The Self-Taught Gardener: Back-seat gardeners

Gardeners rarely think about sitting down… but there is another vantage point from which to view and observe our gardens.

Stockbridge — Gardeners rarely think about sitting down. We bend down over our beds and borders as we painstakingly weed and endlessly fuss with staking or pruning. Sometimes we stand over plants with our hands on our hips, lamenting the weaknesses of one species or another, or we reach into a border to cut a rose or a dahlia to bring inside to enjoy and observe. But Benched: Come Take a Seat in the Garden, an exhibition of garden seating that just opened at the Berkshire Botanical Garden and runs through September 15th, teaches us that there is another vantage point from which to view and observe our gardens, and it is a view frequently missed by avid gardeners.

A cedar Hepplewhite-inspired bench from Munder Skiles adds a sense of formality and play to a cottage garden. Photo: Lee Buttala
A cedar Hepplewhite-inspired bench from Munder Skiles adds a sense of formality and play to a cottage garden. Photo: Lee Buttala

I often tell the story of Ruth Bancroft, now in her tenth decade, whose garden in Walnut Creek, California, is open to the public and is filled with succulents artfully arranged and rearranged over decades of cultivation. On a visit to Northern California, when Ruth was still young and only in her ninth decade on this planet, the horticulturist at the garden told me they were adding their first benches to the garden. For decades, Ruth and others had lovingly cared for all of these succulents, which appeared to be tender yet survived this complicated climate, but observation of their color and form had always taken place in the midst of their care. Why was it that gardeners never step back and enjoy the fruits of their labor?

This bench by Berkshire Woodworkers Guild member Mike King can easily be moved to view different parts of the garden (and for mowing the lawn easily.) Photo: Lee Buttala
This bench by Berkshire Woodworkers Guild member Mike King can easily be moved to view different parts of the garden (and for mowing the lawn easily.) Photo: Lee Buttala

Perhaps it is because we are an odd lot. We aim for perfection and, try as we might to take a seat, we end up back in the garden, moving an ill-placed perennial, deadheading or deadleafing a plant in mid-season, or trimming off an awkward stem or branch. I am all for this sort of activity. It is the pleasure of gardening, and I spent many years and twelve-hour days in my garden working away as the sun set, as my ex asked me if we were ever going to sit down to dinner (we would, I would respond, as soon as I am finished). Dinner never happened until way after sunset on such days, a fact he kindly accepted.

This bench from Campo de Fiori has a nice Mesquite seat that nicely complements the bark of the Hawthorn tree in front of which it sits. Photo: Lee Buttala
This bench from Campo de Fiori has a nice Mesquite seat that nicely complements the bark of the Hawthorn tree in front of which it sits. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

We had been gardening for more than a decade before we added a terrace and a few well-placed chairs from which to observe the birds over our meadow or the weeping beech that we had planted years before slowly maturing in the distance. Once the terrace was complete, I discovered that there were always moments that could be stolen from gardening time – a call to check in with my mother, a quick lunch of greens from the vegetable garden, a morning coffee or a drink at the end of the day, that allowed me to take it all in. I came to realize that this time was not wasted. In fact, the time spent on observation actually made me a better gardener. I had a better sense of the composition of beds and borders; I saw where a tree or shrub could add to the landscape and be highlighted by the afternoon sun which would backlight it; I understood the pattern of the sun as it moved across the property and across the season; and I gained a mindfulness that was as essential to good gardening as an impeccably weeded border.

This bench by Berkshire Woodworkers Guild member Mike King can easily be moved to view different parts of the garden (and for mowing the lawn easily.) Photo: Lee Buttala
Thought to be designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French, this curved seat provides a wonderful view of BBG from under an old copper beech.  The bench is on load from Chesterwood, the artist’s Stockbridge one and studio which is open to the public.  Reproductions are available by custom order through BBG or Chesterwood. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

I also realized that the addition of garden furniture and a well-placed bench or two did something else: it invited others into the garden. This included guests and friends, of course, but also my beagle Fred, who could be found taking his afternoon nap on an old Victorian bench in the sun by the pond. It was now not just a collection of plants, but a place where life took place.

This Swedish inspired bench from Bunny Williams is positioned to give a wonderful view of the Procter garden at BBG. Photo: Lee Buttala
This Swedish inspired bench from Bunny Williams is positioned to give a wonderful view of the Procter garden at BBG. Photo: Lee Buttala

So, unlike Ruth or even my friend Henriette, whose garden at Rocky Hills was filled with beautiful antique benches and with whom I first sat in the garden in her 97th year only to have her remark on how rarely she had seen the view of the garden from a seated position, I plan on taking a moment to sit back and enjoy the garden, to take in all of its glory, and to notice a few things that I can adjust when I get up from my seat.

Inspired by the Gardens at Wharton's The Mount, artist Mary Frank created this lit de repos as a perfect place to enjoy a book and to look out at the Vista Garden. It's position invites visitors to come, sit down, and enjoy the view.
Inspired by the Gardens at Edith Wharton’s The Mount, artist Mary Frank created this lit de repos as a perfect place to enjoy a book and to look out at the Vista Garden. It’s position invites visitors to come, sit down, and enjoy the view. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

So, as they say at the movies, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

A bench with no back can allow one to sit an face multiple perspectives in the garden. The stone and wood bench by West Stockbridge craftsman Peter Thorne uses such stones more often used for civil war gravestones. At one point it could be found throughout the area. Photo: Lee Buttala
A backless bench allows one to sit and face either direction to enjoy the view. This stone and wood bench by West Stockbridge craftsman Peter Thorne uses pieces of stone that are reminiscent of the slabs that were cut for civil war gravestones and which, at one point, could be found strewn about the region. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

Note: “Benched: Come Take A Seat In The Garden“ is on display at the Berkshire Botanical Garden from June 3 to September 15. www.berkshirebotanical.org

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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.