There are several people in the world of horticulture who have been game-changers and have changed the way we envision our landscapes and our gardens. I have had the good fortune to meet a few of them. Christopher Lloyd and my friend Peter Wooster taught me the art of exuberance in life and in planting. Their garden compositions balanced a knowing sophistication with a playful childlike sensibility. They taught me to see how these seemingly oppositional forces can work well together. But Ros Creasy, whom I had the pleasure of visiting in Los Altos this week, taught me about another merging of two seemingly opposing forces, the ornamental and the economic.
Ros, whose book on edible landscaping is a classic for vegetable gardeners of a certain type and has always had a prominent place on my bookshelves, was one of the early proponents of the ornamental vegetable garden. For years, I dreamed of visiting her garden; her approach to the edible landscape seemed to match my own impression of what Eden must have been. And to spend the afternoon with her, both in her garden and in her home, along with a quick trip to the Google campus, because “one really must see it,” is one of the highlights of a life for which I already have plenty to be grateful.
What makes Ros special in the world is her ability to see the beauty of plants that others viewed as purposeful and mundane, and she manages to create gardens that inspire us for both their beauty and their utility. As we talked about Seed Savers Exchange (Ros is one of our board members) and the art of seed saving, Ros quickly exclaimed to my delight that, while preserving the seeds of the heirloom vegetables in our collection is important work, it is essential not to forget how these beloved time-tested varieties taste. Continuing on, she also shared how their beauty serves us as well, whether that beauty is seen in a pile of peppers and squashes on her kitchen table (which she quickly pulled me into the kitchen to see) or in the onions and artichokes popping up in her garden, which literally reaches all the way to the pavement of the street in front of her house.
A quick tour of Ros’ garden provided me with a handful of heavenly ripe figs of French provenance that were bursting open and exposing their crimson flesh. As she reached about to harvest a selection so ripe that they were drooping from their stems (a sign of ultimate ripeness in her opinion), I hungrily observed their physical beauty for a moment before I bit into them and let their unctuous juice and seeds fill my mouth with an explosive flavor that no other fig has ever provided. In other corners of the garden, pomegranates and citrus of every variety were cheek-by-jowl with pink-fleshed apples and persimmons that were slowly ripening to perfection. And with the use of box hedges and an array of flowering plants from rain lilies to flowering sage, the garden truly felt like Eden.
But what was most amazing about the day and the garden was the energy that seemed to pulse from a garden. Vegetables and fruits shared their territory with flowering annuals and lavenders, and these ornamental flowers in turn were shown off to best advantage as a foil to colorful red tomatoes and peppers taking on their rich ripening tones. I walked away from the day, figs in hand for my trip back east, thinking of a misreading of a line from The Tempest: Oh, brave new world that hath such vegetables in it. And Ros.
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.