It is November, and for a few brief weeks in autumn, I enjoy my garden. Other than bulbs, there is little to plant. And my constant second-guessing about what to change can wait until late winter. For now, it is what it is.
This morning I woke early. The dewy dawn puts a soft haze over the border, frosting the tops of the Mountain Mint and bending the inflorescences of the Switchgrass. Many of the plants still look full and summery; others are more skeletal. It is a good time of year for looking. And perhaps even better time of year for feeling the place.
I look forward to the garden maturing. A new garden can have sort of an adolescent energy, with some plants hitting their stride while others sit hesitantly. While this dynamism is fun—never sure what to expect out there—I sort of long for it all to settle down. An older garden has a different feeling altogether. A young garden is all about plants; but as a garden ages, it becomes all about the place.
This morning, however, the autumn light and dew have given the garden a false sense of maturity. What is it that I feel in this place? What am I looking for? Nostalgia is the emotional undercurrent of a garden, the connection of a physical place to our emotions and memories. Nostalgia—at least as I define it in relation to gardens—is not a flight from reality into a fantasy of the past. Nor is it a longing for specific memories. Instead, it represents a constructive desire to recover a way of being in the world that we have lost. The best gardens engage us in this way.
I’ve long defined a garden as a relationship: a relationship between a person and a bed of soil; between an idea and a place; between our desire for reality and our need to flee it; between the essential loneliness of being and our hope for encounter. So in this sense, a garden cannot be designed. It exists only at the moment we are engaged in it, when shovel hits soil. Only when are we baptized into the soil—the meeting place of the inanimate and the animate—does the relationship begin.
This is not to undervalue the role of a professional designer. We need alchemists who can turn our banal residential yards into spaces for dwelling. But a garden is a relationship. The best a designer can do is to make the introduction.
This weekend I will spend planting bulbs. I always start this process with some kind of concept in mind: a drift of daffodils here, a pool of crocus underneath the Serviceberry, Camassia poking up through the budding Deschampsia. But after about thirty minutes on my knees, it all falls apart. As I creep through the four-foot tall vegetation, rabbit-like, I end up putting the bulbs wherever they fit.
Come spring, I will be surprised.
Come spring, I will be surprised.
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Two points you make really standout to me. The first about a young garden being about plants while a mature garden is about space. This is so true and should be in our opening conversations with clients we are going to be designing or building gardens for. I think it is also the difference between the plant collector and the designer, this opposition of plants as definers of space or different species with different attributes, such as flower or foliage color. I know this should be obvious to designers but its is not to clients.ReplyDelete
The next idea as a garden being a relationship between an idea and a reality. I think that the impact a garden can have on us is how it can also teach us to have to adapt our ideas to a reality. We can impose and force our idea of what our garden should be, but as we garden we are commonly reminded that unless we are willing to bend and adapt our ideas we will be learn that our idea is not only just an "idea" it is also just "ours". This can be a humbling but also a freeing.
"Humbling and freeing." Yes, absolutely. I feel that odd combination of both all the time.Delete
Yes, the inanimate and animate. You're a deep ecologist at heart, aren't you. You might like The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. Now, here's another thought -- a garden cannot be design because a garden must grow into itself, which inherently means the garden morphs; plants move, plants die, plants seed. This is an idea that maybe brings night sweats to a garden designer and even most homeowners. A garden is not static, it is not a painting, it is not a photograph, and to truly understand and dwell in a garden -- and perhaps to enhance its meaning -- one had to willing take part in and give themselves over the development and maturation of the garden as a living thing that evolves. Maybe I'm going much further and in a different direction, but as I fall in love again with my fall garden I see the grace of design evolving and enveloping me. I agree with Jim -- we need to learn to be humbled by gardens and nature (which may also be the only way to save our planet in the face of climate change).ReplyDelete
I absolutely agree. Though I think a garden begins at the point of engagement (remember the moment first planting your garden--it started then, right?), it must grow into itself. A great point.Delete
While I agree that there is a difference in kind, I'd like to note that paintings aren't static objects either. Pigments change and yellow or darken, topmost layers scrape away, in oil painting the entire surface develops something known as craquelure...Delete
When you look at a painting, as when you walk through a garden, you aren't experiencing the "intent" or "idea" of the original designer; you are still seeing an object that has been changed by time and contact and atmospheric conditions. By the light it's in.
I guess what I'm trying to say is - for all that oil painting seems to be an expression of the narcissistic desire to write one's wishes on a white canvas, human beings can never achieve full control over their expressive endeavors. And we should admit to that in all of those endeavors, not gardening alone.
"...a garden is a relationship. The best a designer can do is to make the introduction." This may be the best interpretation of this concept that I've yet read. Wonderful!ReplyDelete
Many thanks, Alan!Delete
A garden is a space 'filled' with plants. All the rest is what we make of it. My take is 'Magic, murder and the weather.' !ReplyDelete
Sounds intriguing, but I'm not sure what that means. I've seen your garden by photos--stunning. I've also seen references to your garden as 'not gardening'--which I don't know what that means either, other than a kind of laissez faire attitude about the how it evolves. I'd love to learn more.Delete
The garden is a place that can give us the chance to be ourselves, or to change, to think through, and live in, to be practical or not, to remember, to create, to be artists. Speaking of plants, I had decided to blow torch the tops of my Inula this year to control the self seeding but I love their tall, sculptural forms so much, I want more. Against all reason I'm letting them go, again. A garden is a place to take risks.ReplyDelete
Gardening with a blow torch is definitely my kind of garden. I'm crazy about Inula as well. It's a Gothic-style perennial, especially in winter, right? Going to add it to my small garden this year. I had fun with my annual/tropical fling--they definitely added the boost I was looking for, but they lack the interesting forms of perennials.Delete
The best gardens certainly are a relationship between the gardener and the soil as you so eloquently stated. The gardens that leave me cold are those with little of that relationship showing. As for bulb planting, I have the same approach and yours made me chuckle. With rocks galore, sometimes all planning falls to the whim of nature's placement of those behemoths. No matter, sometimes the garden is better for her.ReplyDelete
Sometimes I toss a bucket full of bulbs into a bed and just plant them where they fall. THat's if I can get to those places. I don't cut back the garden till late winter, so it's quite a workout to bend and balance among the plants. Of course, they never end in the neat little drifts I imagined them, but sometimes there's serendipity in the surprise.Delete
I am intrigued with the idea that a young garden is about plants, but later becomes about place. Having just started to shape a new garden, and for the first time having to do so in the context of a powerful view, it is definitely all about plants - but plants that won't shout louder than the sea and cliffs that lie beyond my boundary wall, that will hum not shout. I find myself discaring so many plants and combinations I love in favour of quieter shades, all with the aim of creating a feeling that I absolutely know but find very hard to explain. Definitely a relationship, a constantly evolving relationship, but it is a trilogoy, me, the garden and the view.ReplyDelete
Wow, I wish I had a view. My garden is all about hiding the view from all sides. A very different kind of strategy.Delete
I was struck by your romantic description of how we think about our garden and then giggled at the humorous reality of planting things where they fit. Couldn't agree more ;)ReplyDelete
Yes, I have quite a few romaticism/realism conflicts in my garden.ReplyDelete
As a garden maker, ie someone who designs and gardens my garden, I see it all as a bit more dynamic than some of this sounds.ReplyDelete
I do take on what the plants, garden, weather, bloody nature and animals and all try to do and I often fight back, playing my designing part. It's a dance, a battle, a game perhaps?
This is also a good game! By the way is a shovel what we call a spade in the uk? You'd be hard put to to use one of our shovels in the soil - they're for lifting and shovelling rather than digging...
Quite right, Anne. My tone here was probably more fatalistic than I really am. I am not a laissez faire gardener. When it comes to the garden, I'm full of piss and vinegar--fighting all the way.Delete
Yeah, spade for us only refers to the narrow tool for digging; shovel is the broader term for a number of different digging and scooping tools. I think the British version is probably a bit clearer.
Amazingly well written. 'I’ve long defined a garden as a relationship: .... between our desire for reality and our need to flee it'. Just Excellent!ReplyDelete
Love to see somebody as dedicated to the garden as me. :)ReplyDelete
garden gives really good atmosphere and peaceReplyDelete
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