December 5, 2021

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Designing gardeners | THE JOLT NEWS ORGANIZATION, A WASHINGTON NONPROFIT ORGANIZATION

3 min read

By Jill Severn

I never thought of myself as a garden designer until one day, while reading an article on the subject in Fine Gardening, the light dawned: all longtime gardeners become garden designers.

I’ve read other books and articles about garden design over the years, but I thought my garden had just evolved. It hadn’t occurred to me that my gradual improvements actually do add up to something that could be called “design.” Yours do too. This might mean we’re all smarter than we think. Knowing that might have improved our self-esteem and our gardens.

We all have what we’re seeking in our gardens somewhere in our minds, even if we can’t really say what it is. We can see it when we’re getting closer and when things go wrong or need improvement. We learn what pleases us and what doesn’t. And as we work our way towards what pleases us, we are, in fact, designing. Being fully conscious of that might help us create the gardens we seek faster.

One of my gradual back yard discoveries was that I wanted serenity, and that meant kicking out all the disruptive flowers that were red, orange or yellow. I opted for color harmonies rather than contrasts, with blue, lilac, violet, grey, pink and white. Over the years, my flowerbeds kept getting bigger, and the lawn kept getting smaller. Eventually, I planted flowering shrubs at the back of the largest flowerbed against a fence. Under some evergreens, I made room for a hammock over beds of perennial geraniums and oxalis. All that took quite a few years; if I’d been smarter and more fully conscious that I was engaged in a design project, it might have taken fewer.

Now, having finally created the garden I was seeking, I think my chickens have such a lovely view they are surely the privileged one percent of their species. If Bill Gates were a hen, I think he’d be happy to live in my chicken coop.

You probably have different tastes in colors, in mood, and along the continuum between chaos and order. Some people like riots of contrasting colors. Some people like extreme orderliness, with each plant assigned occupancy of a distinct spot, with groomed, often barked earth between each one. Others like to leave no bare ground and to have plants cuddle up with each other by midsummer. Some adore well-ordered and tightly pruned shrubbery; others like a wild melange.

All of those preferences are design choices. And people have been making design choices since the beginning of gardening, which, as far as I know, started with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. There are Italianate gardens, formal French gardens such as Versailles, English estate and cottage gardens, highly refined Japanese gardens, and more. And all of them have changed over time as people and plants traveled the world, and gardens and fine arts influenced each other, leading to endless debate about whether or when gardening is itself a fine art.

Garden designs are always changing and always dependent on location, culture, historical period, availability of plants and seeds, and on our own aesthetic choices, which also change as we do over our lifetimes.

Fine Gardening’s latest take on garden design is all about what they call more “naturalistic” designs, which look wilder and less fussy, and which purport to require less water, less work and no weeding. I only believe about half of that, and I don’t know why it made me think differently about ordinary gardeners and our role as garden designers.

But, I suppose, better late than never to have that little epiphany, and to claim our title as garden designers, and possibly even fine artists.

Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversation among gardeners. Start one by emailing her at  [email protected]


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