“Trust thyself–every heart vibrates to that iron string.”–Emerson
I was walking the dog this morning by the community gardens, happily situated in a corner of our city’s equestrian park, thus ensuring an unending supply of fertilizer—now that was some thoughtful planning!—and I started noticing how much variety there was in the beds. If you’d asked me, I’d have said I would have expected to see vegetables planted in the beds, because I’ve always held this unsupported-by-research notion that people rent beds in community gardens to supplement their food supply.
And vegetables there were a-plenty; as you would imagine at this time of year, tomatoes had escaped their cages and were snaking out the sides, dripping fruit; all kinds of squash and pumpkins were peeking out from under their giant leaves. But there were also beds of nothing but sunflowers (this may or may not have been intentional; if you’ve ever grown sunflowers, you know they are one garden gift that keeps on giving); there were beds of solid blooming rosebushes; there was a bed with a bumper crop of (go figure) amaranth.
Some beds were quite artistic, with arches woven of branches and vines; there were white picket fences; there was a space enclosed by what appeared to be laminated pieces of a former desk. No two beds were alike in either intent, function, or appearance.
And this brings me to my point (finally! you think), which is that a garden is living art, and art is intensely personal in nature. To adapt the old saying about art, you may not know garden design, but you know what you like. And that should be where you start, regardless of any other advice you get about gardening sustainably.
If I could remember where I got this advice, I’d credit it–it may have been A Pattern Garden, by Valerie Easton, which to date is the only landscape design book I can absorb. But the advice was to write down a few words that describe the way you want your space to look and feel. So I wrote down: “Green, shady, secret, dappled, inviting.” And I held that thought in my head as I set about choosing plants and designing our layout.
A tremendous amount has been written (and filmed) about our houses as our archetypal selves; it’s been observed that we connect almost viscerally to houses that spark in us some memory of our early selves. I think the same is true for the space that surrounds the buildings we live in. We connect, not just visually, but through the heart, and so it’s important to keep the heart’s desires in mind when planning. You might not have a clear vision of your landscape design at the outset, but it’s worth a few minutes of quiet time to think about what your words would be, and write them down.
In case you’re wondering, I did indeed end up with a green, shady, dappled front yard space, with secret nooks and niches–and I think it’s very inviting.
And it was only when our friend Roberta remarked, “This reminds me of the mountains” that I realized I’d recreated the feel of the landscape of my youth in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Now, there’s not a single plant in our yard that could actually be found in Asheville, but it was possible, by keeping my word list in mind, to find California-friendly plants that would create the same feel.
So give it a try–put a few words down on paper; see what your heart wants to feel in your garden. Because “sustainable,” remember, works in many ways–the space you create should be one that will sustain you.