What are gardens for?

I’ve never successfully photographed this forty foot wide planting of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’. And that, I think, shows why being in the garden is different from looking at the photos in this post. This image isn’t real, it’s not even pretty, but it does show flowering has begun.

The garden has been a very busy place in recent months with my decision to create new structure and new plantings in preparation for the Garden Conservancy Open Days. Not much time for contemplation. Something William Martin said made me think whether I ever just sit down and take a moment’s pleasure in my garden. And yesterday morning I remember I did.

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This is the Hornbeam Corner, where I sometimes sit in the morning.

Because it’s hidden behind the house, surrounded by woods, invisible to anyone unless they walk through tangles of growth, I sometimes go out in the morning in boxer shorts and a tee shirt, sit on a bench in a far back corner where I’ve planted a Hornbeam hedge, and just listen and look.

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Having groups of people in the garden is new to me. I seem to want to do it, but my feelings are mixed. Alone, in the mornings, I think I’d rather not have anyone else around, ever.

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But I have to sit still. If I walk about I get involved in “gardening,” pulling weeds, feeling anxious about what I’ll put in to soften the view of the huge fallen white pines, what to put here or there to maintain a pleasing counterpoint of presence and void.

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It becomes an exercise in anxiety. My latest challenge is how to manage the gigantic Inula racemosa, which is seeding at an alarming rate. I don’t want to get rid of it because it’s a beautiful dead plant, like sculpture in winter. I’ve a new idea. Rather than cutting off the seed heads, I think I’ll try to burn them with my small propane torch as they are maturing, just enough to kill the seeds without destroying the appearance of the plant. (There I go. You see how easy it is to get into mental gymnastics over the garden.)

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Such thoughts run rampant when I walk in the garden.

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Three days after the big garden event was over, everything started bursting into bloom. Now the changes will be rapid and continuous until winter.

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The view out of the Hornbeam Corner (below). It’s like a child’s hiding place.

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(Speaking of gardening, you can see how the Inula is popping up everywhere.)

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Silphium laciniatum against the newly visible southern sky (since the white pines fell).

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Perhaps I should build a yoga platform and learn to sit still, meditating. Perhaps not.

I’m thinking of Rory Stuart’s book, What Are Gardens For?


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23 thoughts on “What are gardens for?

  1. I share your mood of constant anxiety while in the garden: always there is something needs doing, something needs thinking about! But from the photos, your nervous energy is being put to good use, your garden is lush and full and bountiful. I like your long planting of Filipendula Venusta…I have it too, although not as much. Mine flops over, does yours? I wonder if mine is not getting enough moisture.
    I am always asking myself, “What are gardens for?” Sitting in a hornbeam corner in boxer shorts is one very good answer.

    1. Amy, what a timely question. My Filipendula is just passing its peak blossoming. Last night we had torrential rain, something like 2 inches an hour, and this morning it was leaning over almost to the ground. To answer your question, it does NOT usually flop. Mine does get plenty of moisture, even without last night’s heavy rain. Today, it’s started to return to a more vertical posture, but it will gradually lean as summer progresses. Some wind and a sunny day can make all the difference. I’m very happy to understand someone understands the importance of being able to sit in tee shirt and boxer shorts in the morning garden.

  2. Hello James,
    The garden is looking better and better. The bank of Filipendula is very beautiful. And I do enjoy the image of you taking a blow torch to the Inula. I will use it the next time my boyfriend accuses me of obsessional gardening behavior. Although, I hasten to add, it makes a great deal of sense to me.

    Have you thought of various patterns of Semperviviums on your walls and by your new pond? I’ve ordered a selection from Young’s and the effect is really nice. Sempervivum arachnoideum would be a pleasant object of contemplation, over morning coffee. Ross

    1. Ross, using a torch on the Inula just seems common sense to me. I’m happy to know you understand. Thaks for the sempervivum suggestion. I really like that idea, possibly with addition of some carefully selected sedums. It might give the effect of an ancient Roman (or Florentine, or just Italian) wall, which I remember almost always having Centranthus ruber growing out of the cracks. I don’t know Young’s but will try to look it up.

  3. I understand how you feel, I’m sure most gardeners can relate to it. Thinking, planning, weeding – it’s what we do. But my favourite answer to your question is ” a garden is for the pleasure of its owner and his invited friends” this applies to historic gardens but I think it should be true now too. So ENJOY IT!

    1. I agree, Christina, first, a garden must give pleasure, as should most things. Did I make clear how much I hate gardening? I mean the itchy, scratchy weeding, digging, sweating on hot, humid days, especially. I think one can participate in the act of nurturing without being the weeder, though it is sometimes necessary.

  4. By co-incidence I just introduced Rory to you, James. He was at Veddw for lunch last week and was wondering about American gardens that would be good to visit. Hope he comes to you – you will enjoy one another I think.

    Not sure his book actually addresses this question (lots of other important ones though: an essential read!!).

    In fact, it’s a big one, isn’t it? Because there’s the whole thing of gardens being cultural artefacts. I have come to wonder about garden tours and the way they and other paying visitors come to Veddw and ‘do it’ in a rapid walk round. Be good if they could bring a book, some music maybe (privately through earphones!) and just enjoy being here..

    Then our own gardens. I garden as little as possible but do know the temptation to garden as you go.. But the thinking, planning, problem solving is good, I think. Part of our dialogue with our gardens. And you, like me, compulsively take pictures…

    But I think our biggest pleasure is a glass of wine before supper in the garden, and supper in the garden or conservatory. Together (Charles and me) or with friends. A culmination that and the very best time of day. The light is best then too. Then it has to look beautiful because that is what it’s for too.

    1. Anne, I hold Rory Stuart’s book in very high regard. He asks important questions and leaves the answers open ended. I believe he put the Infinity Terrace in Ravello next to Wigandia in one of his “10 best” lists. What a thought-provoking juxtaposition. An extraordinary book. I do hope I’ll be lucky enough to hear from him.

      The garden visiting thing is strange. How can anyone really appreciate a garden in a single visit? Someone recently referred to my garden as a park, and that has made me think it really should be a park, open to people to just drop by and have lunch, a drink, a conversation. I’ve been pushing it in that direction without really being conscious of it, adding the equivalent of separate garden rooms (in an “open plan” garden). At the same time, I have the reclusive impulse.

      1. I have both opening and reclusive tendencies with the garden – and I hate gardening too. Difficult, but means not a park, for sure.

        I’m addressing Rory’s critique of Veddw from ‘What are Gardens for?’ here – http://veddw.com/blog/the-bars-of-a-prison/ and he promises me he will reply. It ought to be an interesting dialogue. Hope you might join in at some point.

        I think his list in the book may also have been a conversation opener? And you are so right about the one visit but it is what most people make. Fast. There’s a topic….

        I’m sure you’ll hear from Rory! You two need to meet. XXXXX

  5. An interesting question with almost as many answers as there are gardeners/garden makers/designers etc.

    It was interesting to see as I read your post that with picture+ text, I stopped, read and paused to reflect on both your picture and words, but I found myself scrolling through your series of pictures to get to the next thought(s). It shows I need to pause to take in the view when both gardening and reading!

    1. I like that–take in the view when both gardening and reading. In some respects, isn’t life all about trying to “take in the view”? Your usage resonates like a temple bell.

  6. was scrolling thru your pictures, then had to dash out in the dark to check the rain gauge was ready for the sharp shower that has eventually reached us. Then a second stroll thru your pictures.
    What’s my garden for? The creatures. The view in its depth, and its details. To sit with cat and tea, or breakfast by the waterfall, and afternoon with a book on the verandah overlooking the pond. But, no crowds, thank you.

    1. Both of my gardens lend themselves to viewing from inside the house. Fortunately, the Federal Twist garden call you out because many parts are hidden from the inside view. Even most of the paths are invisible. We never eat in the garden because the house is so open to the outside there’s no reason to. But sitting in the garden, reading, looking, contemplating, seeking–yes. Are seeing frogs and snakes, my favorite of the wildlife.

  7. Hi James, I live in the UK (Surrey) and found your blog by chance. I am really enjoying it – I love the photos and your thoughts (especially when they are a bit random!) We have recently moved and now have a small garden. We are currently having some building work done – we will start the garden next year. It’s hot here and I am just trying to keep alive the plants we brought with us! I will follow the progress of your gardens… Ruth

  8. What an amazing garden. Absolutely lovely.

    As for walking around and wondering what to put here and there, and that being an exercise in anxiety, isn’t it rather a transfer of anxiety, a form of managing it? Like knitting–worry about the big stuff is too overwhelming, and I have no control over it, so I will garden and knit. Just a thought.

  9. This question obsesses me and I’m very grateful that one thing your garden is “for” is to prompt the meditations that you then share with your readers. Your notation of the interplay of anxiety and pleasure has an emotional honesty that seems rare in garden (or most any) writing, and it is a privilege to watch you think through your responses to the beautiful place you have made/are making.

    Does the Edmund Wilson notion of biophilia have any traction with you? To me it feels like a partial “answer”–at least sometimes. Robert Pogue Harrison’s Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition gets into the question of what gardens are for, and if you don’t already know it, you might find it interesting.

  10. Elizabeth,
    Thank you for the comment. I have read Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, but probably should look into it again. I’d like to think the concept of biophilia is real and true, but I don’t care for the sound of that word. I wonder if we need such a word? Or perhaps I don’t fully understand Wilson’s point.

  11. I took another look at this post today. You really have created a place that reaches out to the unknown. That is no mean feat. I understand entirely your comments about how ones garden can lead us by the ear, like a naughty child! Sometimes that is just great to be subservient to ones own work, though sometimes we must take the upper hand and say NO.
    Many passionate garden makers wear secateurs whenever we venture out, like an old B-Grade black and white western cowboy wears a pistol! I reckon its a good idea to increasingly leave em at home! One can be less of a target without em!

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