Gardens evolve. And it feels like in the past few years a sea change has taken place and the very concept of what we consider to be a garden is under scrutiny. Attending a few lectures and symposia in the past year, filled with images of grand borders and unsustainable robber baron-like hardscapes, I came to question if gardening was dead. It did not take long for me to realize my diagnosis on the health of the state of gardening was wrong. Gardening has not died, but it is in the process of evolving and being transformed into something more appropriate for our time… possibly something that requires a level of care and nursing different from the highly manicured beds and borders we imagine a different generation fussing over, armed with bins of bamboo stakes and twine, and bedecked in gloves and hats, endlessly battling to control the “natural” world of their gardens.
Some of these lectures presented me with gardens notable for carefully managed plantings and enough stone to build the Taj Mahal. These were gardens that I once considered to be so beautiful, but now they started to feel like they were about consumerism and acquisition, and worst of all, an obsession with perfection. Something to be looked at and on display, not inhabited — a landscape that was the equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses for the one percent. A friend of my parents once told me that perfection was neurotic and unattainable (a reference to his wife’s approach to creating the perfect home), and these gardens seemed to reflect that – a chronic dissatisfaction with something that really should simply be taken in and enjoyed, not examined for imperfection. One professional gardening friend told me the story of a client, whose garden was beautiful to anyone else’s eyes, who sent along a note about five things wrong on the ten-acre property, annotating each item with a bold Sharpee and the same word: UGLY. (Never once noting what was beautiful in the garden.)
But just as a few outliers are influencing the primary season and our approach to politics, a few gardeners like Rick Darke, Doug Tallamy, Claudia West, Thomas Rainer, and English garden designers like Sarah Price are taking the naturalistic stylings of Piet Oudulf and Wolfgang Oehme and turning them into a philosophy. Not since William Robinson left behind Victorian clutter and the highly orchestrated beds and borders of his peers to create the wild garden has such a landscape revolution taken place. I would like to posit that we are in a new Edwardian age, and I, for one, am embracing it like the poetry of the neo-pagan Rupert Brooke.
In Planting for a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, West and Rainer put forth a program for thinking about our backyards that seems right for the 99 percent. Their approach, informed by the work of Darke and Tallamy and more Northern European naturalists and gardeners than one can fit on the page (not to mention the surfeit of consonants), involves selecting plants that belong together and work together to create a seamless landscape, which is based on the conditions of the land itself.
To me, the theories posited in the book read like the best aspect of self-help books: accept what you have and make the most of it. Do not convert a sandy, woodland edge into a perennial border filled with plants that love perfect, moist, well-drained garden soil that gets enriched with compost every year, and that require full sun and endless layers of mulch. Better to play within the archetype you are given. Select small trees, shrubs and perennials that belong in this landscape, each of which has its moments of glory, whether these moments are the colorful emerging spring foliage or a flower or fruit display, and let the show begin. Create a landscape that moves with the seasons and is connected to time in a way that is evanescent and soulful. And, by adding an under layer to this composition of self-sown annuals and sedges and other small perennials working as groundcover, you can minimize the endless battle with weeds as well.
As I look at images of these landscapes and meadows by the likes of Sarah Price and Tom Rainer, I know that new life has been breathed into an old art, and I reach for a collection of poems by Rupert Brooke and select a few lines that match the emotion I am feeling:
How the May fields all golden show,
And when the day is young and sweet,
Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe . . .
And with those words in mind, I embrace a new connection to the land around me.
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.