GARDEN THERAPY: Man Versus Nature – What is a garden anyway? – January 2018

By Mel Bellar

This is the time of year when it is hardest for me to get excited about writing a garden column. After finally finishing (or not!) all of the tasks associated with the end of the season, I am inclined to wax on again about how much I love Winter or at best how much I appreciate Winter interest in the garden (hence the photo I took the other day of my garden.) Winter is a form of garden therapy, at least for me. I need this contrast to deeply appreciate nature’s full cycle. For the garden-obsessed and landscape professionals it is nature’s way of saying “take a break,” “relax,” “do some indoor stuff and recharge your batteries.” I know this is not the same for everyone and plenty of folks feel deprived and depressed when the days get short and dark. If you are one of those, maybe you should come work with me for a season and then you would learn to fully appreciate Winter!

So in lieu of being inspired to talk about seed catalogues or house plants, I am going to explore something that I often ponder: What is a garden anyway? This comes up for me because the term is used differently by people and in different contexts. It can get quite confusing. For instance, some of my colleagues refer to themselves as garden designers and I consider myself a landscape designer. To me garden design might imply something narrower and more confined than the creation of a functional and/or beautiful landscape confined only by property lines. On the other hand, I would never invite someone over to see my landscape, I would invite them to come see my garden, by which I mean my landscaped property (very confusing I know.)

Merriam Webster fails miserably by defining garden in its first definition as:  a:  plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated, b:  a rich well-cultivated region and c:  a container (such as a window box) planted with usually a variety of small plants. I am not even going to think about adding the second definition. It layers in the confusion of outdoor gathering places like beer gardens and large halls like Madison Square Garden. Merriam’s definition is hopelessly focused on plants, which would leave many Japanese and contemporary gardens out in the dark. Does that leave out moon gardens too J?

I actually like Wikipedia’s take on it much better: A garden is a planned space, usually outdoors, set aside for the display, cultivation and enjoyment of plants and other forms of nature. The garden can incorporate both natural and man-made materials. I am leaving out some of the second definition type stuff, but it goes on to say: Most gardens consist of a mix of natural and constructed elements, although even very ‘natural’ gardens are always an inherently artificial creation. You go Wikipedia!

My definition: A garden is a space in which man collaborates with nature to create an aesthetically pleasing, and/or productive, and functional result. My attempt may not be elegant, but the main points that I feel are important in distinguishing a garden from the wild, are the facts that it is planned, a collaboration with nature, and intended to look a certain way, evoke a feeling or produce food or something of value. I include the productive phrase because, clearly, we can’t call a not-so-attractive vegetable patch with black plastic row covers and a functional fence something other than a garden (a farmlette?). I insist on intentional because the leftover scars from construction or a least-resistance footpath to the door from the driveway does not make a garden even though it was created by man. The collaboration point has equal weight with the intentional in that nature with its fickle and uncontrollable force is definitely a part of any garden. The more collaboration and love that go into a garden the more garden-like it will feel.

I love the idea of taking a section of the wild and simply editing it to make it a garden. You can do this by pruning errant or dead branches to shape the trees and shrubs, cutting back or removing certain species (maybe invasive or maybe just not your cup or tea) to make a path or groupings more pleasing to the eye. This editing  affects which plants have an advantage in their pursuit to thrive. Certainly, any garden left unattended will return to its wild state in time. Even a garden that has no plants, containing just rocks and perhaps man-made materials,  will eventually deteriorate without intervention by man. So much for the no-maintenance garden so many folks ask for!  Maybe all plastic and stainless steel? Probably not.

I don’t really like the Britannica’s definition of gardening either but there is a really great paragraph in the section called The Nature of Gardening. I am going to end with that because it feels right to me: Gardening in its ornamental sense needs a certain level of civilization before it can flourish. Wherever that level has been attained, in all parts of the world and at all periods, people have made efforts to shape their environment into an attractive display. The instinct and even enthusiasm for gardening thus appear to arise from some primitive response to nature, engendering a wish to produce growth and harmony in a creative partnership with it.~ 

Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate Andes gardener