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.
Holy shit! That's awesome. Your last paragraph has me tingly and inspired . . . I'm in love.ReplyDelete
Great post! Thought-provoking.ReplyDelete
As a long time designer of landscapes, I greatly appreciate your words on how gardens are just folly, foolish and lovely. Gardening is like a cake. You could just have cake, it would set there, complete and ordinary. Or you could ice it with whippy creamy things, add flowers, some berries and you have a creation that yells out, Eat Me! You hit it precisely, gardening should never be serious stuff, it must be fun, it must make you giggle and swoon, or else it's just plain cake.
Thanks! I enjoyed your cake analogy.
Silly...like a comedian. I like it. Now if I could just remember all those hort jokes....ReplyDelete
If only I were funny ! I'll leave that to Mary Gray at Black Walnut Dispatch--she's funny.Delete
I simply adore you blog. Always waiting for new topics. Your thoughts are so close to mine, I feel like talking to you. Thank your for that.ReplyDelete
That's wonderfully flattering, Ele, thank you. I'm glad my claim that gardens are frivolous hasn't been too offensive. I obviously meant to be a bit provocative. My wife (who is also a landscape architect) read it and was worried I undermined professional designers and people who think gardens matter. I of course think gardens matter. I've dedicated my professional life to that proposition. But for me, understanding the extravagance of garden making means that we can liberate it from all that seeks to constrain it. It is the starting point for innovation and creativity.Delete
Well, you certainly got me to click!Delete
I've always said that if you're not having fun doing something then you should at the very least reconsider why you're doing it (if not stop!).
Of course "gardens matter", but I agree that some go too far with it to the point where people are afraid to do anything at all because they might do it "wrong".
Thanks for posting this over on LinkedIn, you have a great writing style and I might just have to bookmark you ... ;)
Thanks for stopping by and the comment. Hope you do bookmark! Happy gardening!
Thank you, thank you...such a wonderful post...and so true. Yet again, you got to the right words perfectly.ReplyDelete
Silly and frivolous, yes. We have to do it, like scratching an itch. Your post recalls a poem about poetry (substitute garden) by Marianne Moore:ReplyDelete
“… there are things that are important beyond all
nor till the [gardeners] among us can be
the imagination'-- ... and can present
for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them', shall
That's exactly it, James. Thanks for the poem. I didnt know it.Delete
Allison - I agree with you on thought-provoking! Thomas had me going one way (ornamental gardens are a waste of time), then switched to having fun is critical. I immediately thought of music. Playing notes? Singing a song? What's the point? Yet there is so much wonderful music that makes our lives happier! And I can't think of anything containing more emotion, power, and expression than Beethoven's 9th Symphony!ReplyDelete
Yes, music is a perfect analogy.Delete
I take one exception; the planting of trees. As windbreaks, shade in the heat, and general climate modifiers, trees are not frivolous. The time investment alone makes them not frivolous. Which is not to say one can't have fun and romance with them. What is more romantic than a variegated pagoda dogwood? What is more fun than a pendulous Sequoia?ReplyDelete
I agree. And there are many practical aspects of gardening (screening, climate control). It's the larger premise of gardening that I find extravagent, and in that extravagance, liberation.Delete
I remember reading once that the first step towards ornamental gardening was the planting of trees in the warm climates where civilization first started. Trees are the heart and soul of a garden. Everything else is frills.Delete
I sound like some kind of tree worshiper. I would probably feel differently if I'd grown up on a prairie.
If you're larger premise is man does not live on bread alone so buy a hyacinth to feed your soul, you're preaching to the choir here.Delete
It seems appropriate here to quote the poet James Oppenheim: "Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!" -JeanReplyDelete
Wish I could reply with poetry...no such luck. Just, "yes, we need to lighten up and just go for it!" Good approach to be reminded of...ReplyDelete
"one way romance", brought to mind Auden:ReplyDelete
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Is art frivolous? Is music frivolous? Is plant arranging frivolous? Or, are all of these activities a necessity for human expression and the lifting of the human soul? In war torn countries all of these are the first to go in favor of survival. They are the joys of life. What is a life without joy?ReplyDelete
Yes, in a sense, they are all frivolous. What I'm trying to say is not that they don't matter. What I'm trying to say is that the second we realize that gardens (or art or music) are not necessary, then we can liberate them from all those pressures that try to tame or commodify them. The professionalization of garden design, or art for that matter,commodifies the garden. It's only when we remember that garden making is an extravagance do we free ourselves to create something that "lifts one soul.". Then we can make something not just for a patron, but for the sake of beauty.Delete
What a terrific discussion. I'm a landscape designer and I always like when I walk into a new client's place and see a sense of fun in their surroundings. I know we'll have a great time working together and will come up with something that is truly theirs. In a way, I look at myself more as an instigator than designer.
I also think "precious" gardens are less ecologically sound. To work, they need to be clean to the point of sterility and have no room for dead material, overgrown plants or brush piles that are the favorite elements for the non-human garden users.
Another thing I find is that formal, serious gardens are beyond most gardeners' capacity for maintenance. So any time they're in the garden, they are overwhelmed by what needs doing, and not enjoying the space.
Here's to letting loose. I hope your message goes far and wide and helps people reconsider their gardening habits.
Here, here, Greg.Delete
I have a degree in horticulture. I did five internships, three at public gardens and I loved being part of gardens that inspired home owners. Then I did Peace Corps and did some serious soul searching. There's lots of time to think in the jungle. I started to feel guilty about growing frivolous beauty. I should be teaching people how to grow foods to boost the nutrition in their diet.ReplyDelete
In the end I found I was doing both. I can't help it, I want the plants to be pretty too.
We just got our first house and I have my first shot at my own garden. It will be beautiful and it will have herbs, vegetables, fruit and flowers. I will not maximize my yield but I will maximize my enjoyment.
You just made my point about a million times better than I could. I've seen some pretty wonderful gardens in third world cultures created out of such poverty. You realize both the extravagance of gardens and in that purposelessness . . . purpose and meaning. Thanks for the comment! I enjoyed it.Delete
You know what's funny? Even in the valley we lived in in Panama where by government standards the people were living in poverty, there was lot of free time. Folks worked maybe 20 hours a week in the fields at most. They were happy and healthy (but for Western diet influences).Delete
Once they found out I was into plants, I would regularly have orchids or bromeliads show up on my porch. Something someone saw while out walking that caught their eye, or a storm blew down.
Beauty is something we are innately drawn to, something everyone wants to share.
Good to know about your blog and thank you such a wonderful post, And so true. Yet again, you got to the right words perfectly.ReplyDelete
Thank you for sharing with us.
Under the Sun garden centers
Wonderful, as always. But a picture is worth a 1000 words my friend. I'm still waiting for your entry in the Metro DC Green Gardener photo contest. http://gardening.mwcog.org/ReplyDelete
Maybe some of your clients will enter, too.
1000 words per picture is about my ratio, Betsy ;). I've long given up my original plan of making this a picture-gallery-of-my-garden blog. I have too many pent-up rants to give up the real estate to pictures. My garden is only partially planted anywas, so perhaps in a few years I'll use more photos. Until then, you're stuck with my blatherings.Delete
Blather away, Thomas. It's poetry in our ears!ReplyDelete
I have allways regarded well designed gardens as exciting,evolving and involving works of art... Frivolous no doubt... but life is made better by them... If they are useful that is a perk...ReplyDelete
In my own little garden, I think about what I can do to provide pollen for the bees, seeds and berries for the birds, etc.
But then I think that if I just let the land grow wild, I wonder if I would provide more food for wildlife through all the 'weed' seeds and flowers. I'd certainly provide more cover for turkeys and rabbits and mice and foxes and ...
First, I very very much enjoy your blog, Thomas, and this post in particular.ReplyDelete
I would not be a gardener if I hadn't begun by "embracing failure." In my first house's wee garden, I fully expected everything I put in the ground to perish. Thus, I was not disappointed when plants died, but I was happily surprised and pleased when they survived. Over time, I even came to expect survival!
I think the comparison of gardening to music is apt in many ways. In college, a fellow student was studying music and liked to pontificate about how all popular music was terrible, there were perhaps only two artists out there making any worthwhile music, all else was contemptible--basically he was a music snob. Timid young thing that I was, I did not contradict him, but I thought and still think he was ridiculous. Most pop musicians are not out to become the next Beethoven, or even the next Peter Gabriel. The purpose of their music is to please their audience. And if it pleases the audience, then it's GOOD. Likewise in the garden: every once in a while, this still-amateurish gardener is intimidated by the lovely designs she sees in her neighborhood or online, and she doubts her own skills and accomplishments in her garden. Then she spends the weekend in the sun IN that garden, watching the wind and the dogs play in the flowers, and she remembers: this is for ME. There's no contest between my garden and others. And I fall in love with my little paradise all over again.
Thanks for this very honest, objective and intriguing article Thomas. I think you make a solid point. I even think that the laymen with absolutely no interest in gardening would find this argument compelling. Thanks again.ReplyDelete