Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Real gardens

This blog in effect duplicates a posting I made today to the PBS (that's Pacific Bulb Society forum).

Another member of the forum had pointed out that many of us seem to be very focused on rare and difficult plants, focused to the point that we might forget what gardens really should be.

Since my recent posts to the PBS forum seem to go on and on about my protected cold frame and its progressively more obscure contents, I wanted to distinguish myself from those who make rarity or difficulty the most important criterion in the selection of garden plants.

I post frequently about the cold frame because that's where the excitement is for me right now. Ten years ago I never thought I would be growing most of the plants in that cold frame. If nothing else, that cold frame provides me with the opportunity to get those plants out of my system.

You might never guess it from my postings to the PBS list, but growing "rare" or "difficult" plants is only a minor aspect of my gardening activities. But two circumstances give it disproportionate importance: for one, during the winter the outdoor garden provides no other source of flowery interest in our climate. And for another, it's a chance to grow plants which in the recent past I assumed were outside my reach. But here's how to put it into perspective: the lot on which I garden is approximately a quarter of an acre in area. The protected cold frame I've been describing has an area of exactly two square yards. That two square yards is the hot spot in the garden from October until sometime in late winter or early spring when clement conditions return.

The rest of the garden is given over to my other horticultural interests.
And since garden design is my paramount interest, my garden is a real garden. You can't imagine how many times I've been taken to see the garden of a "great gardener" and found myself wandering around some backyard plant factory. If they're a dahlia specialist, there are neat rows of dahlias. If they're a (fill in the blank) specialist, there neat rows or paddocks of whatever their specialty is. I've seen whole lots given over to this sort of thing. To my mind, these are not gardens: they are exercises in urban agriculture. And that describes the well organized ones. They seem to be inspired by ever dimmer recollections of farming practice. Has the family really come up in the world because they now plant "gladiolas" instead of cabbages? The disorganized ones are simply an exercise in hoarding.

In my view, it isn't the type of plant grown which separates the sheep from the goats. It's how the plants are grown. All those "gardens" managed with an emphasis on productivity and the demands of the show bench - those are not gardens in my book.

In our time, the word garden has come to mean anything one wants it to mean.
As real gardens have largely disappeared, the word now usually refers to flower beds or borders - in the same way real landscape has come to be supplanted by what is ludicrously called "landscaping". To each his own; I just want to be sure you understand that it's not for me.

Anyone who knows the etymology of the word garden will share my sense of perplexity to see the word applied to a bed of annuals (or if you prefer, orchids). Some of us would insist that there must be some sense of enclosure. Some will retort that the enclosure may be metaphorical. I'm not trying to convert anyone else to my point of view; I know I'm in the minority. But as in so many areas of life, just because we use the same words does not mean that we are saying the same thing.

To my point of view, most American gardens are turned inside-out. The house becomes the centerpiece in an elaborate and expensive attempt at exterior decorating, the resident's primary investment surrounded by his cattle or gold jewelry or whatever it is which says status. I know I'm not the only one who has seen an expensive automobile parked on the front lawn - while space on the street goes begging. And I would not be surprised to hear that someone out there is replacing the plant labels (the ones which identify the plant) with large print price tags - the better to assert their social status.

Real gardens can be achieved with a minimum of plant material. Plant people are apt to poke fun at those professional landscape architects who design gardens using the same repertoire of ten or twenty plants. But those landscape architects are on to something. An abundance of plant material only makes it that much less likely that a real garden will ever emerge.

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