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The Self-Taught Gardener: Southern drama

Partly creepy, partly divine, a Georgia plantation teaches our Self-Taught Gardener a lesson in tolerance and diversity.

A trip to Savannah to learn more about the adaptabilty of collards and their role in traditional African-American and Southern cooking left me with a lot more than a pot of cooked greens. I had the good fortune to stay at one of the oldest cultivated landscapes in the state, Wormsloe. Late one night, as we entered the driveway lined with live oaks covered with Spanish moss, it was unclear whether we were in a welcoming landscape or in the opening scene of a horror movie. The realization that some forms of beauty straddle these two sensations was a surprise and a revelation.

Driving down the allee of live oaks was reminiscent of visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Am I awestruck by the work of mankind or by a divine presence?

Grandeur of the variety we were experiencing – an almost mile-long drive of live oaks – had a majesty that was awe-inspiring. But how you respond to this grandeur depends on what kind of a god you believe is watching over you – a benevolent god or one filled with retribution. That night, my own beliefs were in question. This ambivalence is something I often feel in the south, where moral equivalency has often been in fashion, certainly before the Civil War at the very least. But by the next morning it was clear to me that the majesty before me was the work of a god who saw beauty in nature, and perhaps in mankind.


The house is framed by trees.

The site has an interesting history. It began life as a silkworm plantation but moved on to other more economically viable crops when the original enterprise proved unsuccessful. Now, the University of Georgia uses it as a site for studying ecosystems where the planned and the natural landscapes merge and where the lines between the two are blurred. And for me, this called into question the landscape of man and the landscape of nature, or for nonatheists, the landscape of God.

Wormsloe is filled with enclosed gardens that give it a sense of safety from the wilder world that surrounds it, but also looks out at the salt marshes that are truly divine.

This property, filled with formal gardens, conveyed to me the same gentle reassurance I always feel in the face of enclosed gardens behind iron gates or orderly rows of trees. Yet, these formal gardens live in close proximity to a salt marsh and long-leaf pines. This juxtaposition of formal and natural somehow manages to achieve a balance that taught me an important lesson. I am always interested in how to navigate through variety and diversity and how to value all the different ways that the land around us expresses itself.   This balance within diversity, showed me again how we can live with diversity and draw from it an appreciation of differences.

As one moves towards the salt marsh, the landscape takes on wilder qualities and shows the other side of plants—their ability to frame a view without the careful planting of a gardener.

Trees, when positioned formally, can turn a driveway into an impressive allee or can create a frame for a traditional house. When growing more naturally, they can compliment the view of the surrounding salt marsh and the oysters that lie within. Cultivated land can support the cultivation of collards that are being tested for heat and drought tolerance, while the wild landscape shows us which species have always done well on such sites and the wildlife they support. But here, the distinction between the two is muddied, just like its past. The history of this landscape cannot be forgotten, and we must be grateful to its owners, who are working with Sarah Ross of the University of Georgia to create a site for examining such landscapes. Such sites, a product of the past yet ready to step beyond it as nature moves in, allow us to look at the world around us, our impact on it, and how we can search, still, for a harmonious existence with it. I know there are many who would prefer to see the beauty in only one form of landscape or the other. For me, however, it is their juxtaposition, and their ability to work in unity, that give me hope that, with appropriate effort, we can find a way of balancing our need to make our own mark on the landscape with a respect for what was there before we arrived.

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.








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The Edge Is Free To Read.

But Not To Produce.