From Charleston to Tennessee to Kentucky to Indianapolis, I have recently seen an array of gardens, public and private, that demonstrated to me two divergent approaches to gardening. As I found myself admiring qualities of each, it became clear to me that we gardeners need to make up our own minds about how we garden, and our decisions will depend very much on where and how we live.
While visiting my friend Jim Martin in Charleston, I loved seeing the gardens he developed, both at his home and in his work with the Charleston Parks Conservancy. Filled with hibisicus and crinum, bald cypress and Peruvian lilies, Jim’s gardens (particularly the one I enjoyed while floating in his pool), represent the best of tropical (or almost tropical) gardening. Effusive and full, his gardens are exotic but primarily comprised of plants (other than container plantings) that are hardy in South Carolina. Non-natives were selected to be a part of the mix, but only if they performed well and not too aggressively in the company of native plants. The result was lush and inviting, without feeling overgrown and out of control. In his work in some of the parks in the city, he has used a combination of natives and time-honored plants that almost seem native because they have been grown in the south for centuries, such as old varieties of noisette roses and crinums. His plant palette succeeded in creating gardens that honored the places they inhabit.
In Tennessee, the Knoxville Botanical Garden, overlooking the mountains of the region, also felt like it honored its place. Here, plants such as oakleaf hydrangeas and native trees, as well as a few Blue Altas cedars and some annuals, create an inviting effect that seems to make sense in the landscape. The setting, taking great advantage of its position among charming old nursery buildings and views down the hillside to the mountains beyond, is definitely worth a visit.
As I headed across to Kentucky on my way to Louisville, I was so taken both by the endless rolling hills and valleys and mountain passes –all paragons of the wild, unruly beauty of nature — and by the manicured horse farms – an example of our taming effect on the landscape. The latter may be singular in their approach to land care, but I found their easy topography soothing after a long day’s drive and three thunderstorms in the mountainous passes that came before them. From there to the plains of Indiana, where the landscape took on a more traditional agrarian appearance as fields of grain came into view. But a visit to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and its gardens showed me a bit of both the worlds I had just seen.
In the past few years, the museum’s landscape has been undergoing some redevelopment and currently juxtaposes the old and the new, the traditional and the exotic and modern, in both its gardens and its buildings. As I walked about, noting the containers and borders of tropical plants, I struggled with this approach, so common in contemporary horticulture, of using tropical plants that seem dramatic but, for me, do not add to a sense of place, particularly when that place is Indiana. However, I understand their use in a newly reworked garden. They develop quickly and, in the case of this garden, provide bold hits of color that draw one to the end of long vistas where wonderful statuary is on display. Yet, I realized that, while I loved the tropical environment at Jim’s poolside garden, I did not love the use of tropical plants in these gardens in Indianapolis. Here, I much preferred the parts of the garden that were more in keeping with the temperate climate in this part of the country. Beds of grasses and borders of hydrangeas and amsonia took me in more deeply, and I look forward to watching these gardens evolve and mature.
To my eye, every plant has a proper home. And some, like me floating around in Jim’s pool, can enjoy their moment in the sun, but then are best heading off to the place where they are more at home.
A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.