Monday, February 6, 2012

Why We Plant.



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.

37 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Your blog is one of the few that attempts to answer such important questions about why we make gardens, and it's all the more valuable for that. Congratulations, Thomas, for bringing such questions into the discussion. I hope you'll continue to explore these issues. We need so much more than the typical "how to" and "why did my plant die," "the ten best plants for your garden border," and you're doing it!

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  3. What was Vicky's first comment, "Hate it"?

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  4. Superb post. All issues that I've been struggling with for a very long time. Your point about the role of 'nostalgia' is spot on. Thanks, Thomas. I've re-posted this on my facebook page and hope it will start a lively discussion.

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  5. Just noticed that you removed a comment. I'm curious what your criteria are for doing that. Would you mind letting your readers know?

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  6. Hi James,

    Thanks for the kind words. I probably shouldn't venture into theo-philosophy. It's no territory for rank amateurs like myself. But I was feeling rather indulgent.

    In all seriousness, I find that your plantings do exactly what I was trying to wax poetic about.

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    1. Thomas, you absolutely should venture into theo-philosophy! Your ability to connect garden landscape with spiritual landscape is a gift--and your gifts as a landscape architect are closely followed by your gifts as a theologian. It is NOT indulgent (in my humble opinion). Just a couple of weeks ago, I offered a homily on beauty that ruminated on the difference between "pretty" (airbrushed and shallow) and beauty (found in self-giving love that so often is painful and--for Christians--most fully expressed in the passion of Christ).

      All to say: keep at it!

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  7. Carolyn,

    Thanks for sending it along!

    Just so everyone knows, I did not delete the first comment. I think the "author" must have been Vicki. My "policy" is to never edit, screen, or filter any comments. Everything stays . . . the good,the bad, and the ugly.

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    1. Sorry. My comment was something flippant, and not in keeping with the serious topic of the post.

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    2. Flippant is more than welcome. I'm too darn preachy anyways. The blog could use more flippant . . .

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  8. "the essential skill of planting design: to know how to arrange plants in ways that evokes our memory of nature."

    I agree with your statement. I believe it is why gardens can be so healing.. Thank you

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  9. Judi--I had not thought about the connection to healing. That's a fascinating topic in itself. Thanks!

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  10. Thomas--that was an excellent post. I was wondering, could I share excerpts from it (giving you lavish credit, of course) to let others know about your wonderful blog?

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  11. Exiquisite! I would have never thought of the concept of "nostalgia," but it resonates so true. You've changed the way I see what I do.

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  12. Barb, Of course. It's there to be used.

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  13. Very thought-provoking. My favorite part of this post is your point about gardens needing to be designed for more than mere "prettiness." So true. Funny that this principle is a given in other forms of visual art, but not necessarily in garden design. Too many gardens are Thomas Kincaid and hardly ever Jackson Pollock or Salvador Dali.

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  14. Mary,

    Good point!

    Now I really want to see a Thomas Kincaid garden. Oooh, sparkly . . .

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  15. Bravo, Thomas! This article is so complete that the reader can add nothing to enhance it. It might make an enticing opening chapter for the landscaping book that seems to be percolating on your blog:)

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  16. yup, it would def. have plenty of landscape lighting.

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  17. Hi Thomas,

    I agree with Allan. I've been lurking around here for a while and you really should consider collating some of your fine posts into a book!

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  18. Allan,

    Many thanks, friend. I'm still waiting on your book first! Thomas

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  19. To those of a religious bent, the creation of a garden could be construed as a longing for Eden-which could also explain the obsession many gardeners have with weedless perfection. From a secular view, as a species we have wrestled our very existence from nature and the act of gardening might be an echo of our primitive selves: a re-establishment of the familiar wild to calm our more base nature. In my own garden, regulated and restricted to native plants only, I struggle to make what reads to my eye, heart, and family as 'garden,' while attempting to create a simulacrum of nature to blend into the forest and satisfy any city inspectors that may be lurking about. At the rate the local fauna consumes it, at least part of the plan must be working! I love your blog. Erudite, thoughtful, excellent visuals. Thanks! Calvin

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    1. Thanks, Calvin. Eden envy, huh? I recently read the first chapter if Genesis again and thought about the garden. I love reading descriptions of ancient historic and mythic gardens. Such simple descriptions conjures up such rich thoughts in my mind. Perhaps that's what garden designers should go for inspiration instead of glossy coffee table books. Anyways, I'm glad you stopped by.

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  20. "the goal of planting in gardens is to remind us of a larger moment in nature" is very much the essence of bonsai. Bonsai and Penjing evoke a memory of a tree or forest in nature. Bonsai are thresholds for beauty.

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    1. Yes, exactly. The Japanese tradition gets that aspect so profoundly.

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  21. I am about to plant a bed that has been overgrown the past few years. After reading this post and "No They Didn't" page, I am encouraged. My plan will to be usher my on looker into a place that touches something deep inside of them, instead of following the suburban definition of landscaping.

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    1. I already want to be in that garden.

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  22. Survive vs. live...that contrast explains the differences between the culture and all the whys and hows to reach people via great spaces. NBever thought that about beauty, but true.

    "Flat stage sets" - this speaks of vast possibilities to me, waiting to be revealed w/ that magic convergence of so much.

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  23. Thomas, Even month or so I search over blogs and then pick one or two new ones to follow. Your is really good. Great thoughts today. I am going to be following you. Here on the shores of Lake Michigan, I do have the lake as a beautiful part of gardening but am always looking for more to get my mind going. You did it today. Jack

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  24. Another very thought-provoking post, Thomas. Like others, I'm intrigued by your thoughts about nostalgia in the garden. Perhaps this is why pass-along plants, particularly ones that have been passed from one generation to the next, give a garden soul. -Jean

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  25. Great post! Interesting and thought-provoking. Very well said: “We do not create beauty. But we can create thresholds through which people enter and have an experience of beauty.”

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  26. Thomas, I like the post. It made me think about how important education about the natural environment is in our day and age when so many people are removed from nature in their everyday lives (either physically or psychologically). Children and people in urban and even suburban environments often need to be "taught" how to see nature, even if it is just to appreciate plants growing through cracks in the pavement. Learning where food comes from is just as important and all of these things can be done and should be done in beautiful and inspiring ways. Because we can all survive without appreciating the world around us, but it's more enriching and inspiring to live in world of beauty.

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  27. I suspect that you don't really believe that designing gardens is frivolous.

    I've been re-reading Shunmyo Masunos' introduction to 'The Modern Japanese Garden' (Tuttle Publ. 2002). As a Zen priest he expresses himself a little differently, he speaks of sacred spaces and reading the cosmos in a garden, but in essence your goals are the same - to create that experience of beauty.

    Garden making unlike any other art form is alway in process - never finished, always changing. The materials we use, plants, earth, wind, water, scent and texture are barely controllable, which is perhaps why it feels like making magic. And unlike any other art, (well architecture),one experiences it by being inside it.

    I know why I plant, why I design gardens...it makes me profoundly happy.

    Thanks for your insight.

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  28. Thank you so much for this post. I've been trying to explain to people what I'm doing in my garden but I didn't really know how to explain what it was. I didn't know what it was, just that as the space unfolds it speaks to me of something else and that's what I'm trying to create.

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  29. I agree we are attempting to create beauty. But dispute that beauty is nostalgic or referring to something else ('nature').I wish i could define it, speak about just what it actually is, but I do believe it exists in its own right. There, in the moment - in light, line, colour, form...in its own right.

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