Wednesday, March 05, 2008

What is a Garden?

Entrance Garden at Newswalk in Brooklyn - an Urban Garden at a Former Newspaper Printing Plant

Sitting in a conference room at work yesterday, I was taken by surprise. I had been discussing upcoming proposals with three engineers. In a moment of whimsy, I said I'd rather be gardening. One of the engineers knows about my interest, and asked me what kind of gardening I do - vegetable gardening or flower gardening?

I had no answer. I don't think about my gardening in these categories. True, what I do might be called ornamental gardening, but I'm not particularly interested in flowers - color, yes; form, yes; texture, yes; plants in meaningful, stimulating groupings, yes. In my reading and thinking about my garden, I've moved far from what others view as "gardening." I hadn't realized that until I bumped up against another person's preconceptions.

I need to have a ready answer to "What kind of gardening do you do"? It's time for me to define this for myself. What drives this passion?

I'll try this.

I want to create a beautiful garden, but "beautiful" can mean many different things; it isn't a useful word.

A natural garden? That's a contradiction. A totally natural garden "in the state of nature" requires only natural processes. Human intervention, even to set things going, isn't possible.

So, a naturalistic garden? Yes, but what exactly is that? A naturalistic look or naturalistic practice? Piet Oudolf, for example, usually designs naturalistic looking plantings, but he gives careful attention to soil preparation and intends for the plantings to be maintained so plants remain where they are designed to be. His gardens require a formal process of maintenance, and consequently more regular labor. Others design gardens intended to let the plants find their most appropriate positions over time through natural processes of growth and succession, gardens that require only intermittent attention when plantings start to diverge too far from the garden's or the owner's vision.

I certainly want a visually appealing garden, one I can sit in and enjoy looking at, in different seasons, in different lighting conditions, at different times of the day. A garden with variety, yet an aesthetically coherent variety with perceptible order, rhythm, a kind of visual or kinaesthetic music. And underlying it all, a garden of plant communities in tune with place, almost perfectly suited to my soil, ecological, and site conditions and, on another level, with the history and culture of this place.

One of my guiding principles is to design the plantings, then intervene minimally. My conditions are difficult - heavy, wet clay - but I'm committed to planting without any soil "improvement" and to no use of fertilizers beyond occasional application of compost and recycled organic matter. (I will use an herbicide like Roundup for weed control, but only when necessary, and very carefully.) The existing conditions dictate what plants I can grow; I will not try to improve drainage to grow roses in what is essentially a wetland.

Which is more important to me: beauty or principle? Probably principle - it gives me enough "beauty" for satisfaction.


  1. Perhaps you practice multihorticulturalism.

  2. W.Martin sent me the link to your website. I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog. Beautiful garden & point of view, that you have. Thank you.

  3. Karina,

    Did you hear William Martin's recent Vista lecture on podcast? Very exciting stuff. He had some really interesting comments on how digital photography has influenced his gardening.

  4. I'd hate to have a garden that made a 'statement'. (principle??).That would be like having the obligatory 'three piece suite'in your front parlour.

    Nor can I remember the last time I 'sat and enjoyed' the garden. Leaning on a hoe or a rake for a spell, yes. Sitting down? Rarely.

    For that reason ours is an 'upstairs garden', with trees and shrubs that do not require weeding and thus do not engender instant guilt.

    How do you fit the word 'yard' in this thinking? It is the same word as garden, w=g, but its connotation means something different to many householders.

  5. One of my fav lines in a song lyric by REM is 'gardening outloud'..that will do for me!!
    WM AU



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