Sorry for the radio silence, I’ve been in Toronto and New York for the last two weeks drinking endless bubble teas and pounding the pavement. It snowed a few times and the wind was brutal, any dreams I had of magnolia were crushed. Instead, I made do with snowdrops, hamamelis, aconite and crocuses, along with afternoons spent in the Avery Library at Columbia reading through their garden design collection and two lectures by Peter Wirtz and Robert Mallet.
Sometimes I worry that after four years of mainly engaging with gardens as visitor or a reader, that any legitimacy I might have had to call myself a gardener will be lost. But the more I listen to other great gardeners whom I admire, the more I realize how important it is to have a good eye and that developing that eye takes time and experience – so just looking and studying is never a waste of time. Frank Cabot’s ‘The Greater Perfection’ is an excellent lesson in this – he has exquisite taste and pulls from great gardens he has seen, as well as his skills as a plantsman, but he also relies on the eyes and skills of artisans to bring his vision to life.
Garden books seem to fall into two main categories – intensely personal memoirs of a garden such as ‘The Greater Perfection,’ or Dan Pearson’s ‘Home Ground,’ and general manuals on growing plants. Right now I find myself craving something a bit more – Russell Page’s ‘Education of a Gardener’ or perhaps Gerritson’s ‘Essay on Gardening.’ It’s not to say that these two are not also intensely personal, with art it seems most things are, but they also lead to broader conversations on the purpose to gardening and human intervention in the landscape.
When I first started gardening as a child, I just wanted more flowers and weird plants – I quickly learned I had to make some compromises due to climate and sunlight, but I never wanted to spend my money on more than one of each kind of plant because where’s the fun in that?! Having visited enough gardens now, I am beginning to understand the beauty in restraint. Even as I get more excited about plants every day, my eye is drawn again and again to more restful landscaping that feature layered hedging or the repetition of plant communities such as one finds in a meadow (Giubbilei’s Chelsea Garden 2009 is perfection in my mind). In a small space especially it’s easy to overwhelm with ideas and plants.
All this is to say that while I feel my eye has improved, my thoughts about meaning in the garden don’t seem to have progressed. Does a garden always have to have meaning beyond simply beautiful plants? Is it enough to hope to evoke peace or to match the architecture? I just want to look at certain plants together. It’s funny, after reading Page and Gerritson, Giubbilei’s book along with Wirtz’s talk both seemed so straightforward: clear design voice and clean plant pallette. I strive for that simplicity, but hope at some point to have conversations on a broader scale. Especially as the way we garden shifts to keep up with changing climates and depleted resources.