Pleasure Garden


Thoughts about our garden.

“We desire,” the Emporer dictated, “that in the garden there should be all kinds of plants.”  Charlemagne the Great


I do a lot of writing about gardens, but our own personal garden has never been the subject of this blog.  Our garden is always a backdrop to my thinking about gardens and gardening—a sort of character in my story whose face is never revealed.  There are many reasons for this: first, our garden is just in the process of being established; I’m a terrible photographer and our garden is surrounded on three sides by unattractive roads and on one side by our unattractive house; and mostly because the act of gardening feels profoundly personal to me.  It was designed for us, for our own pleasure, so the idea of opening for public consumption is a bit terrifying to me.

BEFORE: The garden area when we bought the house.

But I love other blogs that openly share their own gardens.  James Golden’s View from Federal Twist is a brilliant blog about two wonderful gardens.  That James bears his own soul through the garden is a source of endless inspiration to me.  I’m just not that brave.  And Scott Weber’s Rhone Street Garden is another fantastic blog.  Scott transforms his small garden into and endless expanse through the lens of his camera.  Through his images, I see and enjoy Scott’s garden much in the way he probably does.  

Nasella tenuissima and Salvia 'Caradonna'


So in homage to other bloggers who bravely open their own gardens to public scrutiny, I am adding a few images of our own “in-process” garden.  This spring marks two full years since I began smothering a triangular wedge of lawn in our sunny side yard.  This area was too small to be a usable lawn, and too close to the road to be an enjoyable outdoor use area, so it seemed like a practical area for a garden.  

The sipping terrace which my brother-in-law calls the "duck blind" in late summer

The house we bought was a neglected mid-century ranch which we essentially gutted, so my wife and I have poured our resources and time into renovating the house room by room.  The only way to afford the renovation was to do everything ourselves, so that has left little time and money for the garden.  The assembly of plants—and assembly is a much more accurate term than design—is a result of what we could get cheaply, what we could divide, what was available, and what would survive the mid-summer heat and humidity.  This approach is probably entirely familiar to most gardeners, yet entirely problematic from my point of view as a designer.  The garden becomes a product of impulse purchases and ad hoc decisions, not careful planning.  

Kniphofia 'Salley's Comet' with Pleioblastus viridistriatus, Nepeta "Walker's Low' and Eschscholzia californica

But I’ve decided to embrace this non-designed approach.  Design has its limitations, too.  Any designer who has ever installed a garden, walked away, and then visited that garden five years later learns that design is not a singular vision set to paper; design is a thousand of little decisions and actions made through the life of the garden.  
Iris 'Persian Berry', one of the most exquisite colors I've ever seen
With no real design to speak of, the garden has only a sort of guiding philosophy: plant only that which gives us pleasure.  To use an admittedly pretentious term, our garden is a sort of “pleasaunce” by default, an archaic term for pleasure-garden.  The concept of a pleasure garden is a bit antiquated these days.  We are now much more likely to call non-food bearing gardens ornamental gardens.  But “ornamental” is such a poor descriptive phrase.  Who picks plants like they would pick wallpaper?  To match their exterior trim?  The worst gardens are those that aim to be merely decorative.  No, we pick plants to live with us because they give us pleasure.   I was recently re-acquainted with the idea of pleasure gardens when I re-read one of my favorite garden books, Rose Standish Nichols’ English Pleasure Gardens.  It is a book I often pick up, read a chapter, and then put it away for a while.  This century-old book is a compelling story of the English garden as viewed through three centuries of garden history.  Throughout the book, one theme keeps emerging throughout the millennia: gardens exist for our pleasure.

Christopher Lloyd’s writings have also been an inspiration of late.  Perhaps I’ve spent too many years designing gardens, too many years of balancing client’s desires with safe plant selections.   I love the almost garish quality of Dixter’s Long Border.  The way it thumbs its nose at “tasteful” gray, pink, and blue color harmonies.  The way it mixes tropicals, shrubs, perennials into one boisterous expression.  Like Dixter, I would love a garden dedicated to nothing but horticultural craftsmanship. ''Beware of harboring too many plants in your garden of which the adjectives graceful and charming perpetually spring to your besotted lips,'' Lloyd warns as he clutches a black-leafed Canna.  I love that.  Dixter’s great triumph (and perhaps its downfall) is that it employs every tool in the planter’s toolkit all at once.  The result is a hot mess, but one of the purest expressions of horticultural exuberance I’ve ever known.  And what a joy that is.

Cotinus 'Royal Purple' center (coppiced yearly), Savlia sclarea, Miscanthus 'Morning Light' and Alliums

Perhaps all gardening is an attempt to re-create Eden, but our garden has absolutely no paradisiacal qualities.  As a result of its placement next to an ugly house and an ugly road, we’ve adopted a more postlapsarian style.  In the border, we have an ecumenical selection of wetland plants, desert grasses, South African bulbs, native forbs, and color foliage shrubs.  Anything goes as long as it goes.  The other side of our yard, we are beginning another more restrained garden evocative of a woodland edge.  But in the border, there is no room for restraint, only more and more plants.

Nasella tenuissima, Salvia 'Caradonna' and Allium 'Purple Sensation'

In this blog, I am often guilty of heaping too much meaning on gardens, burying a simple act under too many metaphors.  Perhaps it is an effort to justify my own profession, to add more significance to my calling than actually exists.  If a garden exists simply for our own pleasure, what then?    Perhaps that is enough.  All I know is that gardening is hard work that reveals many agonies and few ecstasies.  So despite the garden’s many flaws and failings, when the afternoon sun hits a patch of Feather grass and silhouettes the violet stems of Salvia ‘Caradonna’, it is enough for me.  For now, I am pleased.

Phlomis tuberosa and Hibiscus 'Fantasia'


The ever ubiquitious, but entirely useful Spiraea 'Goldflamme' with Zahara Zinnias

Our native-ish garden, planted this srping.
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