A Garden Cannot be Designed

It is November, and for a few brief weeks in autumn, I enjoy my garden. Other than bulbs, there is little to plant. And my constant second-guessing about what to change can wait until late winter. For now, it is what it is. 

This morning I woke early. The dewy dawn puts a soft haze over the border, frosting the tops of the Mountain Mint and bending the inflorescences of the Switchgrass. Many of the plants still look full and summery; others are more skeletal. It is a good time of year for looking. And perhaps even better time of year for feeling the place.

I look forward to the garden maturing. A new garden can have sort of an adolescent energy, with some plants hitting their stride while others sit hesitantly. While this dynamism is fun—never sure what to expect out there—I sort of long for it all to settle down. An older garden has a different feeling altogether. A young garden is all about plants; but as a garden ages, it becomes all about the place.

This morning, however, the autumn light and dew have given the garden a false sense of maturity. What is it that I feel in this place? What am I looking for? Nostalgia is the emotional undercurrent of a garden, the connection of a physical place to our emotions and memories. Nostalgia—at least as I define it in relation to gardens—is not a flight from reality into a fantasy of the past. Nor is it a longing for specific memories. Instead, it represents a constructive desire to recover a way of being in the world that we have lost. The best gardens engage us in this way. 

I’ve long defined a garden as a relationship: a relationship between a person and a bed of soil; between an idea and a place; between our desire for reality and our need to flee it; between the essential loneliness of being and our hope for encounter. So in this sense, a garden cannot be designed. It exists only at the moment we are engaged in it, when shovel hits soil. Only when are we baptized into the soil—the meeting place of the inanimate and the animate—does the relationship begin.

This is not to undervalue the role of a professional designer. We need alchemists who can turn our banal residential yards into spaces for dwelling. But a garden is a relationship. The best a designer can do is to make the introduction. 

This weekend I will spend planting bulbs. I always start this process with some kind of concept in mind: a drift of daffodils here, a pool of crocus underneath the Serviceberry, Camassia poking up through the budding Deschampsia. But after about thirty minutes on my knees, it all falls apart. As I creep through the four-foot tall vegetation, rabbit-like, I end up putting the bulbs wherever they fit.

Come spring, I will be surprised.
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