by Sarah West
Designing a garden is as simple as following a trail of impulses, selecting the plants and ornaments that inspire you each season, bringing them together in whatever space you have. This is the sort of garden that spills like a bag of candy, one treasured item after another, a collection of colors and textures each equally delightful to its curator.
There is no wrong way to create a garden. If you have not yet begun your own, you will quickly learn once you do that it is less an undertaking than a relationship. I started my first garden as a weekend project; a horticulture degree and seven years of courtship later, my current garden feels like an external organ through which I experience the place I live. Gardening has become for me a conversation, one in which I have learned how to listen even more than how to speak.
Historically, gardens have served a range of purposes. The first gardens were also the first farms—patches of wildness where choice plants were encouraged to proliferate. The first gardeners protected their chosen plants by removing competing species or manipulating irrigation. The art of propagation flowed out of this impulse, when the plant protectors became producers, preparing plots, scattering seeds, dividing and transplanting to create gardens that fit the desires and needs of those who made them.
Wilderness has its own sense of order, one that sometimes corresponds with (and certainly informs) the gardener’s aesthetic. I recall coming upon certain rocky outcroppings scattered with wildflowers as lovely and well-placed as their cultivated counterparts, shaded forest clearings with moss carpeting and artfully branched trees missing only a stone bench or bamboo fountain.
Nature’s order follows us into our gardens, but it does not create them. Gardens are less the plants they contain than the act of planting, of selecting and sculpting sites that, in the words of architect Charles W. Moore, “become gardens only when shaped by our actions and engaged with our dreams.”
Gardens can be highly sophisticated places, requiring great knowledge and skill to shape and maintain. Such gardens come from refined intention: an imagined ideal put into action. They seem to glow with the balance of stillness and movement, stasis and change. Like a song or a painting, they transport us from the place we stand into the dream that created them.
Gardens go feral, return to nature’s custody by way of overgrown weeds, drought, defacement. We lose interest; life gets in the way. We strive for our gardens and they often seem many steps ahead of our efforts. Part of the conversation is defining limits: what you can offer, what brings you pleasure. Each time you ask the answer will be different.
I’ve found balance in my own garden by cultivating ritual from the elements that please me most: bending down to smell the winter daphne each time I pass it during the month it blooms, clearing my thoughts on a surprise sunny day in February while pulling out the last autumn weeds and cutting back dormant perennials, eating late summer suppers amid the lush garden at dusk. Like the first spring pea, the first juicy bite of a garden tomato, I wait for these moments each year. They have become as much a part of my calendar as holidays and anniversaries.
Your garden is yours. You are the one who sees its invisible virtues. Spring nudges it awake, but it is your dream that gives it breath.