While doing some reading in the history of garden design—ornamental gardens that is, the squirrels, raccoons, and now armadillos make vegetable gardening far too frustrating for me—I read the following in Lorraine Harrison’s How to Read Gardens, “most gardens of any age are like a palimpsest: successive generations have changed adapted and influenced the soft and hard fabric of the place over time” (8).
Of course, when we speak of gardens in this context, we are not speaking of suburban front-yard lawns with foundation shrubbery and back-yard fence boarders with annuals, perennials, and a well-placed small tree or two. We are referring to aesthetically planned estates of a monied or otherwise privileged class, or foundation supported or public gardens of far greater size, with many caretakers and professional gardeners at hand. We are talking about Villa Lante in Italy, the dovecote at Rousham in England, the Alcázar in Spain, Jardin Majorelle in Morocco, or Gibbs Gardens in the US.
As another garden historian, Michael Leslie, notes in A Cultural History of Gardens in the Middle Ages, the word garden “as normally understood . . .is a work of high cultural” (2). My garden, however, is not a work of high culture. It does not serve as a display of wealth, leisure, or fashionable floral taste. It is a distant cousin of late 19th and early 20th century allotments, community gardens, Victory Gardens, middle-class aspirations, and the commercial success of emergent garden journals and seed catalogs of the period. It is certainly no palimpsest, for the only fabric of this garden’s past to be reworked is a mix of leaf meal and rock. Which word, then, from textual or art studies might be used to describe it? I think is it montage.
My garden boasts no identifiable garden style. Although, there are reflections of soft boarders and natural materials of the Arts and Crafts movement. There are sections of herb, native, and floral mix characteristic of the cottage garden.
Reminiscent of specimen gardens, there are two beds dedicated to hostas, one to irises, and one with almost exclusively wildflowers. There is even a very slight touch of 19th century botanist collectors in that, if a plant is a native, I want one.
In spite of the fact that at least half of my garden grows in a woodland setting, in other areas I aspire to painterly patches of color modeled by Gertrude Jekyll and waves of blooms welcoming to pollinators—again, I aspire to these garden features.
I guess aspiration of this sort is what motivates many amateur or lay gardeners. We visit those historic elite gardens, continue to read the bulb catalogues and garden journals, gleaning an idea, an image, a curve in a boarder or a path, a swatch of color, a combination or arrangement we never before imagined. And we endeavor to adapt it to our climate, our soil, our resources.
The thing that makes all of the varied fragments of my garden design a montage as opposed to a hodge-podge is a thread of color companions tying it all together, even if loosely. For me, that combination is the blue and yellow that captured me in Morocco and Andalucía, and traveled home with me in a small flowerpot from Córdoba.
The Jardin Majorelle and the Alcázar are remembered in the bed of deep purple and yellow irises above. An oval area in front of the house anchors the color combination with four blue planters and two small accent pots. In the photo below the grass grows freely allowing bright yellow-orange native coreopsis to bloom. The driveway is flanked on one side with yellow Gerbera daisies and Siberian irises.
Beside the Impressionist inspired iris bed above, blue and yellow move into the woodland portion of the garden in three large planters with Chartreuse anise (Illicium) and yellow snapdragons. This is another an area I do not mow until the natives have bloomed, especially black-eyed Susans and bright yellow rosinweed and woodland sunflowers; consequently, unrestrained growth has made a big difference in the past two months. Nature is neither high culture nor tidy.
What, then, is the relationship between my garden and the history of garden design, between my reading and my gardening? As for the history of garden design, in term of scope, maintenance, and public persona, there is not much of a relationship to speak of. But, when it comes to my reading—and for me travel—and my garden, there is a deeply personal, if at times idiosyncratic, relationship. Through it I can recognize the cultural underpinning for my propensities in planting. I can create intimations of high culture in private space. I can locate my garden in the social phenomenon of the garden. As with a montage in film, I can create a new composition from fragments of history, memory, and aspiration.
© Susan K. Hagen, 2022