A botanist friend and I were corresponding about gardens, and we agreed that we both like free-form gardens, with plants allowed to grow into the shapes they want—within reason, of course. But we weren’t in favor of the sculpted, manicured look so favored today by much of suburbia. What you like in a garden tells much about what you like in life, just as do the foods you eat, the books you read, the things you choose to surround yourself with.
At one time in British history, garden were carefully delineated, neatly plotted and formed. Beyond their borders, nature could grow wild, but the garden kept the wilderness at bay and gave man a sense of control, creating order in an unruly universe. Sometimes during this period, carefully manicured bushes and trees came into popularity. The topiary tree and other shapes. While I wouldn’t have one in my garden, I have seen recently beautifully sculpted topiaries of animals.
The Victorian era saw gardens as an extension of the house, to be lavishly decorated as evidence of taste. Not only were geegaws, from gazebos to benches, desired, flower displays were lavish and colorful to fit the exterior of Queen Anne homes with their gingerbread trim. Today most of us would call these gardens fussy and overdone.
In the early nineteenth century, the Craftsman style became popular as a protest against mass production and the standardization of parts. When houses all began to look alike, designers used natural materials—wood, stone—to distinguish their houses and give them individuality. Similarly, gardens around Craftsmen homes were allowed to grow free rather than sculpted and carefully trimmed into an organized pattern. The typical Craftsman home’s garden has the feel and appeal of an English garden.
Today in the United States garden take many shapes and forms—we have tried to surround our homes with manicured and mowed lawns, which proved to be a mistake in some parts of the country. In the desert Southwest, for example, the cost of maintain a lawn, in water alone, is astronomical and suggests we should think of a new way to garden. It’s not easy for some—one of my sons routinely mowed down the evening pinks which sprouted in my lawn. I loved them, but he said, “They’re weeds, Mom.” In our neighborhood newsletter, a contributor complained about people who do not used weed-and-feed regularly and thus provided a crop of dandelions for the whole neighborhood. I wanted to tell him to make a salad out of the greens and enjoy.
But I like gardens with lots of native plants—yarrow, cone flowers, coreopsis, Mexican hat flowers, oleander, rosemary, mint, lantana and a long list of others. I don’t have much sun either on the front or back of my house, so my choices are sort of limited.
Some of us do like to let nature take its course. Granted, some plants need a little taming. Yaupon holly, for instance, does not need to be painstakingly trimmed, it’s interior opened up as one friend showed me years ago—talk about a time suck. But neither does it need to grow out of control until it shouts neglect. What I ideally aim for is a moderate course between two alternatives.
I have neighbors who have been growing vegetables in their front yard. The result is plants of all sizes and shapes with no discernible pattern—I find it distracting and think such gardens should, like the traditional kitchen garden, be in the back of the house.
And much as I like free-form growing, I don’t like when a jungle sprouts in the bushes to the west of my house, with volunteer trees offering to get out of control. I guess maybe in gardens as in politics, I’m a moderate liberal (no hooting, please, from friends and family).
How does your garden grow?