sensory experience

calluna vu. 'robert chapman', spirea bum. 'gold mound', bronze fennel, delphinium 'guardian blue', existing lillies, perovskia 'little spire', daphne ordora 'marginata', calamagrostis ac. 'el durado', sedum 'autumn joy', agastache 'summer glow

So sorry… a few more seasonal pic me ups here… writing in late winter certainly requires imagination. I’m convinced garden magazines with their big glossy spreads are really best appreciated as a winter activity. After all the true pleasures of summer can only be compared adequately to the unique misery of its absence. In winter I imagine myself like an infantry man in trench coat smoking his rationed cigarette and looking at a favorite pin up. There is nothing so life affirming as imagining where you would rather be… Pay no head to my wheezing laugh, it is the picture of healthy. Besides… imagining where you’d rather be is part of how you get there. Sometimes the grass really is greener.

Yet, in the kaleidoscope of memory how do you keep track?

If enjoying the garden is the mathematical fine line you tread between your expectations and the difference in outcome what about the slippage the mistakes and the surprises? How do you account for them, can you even learn from them? What has been problematic for me over the past ten years of gardening is keeping track of all the changes. My dreams become faded by the present reality and I wonder how I actually got to the current design and the problems I presently face. Case in point this last year I decided to spend more time following my own footsteps in the garden. I had always kept track of the emerging new cultivars in a list of favorites. I also drew up an original plan for my clients gardens and usually took plenty of pictures of their seasonal color for myself some of which I share here on the blog. Still there was that undefined space between what I thought would work in a plan and then what actually occurs.

Sometimes these changes were a good thing, new combinations were discovered or a plant that I thought I loved slipped from memory into obscurity, was it wrong was it right? What exactly constituted my style, how could I employ it most favorably, and why had I made those choices? These are the ramblings of a designer but not entirely without merit for the beginning gardener. With all these lists of plants I had no actual comparison over time of how they changed the garden plan. And thus could not with real authority set about improving the process. The vague half life of memory was how I was making my choices, and although it seemed to serve me well I knew I could do better. So I have started to keep more regular maps of the gardens to record the subtle changes. A sort of objective counter point to the familiarity and appreciation one naturally acquires for a garden and its culture.

A chance to play the complicated role of the artist.

In the first image you see a painting I made of a neighbors garden and then below the photo I took after the gardens completion. Sometimes my drawings take on a more informal character rather than the typical birds eye view of a designer. Which style best suits a garden calender? Already you might notice some of the drawbacks of photo realism, it’s much more difficult to convey a complete idea. Sometimes I will make a panorama of photos and do an overlay of tissue for a quick accurate sketch of a planting. There are many angles of approach.

fennel, delphinium, lillies, astilbe

Recently I read somewhere that Kathryn Gustafson – an acclaimed landscape architect – often uses sculptural clay models for her garden designs to help fully realize the spacial relationships in her gardens. I know that working in clay helped me to learn the alphabet backwards when rout memorization proved tough (memorization was always a challenge for my brother and I, we had to create alternate models). And then I also remember hearing that Richard Haag got his commissions at Bloedel Reserve because of how he engaged his clients with markers, artist easels, and large gestures, as apposed to the scientific dilatantism that can come with architectural drafts. There has been talk lately of how the Gutenberg press changed Christianity simply by printing the bible for everyone to read. Yes I admit this is a streach, yet if participation of all the senses is proven significant then gardening would be no exception to this rule. It would follow that the garden which is meant to delight all our senses could be made more ‘real’ by a process that embraces all of us.

I’ve certainly been casting about trying to find what worked best for me, having experimented with ARC and other programs for mapping over the years. Every new generation of software and computers does make me wonder how it might change the horizons of gardening. Yet the key board model does limit the way the body connects with a program as does a flat screen. Gardens in contrast are often compared to rooms with multiple walls and everything in-between. The computer add that makes me want to get to work ironically is the one with break dancing and transformers as the base theme. If only the screens could fold like origami, had pockets for a stylus, or maybe project another dimension you could draw onto! But then again maybe I’ll just try playing with clay, it feels so good in the hands anyway. Besides the fact that it is earth, like a golem, is no small satisfaction.

This question of space and time represented takes us back around to the initial problem of recording change and creating a way of understanding what happens to a garden as it evolves. The other evening I was studying the stars and their constellations and wondering what it must have been like to reference the stars for what day or month it was. This sense that everything was related to where you stood on the earth could evoke nostalgia from someone encased in a cloak of gadgets, and yet this is where the market has driven us. A resource depleting model, yet a participatory one where we vote with extended hand waiving a paper dollar.

What are the new models?

I certainly never thought I would see films get taken the way of the cloud and yet there are examples. In fact I was watching some delicious BBC nature porn, (I’m sorry but you’ve got to call a spade a spade) and going completely gaga when they started talking about the people in the landscape. What this could do for conservation models is only a guess but one that kept me up when I couldn’t sleep that night. I for one have so many memories of what it was like living with the hill tribes in Thailand as a child that continue to give me a sense of freedom as an adult that I often wonder what it would be like for more people to be able to share in this type of experience. Of course believe it or not in the 80′s the only thing the tribes really wanted from my family was medicine for the chiefs daughter who’s skin had become infected with something that could only be treated with antibiotics. At that time the cost was high for an essentially migratory people – who had existed before the borders of China, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand rose up – that still traded with beads rather than coins. For this basic penicilin treatment they would had to leave all their traditions behind and set themselves on the path to become Thai citizens and urban dwellers. Dear Le Pastur certainly would have been surprised by the social and political implications of his science.

Back to the experiments at hand, hopefully this map making will help refine my creative process, that is only conjecture. If anything it will have been a test to see how savvy a gardener I was before I got started. When I think about garden history aesthetic changes are a fascinating thing.  I’m looking forward to seeing how a design model or two unfolds based on these explorations. I’d certainly love to check out some of Jekyll and Lutyens garden plans at the UC Berkley archives some time. When I think of any great designer like Jeckle or our own dear Olmstead, or any plantsman for that matter – today we might look to Chatto or Oudolf since we have no real American equivalent – you can see how important their plant bent early on was. There is something greater informing their choices than we might try to quantify or capture with discourse on design, yet I will say it looks a little like faith.

Leave a Reply