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