This just in: a month of rain and complete neglect produces a garden of remarkable diversity, with the invited and the uninvited flourishing in the front yard of our condo building. The strip between sidewalk and street was knee deep with plants I had never seen before. Where did they all come from? Wind, squirrels, dogs—ooo, don’t get me started on that—and of course the little brown birds. They have their own ideas about what I should be growing.
I finally carved out some time one morning last week to tame the mess. For a full hour and a half with trowel in one hand and one glove on the other, like an earthy Michael Jackson, I extirpated one mysterious interloper after another. Every time I weed, though, I contemplate my plant biases. Why should I exile one plant and favor another? Some of them are pretty objectionable, like the ironically named Tree of Heaven, which sinks to high heaven, but what did a dandelion ever do to me? In amongst the overgrowth was a single pink petunia, courtesy of the sparrows no doubt. So I carefully pulled that one and replanted it in a more appropriate position. The cute always get special treatment.
I’m a pragmatic gardener. Much as I tell myself that “weed” is just a cultural construct I still yank offending volunteers, despite there clear Darwinian achievements. Volunteers, like the petunia, are welcome to stay if they proved their commitment by thriving on their own. I like a plant that’s self-reliant. I’ve also learned that plants that require heroic measures probably don’t have a place in my garden. The lessons of Xeriscaping really stuck with me. The basic principle is that plants appropriate to a given location won’t whine constantly for water and nutrients. Nobody likes a whiner. And like so many green strategies, a Xeriscape garden takes less labor (ahhh), less water, less money, and therefore less energy. But I didn’t start out strategically to plant such a garden. For years I tinkered, failed, coddled my garden and developed unhealthy envy of the gardens of others. I think there’s a Commandment about that. There’s also a metaphor in there. How we garden, if we garden, says a lot about how we do other things.
If your process were a garden, what kind of garden would it be? I wish I could take credit for that wonderful question, but I can’t. A writer in London asked it of a group of other writers, so of course I had to ask the students as we sat on the grass in Bloomsbury Square. The answers of two students, one from art, one from science, were thought-provoking and laid out the stark contrast between their worlds. The Scientist said his wouldn’t be much of a garden at all because he would plant only one thing at a time. He would measure the water, the sun, the soil composition, and see how it fared at the end of the growing season. He had to admit the futility of such a pursuit, but confessed that controlling variables was what his garden, his process, was all about. Unfortunately, in this way he would never actually have a garden, only a frustratingly uncontrollable laboratory. The Artist described a garden that was already there, not one she herself had made. It presented itself to her in the guise of an overgrown jungle, full of places to be discovered, vines to swing on, and branches to climb. She didn’t know how it got there, or even where “there” was. It existed as a fertile gift to the body and the imagination. She couldn’t take credit for it, couldn’t own, it and certainly couldn’t control it. Hers was more like Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden where all things were possible to those willing to be open to the possibilities. Most of us probably fall somewhere between those two extremes.
Architects and planners, whatever their personal processes, know that the real world in which we operate probably shouldn’t be wiped clean and begun again under controlled conditions. That was the fallacy of the urban renewal, but sometimes catastrophe does it for us. I began and ended my month in London at the Barbican Center, first at the exhibition of Le Corbusier’s work and then at Radical Nature. The Barbican complex itself challenges glib judgments on the controlled experiment of Modernist post-war planning, but it also challenges our preconceptions of garden. Ivy-covered modernism? Green brutalism? Concrete jungle? The city is a garden and city-making is gardening: it requires constant care, should be suited to its situation so it doesn’t whine for extra resources, takes generations of cultivation, and requires a real sensitivity to sort out the weeds from the volunteer pink petunias. Oh, and it needs sparrows.