Is gardening an art?
By Jill Severn
Flower gardens have moments of perfection – sometimes even weeks – but no garden is perfect throughout the growing season. What blooms in spring fades quickly at the end of May. What blooms in June ends in July. Gaps appear in the summer borders and moments of perfection pass.
Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932), addressed the transitory nature of garden perfection by having separate gardens for spring, for the transition from spring to summer, for the month of June, for July and August, and a for September. Plus, she had what the British call a “vegetable garden,” where she grew every vegetable you can imagine.
In each of her flower gardens, she grew plants that bloomed together, were color coordinated and, of course, arranged according to height.
She owned 15 acres, 5 of which were devoted to these gardens. The rest was wooded, and there she and her staff planted carpets of flower bulbs, ferns and other delicacies.
In addition to money, she had other advantages: She was educated at her father’s lap in botany and other sciences. She was an art school graduate with expertise in color theory and architecture. She was part of the growing Arts and Crafts movement, a talented and famous potter, craftswoman and garden writer. She never married or had children, so her devotion to gardening, writing, and crafts was undistracted.
Luckily, she left helpful advice for those of us without her talent or resources. Some of them relate to specific tricks: for example, she grew various flowers in pots, so that when a space opened up in a summer border where a plant had finished flowering, she could dive in a pot of lilies about to bloom to fill the gap.
Another was to plant annuals – trailing nasturtiums for example – to grow on a plant like a perennial baby’s breath so that when it finished flowering it would become a support structure for the nasturtiums. . She also succeeded in making fragrant white sweet peas climb on the stems of large blooming delphiniums.
In her numerous articles and books, she defended the sensitivity of an artist. Her goal, she writes, was “to use plants to make beautiful pictures; and that, while delighting our eyes, they must always lead those eyes to a higher criticism; to a state of mind and artistic conscience that will not tolerate the wrong or careless combination of any kind of misuse of plants, but in which it becomes a point of honor to always seek the best.
“It is precisely in the way of doing that lies all the difference between banal gardening and gardening which can rightly claim the rank of art… It is to be always watching, noting and to do, and to get in the meantime into the closest acquaintance. and sympathy for things that grow.
She acknowledges that this is a very high standard. “There have been many failures,” she writes, “but every once in a while I am rewarded with some measure of success. Yet as the critical faculty becomes more acute, the standard of purpose also rises; and year after year the desired point always seems to elude realization.
That’s when I had to close the book for a while. His admirable ambition began to look like a recipe for endless discontent.
It might make more sense for the typical gardener – people with jobs, children, a house to clean, a dinner to cook, or other obligations and expenses – to settle for a garden that is not not art, but maybe just art.
What we all need is a garden that provides an enjoyable pastime, a partnership with nature, and a pleasant place to spend time with friends and family.
Yet in the same way it’s fun to fantasize about what we’d do if we won the lottery, it’s fun to fantasize about – and be inspired by – a gardener who won the lottery at birth.
Jill Severn writes from her home in Olympia, where she grows vegetables, flowers and a small flock of chickens. She loves conversations between gardeners. Start one by emailing her at [email protected]