The Garden as Passion

I used to be a working chef. I tell you that because chefs are more than just really good cooks; we live, eat, sleep and breath food. I still cook, of course, mostly because I don’t know how to stop. I still create recipes and talk to fellow foodies and host dinners so that I can use my friends to test the new creations. I still can be counted on to have a bag of roasted garlic in the fridge, and usually some roasted shallots as well — the small ones, so there’s lots of caramelized bits — and I still make the best scones you’ll ever taste. I tell you this because when I was injured and had to stop being a chef, I was lost for a long while. I didn’t think there could be, ever, anything I’d love as much as I loved that life.

I was wrong. Mercifully, wonderfully, wrong, and I can tell you the moment I knew I was a goner as surely as I could tell you the moment I fell for this lover or that, what he looked like and what he smelled like and the very first things we said. I knew it the moment I heard myself trying to explain to a friend why the Fibonacci ratio works for land design, and why people universally seem to gravitate toward the golden proportion. I knew he thought I was nuts, and I knew I didn’t care; I was in gardener heaven. In the nerd section, to be sure, but heaven nonetheless, the heaven of passionate immersion.

I used to read cookbooks the way other people read novels, cover to cover and usually in bed, curled up with M.F.K. Fisher or my prize possession, a 1927 copy of Fannie Farmer, reading about the science of cooking. By my bed now is the 1956 copy of Landscaping for Western Living I found at a Salvation Army a few weeks ago, and I became so enamored of a book called Designing for Human Behavior I’d checked out of the library that I hunted down a copy for my own. It’s not for the faint-of-heart, by the way; the bulk of it is dull as ditch water. There are parts, though, there are parts, and in my quest to understand why we respond to our environment the way we do, I’ll settle for parts.

It doesn’t talk about landscape architecture, really, just about architecture proper, but the thing that makes me craziest about my profession is that we don’t treat spatial design outdoors the way architects treat spatial design indoors. We don’t take into account the forms we see, in the land and the existing structures, when we design the gardens or choose the materials.

We talk about sunlight, the quantity of it or the quality of it, but we don’t talk about ambient light, and how that will make the space feel as people walk through it. How it will change throughout the day. What it will look like as the sun, slowly, slips behind the moon. How the cool of the evening will be washed into the granite steps, and how the morning dew will pool in the dips and turns of the stone, the quartz fault lines shimmering just below.

We talk about curve, but we don’t talk about curvaceous, about luscious and full and round. About the shocking sensuality of an Oriental poppy, the roundness of it or the perfect circle of jet buried at its core. We don’t talk about double peonies, with row upon row upon row of curved petals in pink so pale it’s nearly white or so deep it’s like blackberry sorbet. We don’t talk about stacking those curves, the one upon the other, across the lawn or down the hillside like clouds, like waves, like ripples in a pond or bubbles blown by a giggling five-year-old.

We don’t talk about arc in counterpoint to line, a full-on arc, from edge to edge with a radius, with a depth of curve that reflects the height of the building it’s designed to match. We talk about globe and sphere, but only in tree shape and never in shadow, equally round, equally grand, a shadow that kisses but never covers the far edge of the walkway as it turns toward the door. We don’t talk about what it means to reach but never quite touch, or about what it means that the shadow line hits that mark only once a day, and only for a matter of minutes. About what it means to stand quietly there and watch it happen, and then watch it shift, and then go about your day. About what it means that this occurs only at a particular time of year, or about what it means to watch that shadow line recede as the season wanes and the sun drops low.

We talk about perspective, but only in the literal sense of proportion and never in the figurative point-of-view. We don’t talk about the fun of configuring a garden that changes someone’s mindset, or state of mind or state of being. We don’t talk about the power of the garden to alter who we are. About the power to lift us out of ourselves, to ease sadness, to instill calm, to transfix with beauty, fleeting.

We talk about walkways that turn, ever so slightly and for no apparent reason, but we don’t talk about constructing a walkway that turns the walker’s head. About the difference between an S-curve, that doesn’t cause you to look in another direction, and an actual 90º turn that does. About the power of the turn, and what it means to reposition someone physically, to build into the design an opportunity for pause. That pause leads to reflection, and reflection to serenity, and serenity to the very essence of the garden.

I talk about all of it. I talk about it here, in my classes and to my clients. I probably talk about it in my sleep, but that’s another story. Welcome, fellow gardeners, to the love affair that never ends. I wish you passionate gardening.