are frivolous is exactly why so many of the great gardens in history have been designed—not by professional garden designers—but by gardeners who made their own gardens their life’s work. British garden writer Tim Richardson wrote an excellent essay on this phenomenon. It makes sense. Professional garden designers don’t have the luxury to take risks. It’s too expensive and requires too much of the owner. The home gardener, on the other hand, can spend decades cultivating an emotionally powerful, personal vision. They can get silly.

And it’s high time for us to get silly. The recent focus on native and sustainable gardens has had many benefits, but one of the unfortunate side effects is the rather lugubrious, solemn tone it’s added to garden-making. I don’t mind the zealotry of eco-evangelists—in fact, how can you create anything lasting and beautiful without a bit of zealotry? But please, let’s not take our gardens too seriously.

Let’s make gardens with our hearts, not just our heads. Give me exuberant plantings dripping with emotion; richly layered spaces that thrill me with color and chill me with darkness; and above all, give me romance. Let’s look upon our tiny plots with the inspired eyes of lovers, lost in a vision of what can be. And if our yards don’t love us back, don’t give us what we hoped for, then let’s double down on our bets and try again. It’s a fool’s strategy. But I’ve always been a fool for a one-way romance.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Why the Perennial Border Matters

Why mastering this high maintenance style will make you a better gardener.

The British perennial border has been out of vogue in the last decade. Cast off as high-maintenance relic of old estates, the perennial border has never really found a place in the American landscape. Our yards are too small. And so many of the great British examples have full time garden staff to take care of them. But the final blow to the perennial border has been dealt by bold visionaries like Piet Oudolf ( the Dutch “New Perennial Garden”), Oehme, van Sweden (“New American Garden”), Dan Hinkley, Beth Chatto, and many others who have busted perennials out of the border and spilled them into the larger landscape. This new aesthetic eschews high maintenance dead-heading, watering, and transplanting required by a perennial border and instead embraces plants’ natural forms, patterns, and ecological succession.

I consider myself a devotee of this new approach to herbaceous planting. I even wrote a series about getting beyond the perennial border. But this past spring I have had a revelation: the old-fashioned, high maintenance, not-particularly-American perennial border matters. Not only does it matter, but mastering the perennial border will dramatically improve your skills as a gardener and designer. This is particularly valuable for all you naturalistic and native gardeners. Let me tell you why.

My wife and I began a garden in a new house last summer. We bought a rather generic-looking midcentury ranch house and decided that the best way to make the house look better was to drape it in gardens (distraction is our only hope). We planted a perennial border in our sunny side yard. The idea to plant a perennial border was not so much because we love the look; instead, it was more a strategy to deal with my obsessive plant collecting. Quite frankly, I needed a place in the yard that could absorb my manic garden energy. What better than a fussy, British-style perennial border? Other parts of the garden will be more intentionally serene and restrained, but the sunny border is meant to be an over-the-top riot of color and texture.

So when I started last year, I approached designing the border the way I do with larger landscape plantings: I selected a bunch of voluminous, ground-covering, filler perennials. While filler perennials—that is, vigorous perennials that spread quickly and “fill-in” the ground—work well in larger landscape settings, the end result of my border was a rather soft, hazy blob. It was like looking through a blurry camera—there was nothing sharp or distinct to give the garden focus. In larger landscapes, big masses of filler perennials create contrast and variety from the sheer scale of the massing. But in this smaller border, it was monotonous.

Frustrated by my initial attempt, I decided I needed to expand my education. I’ve arranged perennials for years, but I’ve never really studied a British-style border. How do they get pop week after week? I knew exactly the source to turn to: Christopher Lloyd.

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