Preventing a Garden

In the November 2007 issue of Garden Design Magazine, plant guru Dan Hinckley wonders if he “is just another angry white gardener. You know the type. We are irate in general but don’t know exactly why or what for. We don’t like to look too closely at the basis of irritation for fear we are ourselves at the root.” I roared and snorted a bit out loud as I read his piece while crammed into a busy Amtrak train car, startling my seat mate who raised her head and rolled her eyes at me, as if waiting to see if I was drooling or sputtering uncontrollably. I felt my face redden a bit, nodded politely at her and slunk down in my seat a bit…and kept reading…chuckling silently inside as I read Hinckley’s rant about the nonsensical mass marketing of hot dogs, hot dog rolls, bedding plant cell packaging and its impact on big and small garden centers alike.

As I read his piece I took some comfort in knowing I was not the only misanthropic gardener out there. I too boil over when I see ill-formed retaining walls, phony red mulch and ‘parsley around the pig’ (meaningless blobs of balls, boxes and corkscrew trimmed plants) shoehorned into everyday ‘popular’ landscapes. Yet my pet peeve is slightly different: as a designer of gardens and landscapes of all sorts, hired by others to put my educational training and practical work experience to work, why do so many people become obstacles to achieving good garden and landscape design? Why do some clients trust you to design personal, meaningful site-specific gardens while others are obstinate clients, inflexible, obstructing, disregarding every attempt to create gardens incorporating function, form, meaning and style? Some times, at the end of a project, I can’t wait to get away from ‘the design’ that’s been created. And I’m fearful of ‘the design’ becoming unleashed and realized…and possibly my name being attached to it. For in those instances, often times, ‘the design’ that has been created is an elixir of opinions from the mailman, Uncle Tommy, the ‘certified consultant’ from the big-box superstore down the street, and a clip seen on HGTV. More than a bit irritated, I’m left thinking: just what exactly is design? Is there such a thing as good design? And if so, how does one recognize it? As a designer, if I’m not part of the solution, then am I part of the problem?

Once again, it’s comforting to discover this is not my revelation alone, or a product of our modern times. In 1958, the remarkable (some would say irascible) landscape architect James Rose wrote the following in his essay entitled, How to Prevent a Garden: “I think it is possible to explain how to lay bricks or plant a shrub, and there are many good books which do just this, but to tell someone, whose place you have never seen, how to design a garden is like a doctor trying to perform an appendectomy over the telephone when he is not sure the patient has appendicitis.” The next time I’m more than a bit irritated about some design gone array, I plan to break out Rose’s essay…chuckle and snort a bit out loud…and hope that I’m not sitting next to the same woman in my favorite coffee shop or an Amtrak train car.

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