Garden design magazines and blogs dedicate a lot of space to answering the questions "how" and "what" to plant. But in the last few weeks, I've become rather fascinated with the question: why do we design with plants? In many ways, planting design is one of the most frivolous, silly activities I can think of. That’s not to say it doesn’t matter. But it is certainly not necessary, like paychecks or vaccines or heart surgery. It is a pure extravagance, something we do for our own pleasure.
We can survive without gardens, yes, but the question is, can we live without them? What I love about plants, in particular, is their ability to reveal the invisible world. The way a grass moves in the wind, or the way a seedhead glows when backlit by the setting sun. The goal of great planting design is not simply to arrange pretty plants in pretty patterns. When garden design becomes another form of interior decorating, it loses its soul. No, what interests me is creating landscapes that are more alive than we are, but in a completely different way. When we enter into a landscape brimming with life and let that life enter into us, let it move through us, then we get a glimpse of the horizon we were created for.
How do we create these landscapes? First, we stop obsessing about prettiness. Prettiness is two-dimensional; it is a flat image, a thin and insubstantial veneer. Beauty is four-dimensional. “There is no beauty without ugliness,” wrote landscape architect Fletcher Steel, “and it should not be otherwise. Both are capable of stinging us to live. The chief vice of gardens is to be merely pretty.”
Designers don’t create beauty. To believe otherwise makes us guilty of forgery and blasphemy. But what we can do is create the conditions where people can have an experience of beauty. We arrange plants in ways that makes people see the landscape. One of the problems of modern existence is the fact that we have so few places in which we experience beauty. Our cities, subdivisions, and houses are flat stage sets. And our yards are little cardboard dioramas of nature. In these settings, the only way to make people see nature is to distill, abstract, and amplify its forms. As gardeners and designers, we must become Mannerists, exaggerating the best aspects of nature. That is why we mass plants together. It is why we use palettes of plants that are visually and ecologically related. It makes the forms of those plants more legible in our non-natural environments.
Great planting design is nostalgic. By that, I mean that the goal of planting in gardens is to remind us of a larger moment in nature. When a moment in the garden is reminiscent of some larger landscape, when a group of plants makes you feel like walking through a meadow, or hiking through a dark forest, or entering into a woodland glade, then you have created an emotional experience. And that, to me, is the essential skill of planting design: to know how to arrange plants in ways that evokes our memory of nature.
I believe all of us have embedded in us a longing for nature (to borrow a phrase from Oudolf). Even the poor child who lives in the city and has never even seen a forest, a meadow, or the sea. Think about it: we spent thousands of years outside learning to navigate through fields and forests. We knew instinctively what to be afraid of and what to be attracted to. Not knowing these cues could mean death. It is only in the last 100 years or so of our species that we have become removed from our outdoor environments.
It is not that we have lost the capacity to read and see landscapes, but we are out of practice. And as a result, we are more desperate for it. Have you ever entered a garden or a landscape and felt a profound connection to it? It is almost like a moment of déjà vu. Part of us awakes for the first time—like the feeling of a phantom limb. We tap into a part of our being that remembers the way we are supposed to be in this world. For a brief moment, there is an opening within ourselves and we glimpse the shoreline of the limitless horizon within. The preacher in Ecclesiastes says, “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” Sometimes we feel this as an epiphany, other times it comes in small waves. A subtle feeling of expansiveness surges through us.
This is why the goal of planting design is to make people see again, to make them remember. We arrange plants in ways that will enable people to have an experience of the ephemeral. It is not the plants themselves as objects that have power. But it is their patterns—particularly archetypal patterns—and that can become animated as light and life pass through it.
We do not create beauty. But we can create thresholds through which people enter and have an experience of beauty.