Sunday, January 28, 2007
The garden critique
There is a fascinating post over at Garden Rant about an Egyptian Islamic scholar, Sayyid Qutb, who lived in the small town of Greeley, Colorado for six months in 1949, observed American life first-hand, hated what he saw, and went on to become one of the major inspirations for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. An article in 5280 magazine (Denver's city mag) details Qutb's reactions to the lifestyles of the Greeleyites, including their grim dedication to rigorously-manicured lawns and flower plots. This was referred to in the post as "bad gardening."
Many of the comments that followed defended the citizens of Greeley, opining that if neat lawns and hedges are what an individual gardener wants, who's to say it's bad? Indeed, any criticism of almost any garden practice (including mine of painting garden furniture to match flowers) often gets this reaction. "If it makes you happy, that's all that matters," is the general view of many in the gardening blogging world.
It's a view that—up to a point—I have no problem with; indeed, anyone is free to do almost anything they want in their garden. And I'm equally free to express my opinion of it. I'm a critic (though professionally more an art critic than a garden critic). If I see a front yard characterized by hedges painfully shaped into little boxes and regimented annuals, or a back garden so filled with windmills, gazing balls, and cowboy silhouettes that you can't see the flowers, I'm not thinking, "How nice. I'm sure that makes them happy." There is good and bad gardening, and I think blogs like this are as good a place to debate those categories as any, particularly since we don't see much real garden criticism in the maintream press.
Famous gardens like the one shown above (Hestercombe, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and planted by Gertrude Jekyll) took planning, discipline, and hard work. Though the plantings often look exuberantly full, even wild (this is what I love about English gardens), they're the result of vigorous upkeep and adherence to the original design. You really can't do anything you want. There are standards; there is good and there is bad.
Of course, I can't emulate a Jekyll or Sackville-West garden. But what I do appreciate about these gardens is that the plants are framed and enhanced by the design and the plants are what you look at. Too often in American gardens, plants are getting engulfed in a wave of objects and "garden room" elements. My goal this year is to get rid of as much junk as I can and see how I can best bring the plants back to the fore.