Friday, January 1, 2021

The Psychological War in the Garden

I feel like all of my gardens are a war. A war between two concepts: peace and excitement.

Peace is: meadows, grasses, harmony, unity, relaxation, comfort, the steppe, grain fields, being able to see far. Safety, order.

But excitement- it’s variety, color, surprise, being busy, nooks and crannies, jarring contrast, a messy plant zoo unified by nothing but lust. 

I think this battle has not always gone well: it’s worst collateral damage being the failure of the general design of a garden I’ve made, where the plant collectorship gets out of hand and the space has no spirit of its own. Or, if the other side decisively wins- something that is pretty, giving you an immediate inviting feeling, but basically boring beyond that, functioning like an agreeable background to whatever non-botanical activity you are doing like an overly quiet and polite host with no opinion of its own. 

It’s taken me years of making gardens that some folks enjoy but leave me cold to realize this. Finally knowing the exact problem has made creating solutions fairly easy. 

I don’t think that it’s about a “balance” between peace and excitement, but perhaps layering them. Or fostering their coexistence. Like oil and water- a hackneyed metaphor we take for granted: “yes, yes, oil and water don’t mix, shouldn’t be mixed” we say, but I ask- what is butter!? Glorious! Certainly you wouldn't defame butter? A natural phenomenon, a mixture of oil and water, thanks to emulsion, a brilliant mechanism that brings the two together. What is the mechanism to marry two disparate impulses?

Here’s one for gardens. Just my basic go-to at the present. Lay on the harmony/unity heavy enough (to make peace/space) that you can lace it pretty liberally with variety. In a meadow, this can mean a matrix (which doesn’t mean a network, it means a womb) of one or two types of grass, interspersed with a variety of bulbs and herbs. In a rock garden, harmony can be solidly established by a heavily used single kind of rock, and plants can basically be anything you want, but the accident that they are all smaller or cushion-shaped will, as a byproduct, create a certain unification among all the different little guys. 

For a lawn, that means a totally predictable, 100% safe monoculture of turf with no room for any variety or anything dangerous like excitement, and that is dead boring and you know it. 

Another example of meshing variety/fun and unity/order:

In pure numbers, this can mean a garden rugged-out with three dozen Mexican Feathergrasses, peppered by half a dozen accenting bunchgrasses like Muhlenbergia or something, an ephemeral underplanting of two hundred muscari, all of those creating a super solid foundation, a vibe, and then finally, start getting interesting or varied with a dozen Echinacea, ten Eryngium, twenty Kniphofia. Lastly, the variety can be represented and solidified with say fifty different species in quantities like onesies and foursies, who are embedded in the grasses like gems on a crown. If there is only one emerald among the mixed gemstones on that otherwise golden crown, will it look like it belongs. And these plants for variety get even better if they are seasonal- appearing at certain times, creating surprise, keeping you interested. The fun part here is that if you take out flowers over the years or try a new one the rest of the garden won’t notice. It won’t disrupt the vibe. The party will go on while dancers come and go.

In understory or forest-like plantings in shade, it’s too easy to make harmony, because in nature, the understory is often dominated by sheets of one shade-tolerate ground-cover for acres and acres. What is tricky is variety, which might just come down to the long game of hunting down a variety of plants that will put up with shade and provide temporal, color, or textural variety. Shade gardens are the hardest for me because I’m a plant nut, a life devotee of that botanical variety, and as a result I think over the years I’ve become careful of where and how many trees to plant. 

Back to rock gardens, because we like those. They’ve always struggled to have unity. Their potentially jarring disarray of plants lovingly kidnapped from every godforsaken rocky spot on earth have repelled the more sensitive gardeners of fragile design tastes for years. How do we deal with that? Why don’t natural rock gardens feel as jumbled? I already mentioned that an abundance of stone is a solid, foolproof way to nail down unity in a rock garden so you can garden with shameless taxonomic plant-lust for ever after and get away with it artistically. 

But what if you don’t have a large area or the luxury of truckloads of rock? You have a few other choices. The unity doesn’t have to be the species of plants- it can simply be their form or color. For instance, you could unify a rockless garden of rock garden plants by repeating the bun-form: seventy different species, never two of any type, say, of Acantholimon, mesemb, cactus, Dianthus, Campanula, Eriogonum, Draba, Arenaria- but all with that same half-dome form. They will have an undeniable harmony and familiar resemblance, lend the garden a very solid, specific feeling, while providing a total buffet of botanical eye-feast and brain-treat.

Crevice Garden at Denver Botanic Gardens

I think I’ve barely begun to let myself think of ways to extract variety and calm, the purveyors of excitement and peace in a garden, and make them happy bedfellows. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to garden with not only plants of the rarer beauty in nature, but to create spaces that evoke natural landscapes of rare beauty?


Anonymous said...

You are a plant person with the soul of a poet. :) I loved reading this post because I think different terms have different interpretations for everyone. Like for me, rock gardens do not have unity and leave me feeling bored. But a garden that is full and vibrant with surprises-- perhaps plants that "shouldn't be there"-- give me more satisfaction. I am very happy to have found your blog, because I enjoyed how you look at all angles in the garden.

Kenton J. Seth said...

Thanks for reading, Maria. Honored.
Funny you mention how different terms mean different things to folks- before I wrote this, I was somewhat caught up- over aware of that very thing, intending to try to clean up terms to get readers all on the same page... and then, for a different approach, decided not to and just went with it raw and somewhat without caveats, disclaimers, etc- which is my usual approach. I just read 'Fearless Gardening' today, and found that same refreshing quality of seeing things from another person's lens. Keep up your good work.

Panayoti Kelaidis said...

I enjoy your foray into the philosophy of planting design in different garden styles: I don't believe a lot has been written about this: Gwen Moore did a few similar musings in the Rocky Mountain Chapter newsletter that were the kernel of what would have been a really fine book (I don't think she ever thought of that, alas).

You're young and ambitious enough I can see you tackling that one day--but sure wish we'd see your FIRST book out soon!

Enjoy following your blog!

John said...

Thank you for your thoughtful and articulate post. It stacks up with the very best of what I've read about the choices we make when we create a garden. I will join Panayoti in eager anticipation of your book(s)!

Carry on!