Real gardens; was RE: Babianas and cold tolerance

Jim McKenney
Tue, 22 Jan 2008 18:55:50 PST
Roger Whitlock wrote: "there's a great deal more to a garden than the plants
in it... the plants *alone* do not make the garden... It's fun to attempt
growing "difficult" plants, but sometimes I think we plant nuts, of whatever
stripe, get so caught up in the plants that we forget to look at the garden"

Roger, it might come as a surprise to you to discover just how much I agree
with what you seem to be saying. 

If my recent posts to the PBS list seem to go on and on about my protected
cold frame and its progressively more obscure contents, that's only because
that's where the excitement is for me right now. Ten years ago I never
thought I would be growing most of the plants in that cold frame. If nothing
else, that cold frame provides me with the opportunity to get those plants
out of my system.

And if there is anyone reading this who is not tempted by the likes of
Tecophilaea, Calochortus, Fritillaria, the south African and other
Californian and Chilean floral elements - well, all I can say is "what are
you doing here?"

You might never guess it from my postings to the PBS list, but growing
"rare" or "difficult" plants is only a minor aspect of my gardening
activities. But two circumstances give it disproportionate importance: for
one, during the winter the outdoor garden provides no other source of
flowery interest in our climate. And for another, it's a chance to grow
plants which in the recent past I assumed were outside my reach. But here's
how to put it into perspective: the lot on which I garden is of
approximately a quarter of an acre in area. The protected cold frame I've
been describing has an area of exactly two square yards. That two square
yards is the hot spot in the garden from October until sometime in late
winter or early spring when clement conditions return. 

The rest of the garden is given over to my other horticultural interests.
And since garden design is my paramount interest, my garden is a real
garden. You can't imagine how many times I've been taken to see the garden
of some "great gardener" and found myself wandering around some backyard
plant factory. If they're a dahlia specialist, there are neat rows of
dahlias. If they're a (fill in the blank) specialist, there neat rows or
paddocks of whatever their specialty is. I've seen whole lots given over to
this sort of thing. To my mind, these are not gardens: they are exercises in
urban agriculture. And that describes the well organized ones. They seem to
be inspired by ever dimmer recollections of farming practice. Has the family
really come up in the world because they now plant "gladiolas" instead of
cabbages? The disorganized ones are simply an exercise in hoarding. 
In my view, it isn't the type of plant grown which separates the sheep from
the goats. It's how the plants are grown. All those "gardens" managed with
an emphasis on productivity and the demands of the show bench - those are
not gardens in my book. 

In our time, the word garden has come to mean anything one wants it to mean.
As real gardens have largely disappeared, the word now usually refers to
flower beds or borders - in the same way real landscape has come to be
supplanted by what is ludicrously called "landscaping". To each his own; I
just want to be sure you understand that it's not for me. 

Anyone who knows the etymology of the word garden will share my sense of
perplexity to see the word applied to a bed of annuals (or if you prefer,
orchids). Some of us would insist that there must be some sense of
enclosure. Some will retort that the enclosure may be metaphorical. I'm not
trying to convert anyone else to my point of view; I know I'm in the
minority. But as in so many areas of life, just because we use the same
words does not mean that we are saying the same thing. 

To my point of view, most American gardens are turned inside-out. The house
becomes the centerpiece in an elaborate and expensive attempt at outdoor
decorating, the resident's primary investment surrounded by his cattle or
gold jewelry or whatever it is which says status. I know I'm not the only
one who has seen an expensive automobile parked on the front lawn - while
space on the street goes begging. And I would not be surprised to hear that
someone out there is replacing the plant labels (the ones which identify the
plant) with large print price tags. 

Real gardens can be achieved with a minimum of plant material. Plant people
are apt to poke fun at those professional landscape architects who design
gardens using the same repertoire of ten or twenty plants. But those
landscape architects are on to something. An abundance of plant material
only makes it that much less likely that a real garden will ever emerge. 

I'll end on one final thought: Roger, if you could see my garden in full,
you would immediately recognize its Persian influence.    

Now that's what I call a rant!

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where a Hippeastrum in full
leaf in my cold frame shows no sign of cold damage. 
My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society

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