The Self-Taught Gardener: Inspiration knows no borders

In an age of appropriation, we look at what other gardeners are doing not merely to mimic but to find a way to express ourselves.

Stockbridge — A recent exchange with a gardening colleague about an upcoming lecture at the garden where I work, elicited a response from her that surprised me. The lecturer being discussed was Anna Pavord, the best-selling author of The Tulip and a renowned garden columnist, who is coming on February 13 to the Berkshire Botanical Garden to talk about Creating Your Own Garden Style. My

Anna Pavord. Photo: Courtesy of Anna Pavord
Anna Pavord. Photo: Courtesy of Anna Pavord

colleague claimed that a British speaker was not what real backyard garden types might want, and it left me puzzled. For although there was not any malice in her statement, it left me to examine my own hidden Anglophilia — as well as any Anglophobia I may have. Like my colleague, I often deplore garden talks that leave me with a strong sense of buyer’s remorse. After all, why can’t I just move to Dorset or Seattle where I can grow Himalayan blue poppies and tender rhododendrons that have a beauty that to my mind surpasses the beauty of the plants that make it through the harsh struggle of winter in the Berkshires? But upon examination, I realized I go to hear others talk about their experience gardening, not because of the plants that they can grow, but because of their approaches to gardening which may be applied no matter where I live. In this sense, for me, inspiration knows no borders.

The hedged and walled garden beyond these gates in my old Connecticut garden were inspired by the walled gardens I saw in my time in England. Photo: Lee Battala
The hedged and walled garden beyond these gates in my old Connecticut garden were inspired by the walled gardens I saw in my time in England. Photo: Lee Battala

My old garden in Connecticut was filled with inspiration from abroad. A brick-walled garden, subdivided by a hornbeam hedge that we built, reminded me of the grand old, turn-of-the-century gardens of England, and of my time living in London and heading out each weekend to tour the iconic gardens such as Hidcote and Sissinghurst as well as lesser-known British gardens.

This planting of grape muscari at the Keukenhof in the Netherlands was the inspiration for a stream of Spanish bluebells in my old Connecticut garden. Ideas for gardening can come from home or abroad. Photo: Courtesy of The Netherland Flower Bulb Information Center
This planting of grape muscari at the Keukenhof in the Netherlands was the inspiration for a stream of Spanish bluebells in my old Connecticut garden. Ideas for gardening can come from home or abroad. Photo: Courtesy of The Netherland Flower Bulb Information Center

(And the lesson of planting a bare-root hornbeam hedge came from the advertisements in the back of British gardening magazines and made it inexpensive enough to meet my budget and simple enough not to break my back.) A curving stone terrace that my ex and I built reminded me of the modernist curves of Robert Burle Marx, whose work fills the plazas of Brasilia. And a serpentine path of bluebells mimicking a stream flowing through the woods was appropriated from a stream of flowering grape hyacinths running through the centuries old beeches of the Kuekenhof in the Netherlands.

Most of the ideas in my old Connecticut garden had made a transatlantic journey and I imagine many of these influences will hold sway in my new garden, perhaps with slight twists. In my new home, it is not the trail of bulbs that meanders, but the property itself that ebbs and flows, and I think that a shimmering pond of grape hyacinths or blue quill in a woodland clearing surrounded by viburnums, oaks, elms and hydrangeas would add a sense of play to this area each spring and would ground a property that meanders along in the same way that a lake in a woodland clearing causes us to stop and take pause. The same area, underplanted with native ferns, can evolve throughout the season so as not to be a barren patch in my landscape.

And of course, looking around for inspiration can happen as far away as foreign lands or as close as Bartholomew’s Cobble, the Trustees of the Reservations preserve just down the road from my new home and garden. Inspiration knows no bounds and a walk through the Cobble is as likely to inspire me as a trip to Persia, and will certainly provide me with a list of ferns that grow well in the area. It is how we take these ideas and express them in a manner that makes sense for us that is the art of gardening. And while I have had the good fortune of seeing the moss gardens of Saiho-ji on the outskirts of Kyoto, which may influence my approach to my moss-filled side yard filled with azaleas and beautybushes, I can also take ideas from my walk in the Cobble to make this vision my own and to give it a sense of place. To me, this is the art of gardening.

Although halfway across the globe. the moss-covered gardens of Saiho-ji on the outskirts of Kyoto can also provide ideas for Berkshire gardeners such as myself. Photo; Lee Battala
Although halfway across the globe. the moss-covered gardens of Saiho-ji on the outskirts of Kyoto can also provide ideas for Berkshire gardeners such as myself. Photo; Lee Battala

 

Dutchman’s breeches cover the landscape at Bartholomew’s Cobble in Ashley Falls each spring and serve as an inspiration for my future garden just a few miles down the road from this Trustees of Reservation property.
Dutchman’s breeches cover the landscape at Bartholomew’s Cobble in Ashley Falls each spring and serve as an inspiration for my future garden just a few miles down the road from this Trustees of Reservation property.

 

In an age of appropriation, we look at what other gardeners are doing not merely to mimic but to find a way to express ourselves. So as Anna shows pictures of Lotusland in southern California, overbrimming with artfully chosen and placed succulents, I am not going to focus on what I cannot grow, but on the principles behind the pictures that can inspire what I can do in the world I inhabit.

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Author’s Note: 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.