The Self-Taught Gardener: Seeking paradise

I have always been fascinated by how we view the difference between gardens and nature, for in our history they have always been different.

We visit other gardens for many reasons. Curiosity about what others are doing certainly can top the list, and often is the motivator that gets me out the door to a Garden Conservancy Open Day. Of course, we also hope to come home with a few ideas for our own gardens and possibly to run into a few horticulturally-minded friends. Although gardening seems like a solitary activity, in my experience gardeners are quite a social lot and are happy to share what they have done. As my friend Lee Link said once many years ago when I profiled her and her garden for a PBS series, “we work hard on our gardens, so why not show them off and share them with other people.” In the past few weeks, I have been taking advantage of such generous spirits and trying to get out and see a few gardens when I can tear myself away from the clearing and eradication of invasives that is the current primary activity in my new garden. (It is not hard to find an excuse to break away from the oriental bittersweet and wild grape that engulf my property and occasionally my ankles.) And I feel like these visits are proving to be an essential part of my education as a gardener.

A visit to the garden of Larry Wente and Jack Hyland started my Saturday. I had always been intrigued by pictures of their garden and house, and was thrilled to see it on the Open Days schedule. (In a few weeks, it will also serve as the location of the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s last of the season Cocktails in Great Gardens.) Their garden is one of those pairings that is often at the center of great gardenmaking –- the gardener and the architect. Like Lutyens and Jekyll or Sackville-West and Nicholson, their garden is the product of two souls that each brings something different to the table. The architect understands the placement of a rill-like pool and lines that connect the garden with the house and the surrounding property, and the gardener masterfully paints a garden within the lines (although this exuberant garden seems to be overflowing with plants, and I imagine the design and planting involved quite a bit of collaboration).

The long lines of the garden’s layout call to mind the Alhambra and other great Moorish and Persian gardens. Photo: Lee Buttala
The long lines of the garden’s layout call to mind the Alhambra and other great Moorish and Persian gardens. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

The lines of their garden call to mind the Alhambra, although the intensity of planting is quite distinct. The spaces seem to overflow with swaths of foliage and flower, and containers are set up to add even more color to the mix, often filled with bold, tropical combinations. And while I was taking this in and admiring what they had done, I realized I was drawn to something more in this garden. For all of the beauty of the planned landscape, I was most taken by its connection to the surrounding farmland and hillsides. The long views from both the house and the garden took in meadows and mountains that I once would have taken for granted, and now feel ever more connected to. I was raised on the Illinois prairie and have moved to the mountains. They are both in my blood, but are also often taken as givens. While the Wente-Hyland garden was an oasis of sorts and very much felt like it, the landscape that surrounded it seemed not like the desert around a Persian garden but a part of paradise as well.

Rills were often used in Persian and Moorish gardens to lead the visitor into the paradise of the garden. Photo: Lee Buttala
Rills were often used in Persian and Moorish gardens to lead the visitor into the paradise of the garden. Photo: Lee Buttala

 

 

Containers are placed throughout the garden and provide additional color and drama. Photo: Lee Buttala
Containers are placed throughout the garden and provide additional color and drama. Photo: Lee Buttala

As I walked down their long driveway to my car, past fields and apple trees, a desire for my own garden awakened – a desire that involved not only the intensely planted oasis of a highly articulated garden (although I am favoring soft curves to hard straight lines these days), but also a connection to the landscape beyond. I find myself drawn to woodlands and meadows that call to mind the simple days of childhood, playing in the fields and venturing out into the woods. What I have defined as the garden, and as nature, have evolved and comingled in a manner that has changed who I am as a gardener. I have always been fascinated by how we view the difference between gardens and nature, for in our history they have always been different, and see a new time where the blurring of those lines seems to be a part of the zeitgeist, perhaps reflecting a change in our relationship to the environment that we have devastated and need to repair. I welcome this new era of gardening whatever it is meant to be.

Borrowing from the surrounding landscape is a time-honored tradition and connects a garden and its visitors to the surrounding world in a manner that has gained new meaning for me over the years. Photo: Lee Buttala
Borrowing from the surrounding landscape is a time-honored tradition and connects a garden and its visitors to the surrounding world in a manner that has gained new meaning for me over the years. Photo: Lee Buttala

And I now know that I need to head home and keep working on removing those invasives to bring back the landscape that was and will be.

But maybe first I will visit just one more garden….

__________

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.