As a gardener, there is nothing greater than visiting other gardens to bring ideas home. And, in normal years, botanical gardens, garden clubs, and the Garden Conservancy all work to open private gardens for public viewing. Unfortunately, 2020 is not like any other year, so the only visions of gardens before us are in books, or stolen views down the driveway of beautifully landscaped homes that we pass by.
I love visiting open gardens for more than just the opportunity to see the planting combinations and hardscaping that other gardeners dream up. I say this, despite the fact that I have learned so much from garden visits. Many gardens have helped me understand how to mix foliage and flower more effectively with startling combinations, such as hedgerows of alternating paniculate hydrangeas and bush clover in simultaneous bloom. And other gardens have taught me about species heretofore unknown to me, such as a garden in Madison, Wisconsin that introduced me to Dalea or prairie clover, which is now happily ensconced in my garden.
These ideas and introductions inspire me, but why I really love to visit gardens is to see how other people live. Gardening is a lifestyle, and the manner in which people blur the lines between garden and home provides a game plan for living well. I still remember the first time I visited the garden of Lee Link in Connecticut, where terraced gardens weave the house into the fabric of the larger landscape. Lee’s garden was a study in the confidence and joy that she has in bringing disparate things together.
This season, I am missing such visits and such insights about garden life, and I was heartened to see that the Berkshire Botanical Garden is giving me an opportunity to have a glimpse of the garden style of others through its online auction, which is filled with donations from gardeners around the area. In perusing the listings (after having donated a few things myself), I have come to further realize that gardening is not simply about plants and nature, or even about the art of planting design. Gardening is about the beauty of all objects and how nature has inspired us to craft everything — from beautiful tools and wonderful containers to house plants, as well as objects that we place in our landscapes and homes that remind us throughout the year of how much we love nature. Some copper finials from Peter Bevacqua remind me of his playful garden over along the Hudson, and I know they will inspire their buyer to create a space to contain them.
It was interesting to see what one responds to in perusing the online catalog. When I saw the bronze bird on a stick from the owners of Campo de Fiori, it was love at first sight and I could imagine looking out the kitchen window at this roosting bird for years to come. I also found myself loving the bronze and silk dahlia by artist Nancy Lorenz, and picturing the room which it would eventually call home. Will it be modern and spare, with this flower serving as a primary element in its design, or will it be chintz- and flower-filled where this amazing work of art gets to be a wallflower amongst its peers? I wondered where the Victorian cast-iron bench that I donated will find itself. I picture a young child, sitting there shucking corn with a relative on a hot summer day, or eating an ice cream, but just like plants we pass along to others, I know it will have a life of its own, well beyond the time it was in my hands And this is at the center of why we garden: to be connected and part of something that continues on well after us.
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.