If you’re unhappy with your garden design, there are usually only two reasons: you didn’t have an accurate image of the garden style, or you didn’t have an accurate image of yourself. For example, you imagine an English cottage garden — from childhood memories or your grandmother’s back yard or way, way too much BBC — as an idyllic, carefree thing. Reality may not be the opposite of that image, but it’s a good 90º turn.
The reality of that garden requires pruning and staking and deadheading and almost slavish attention to maintain the look. If you have a job or a family, or a job and a family, if you travel, if you serve on committees or volunteer your time or if you’re just too tired at the end of the day to tackle one more demanding relationship, this is not the garden for you.
Yes, you can let it self-seed, but that means looking at dead flowers for half a season. Yes, you can let the plants grow so wild they choke out all the weeds, but the line between happy chaos and unruly, frenetic, disturbing chaos is surprisingly narrow. Yes, you can decide to be content with whatever Nature gives you, but you can’t do it in the front yard without getting strange looks from your neighbors.
You may love the notion of a particular style, but real gardens aren’t ephemeral; they’re grounded, figuratively and literally. They grow and change, and they demand interaction. With the right garden, that interaction is harmonious and satisfies the needs of both plant and person. With the wrong garden, it’s an eternal bad date, not hideous enough to bolt, but enough to make your teeth hurt.
That’s where having an accurate image of yourself comes in handy. Try this little exercise: write down the three words that best describe you, and the three words that best describe your landscape. If they’re not even close, there’s your problem. I have a friend — a fellow Master Gardener — who told me she was having trouble with her garden design and asked me for a consult. We had only recently met, and the thing that had struck me most about her was her precision, her simplicity. She’s a features reporter and producer for a local station, and I remember thinking that anybody who could edit an hour’s worth of footage into a two-and-a-half minute piece must be, at heart, a minimalist.
When I got to her house I noticed that, even on a Saturday morning, she was in a tailored shirt and khakis, wore discreet pavé diamond earrings and was barefoot. I also noted a simple wedding band in white gold backed by a band of sapphires and diamonds, and a striking sterling bracelet. The look she had on camera wasn’t a persona, it was really her. Remember the bare feet, and remember the bracelet — they’re important.
A quick tour of the interior revealed comfortable furniture, unstudied decor, clean lines, saturated colors, and not a whiff of kitsch. So far, so good; woman matched house. Outside, though, was a different story. Outside was country cottage all the way, a jumble of color and random plantings and uneven brick. This unpretentious, barefoot woman, this woman who could edit the perfect piece of film, this woman whose jewelry was polished sophistication, had a garden that was her opposite. I didn’t yet know the why, but I knew the what, and I knew how to fix it. I pointed to the bracelet and said, That’s what you should be doing.
The fact that she wore it with a smaller bangle that repeated the same graceful wave, the fact that she wore it even on a Saturday morning in her own back yard, the fact that she put it on before she put on her shoes, told me everything I needed to know. That look, that motion, that grace did something, meant something to her on a fundamental level. Replicating that design element in the ground would likely have the same effect.
Digging a little deeper I found that Maine, to her, meant summer vacations with her grandmother, who lived in a gray-shingled house surrounded by — you guessed it — a cottage garden. We all have images like that echoing in our heads; I adore lilacs because I remember sitting for hours under a virtual wall of them in my own grandmother’s back yard.
I have no idea if lilacs were her favorites, but they are mine because every time I see them or smell them, I’m right there with her. I don’t need a wall of them, though, to evoke the memory; I just need to include them in my landscape. If I include them, I can have Grandma and still be myself. She would approve of that.
The mind is extraordinarily adept at assembling those images for us. With just one or two of the ingredients, we get the whole pie, and that’s as true for form and color as it is for scent. If I lived in part of the country where lilac wouldn’t do well, I’d find a way to replicate those luscious floral bracts in a zone-happy material. If that failed, I’d plant every tint and every hue and every shade of lilac I could locate, but I’d embody those tints and hues and shades in structures and shapes that represent me.
That would give me a garden full of materials that were both site appropriate and reflective of my personality, and that’s how it’s done. I can do that because I’ve learned my own language. I’ve defined myself and, yes, in three words: bold, artistic, minimal. There are lots of other words, of course — not to mention the words other people would use — but these three are the most appropriate and the most applicable to my dress, my demeanor, my decor.
Am I also romantic? There’s a fabulous fifties cocktail dress in my closet that says yes, but the bulk of the wardrobe is tailored. Simple linen shirts for Summer and simple cashmere sweaters for Winter. The jewelry, what little there is of it, is pretty simple, too: three rings that I wear every day, the occasional pair of earrings. I don’t even wear a watch any more, and that could be simplicity or some sort of lax rebellion. It amuses me to think that I may be so hopelessly artistic as to rebel against time itself.
Am I also complex? Sure, but the house decor is minimalist, at best, and surprisingly monochromatic. Not surprising to me, just to everyone else. They always expect floral prints and lots of color from a gardener, but I know at the end of the day I need just the opposite. I need visual quiet as well as auditory quiet, so the place is restful in as many aspects as I can manage.
Were I designing a garden for myself, it would be bold, artistic and minimal, because the most of me is happy there. That clarity in definition translates to clarity in design, and it sets the tone for everything that follows.