Garden whisperer

Highbush blueberry and the Bristol harborLast night Gail and I made a trek to Boston to hear a lecture given by Dan Pearson (co-sponsored by Arnold Arboretum and Trinity Church). If you don’t already know of Dan Pearson, he is one of the rock stars of the horticultural world – a garden designer from the UK who works around the world and has written for Gardens Illustrated, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times as well as a few books – most recently one called Spirit: Garden Inspiration. He spoke about a life-long fascination with the spirit of landscapes and has traveled the world to find the places that resonate for him (and would for any of us): Untouched places like a remote part of New Zealand where trees have grown on trees that have grown on trees that have grown on epiphytes that have grown on trees – for millennia; barely touched places like the ancient Druid altar of Dartmoor; places where nature intersects with human intervention – like the Moss Temple garden in Japan where nothing is extraneous and you must participate in a ritual chant before entering; and places entirely man-made like Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture.

Nothing Pearson said was particularly earth shattering – in fact, he’s not really into that sort of thing. His designs have a light touch because he’s not interested in making “indelible marks” on the landscape. He talked about how the landscape – our gardens – can be places that connect us to the earth – in the details, and in the passage of time. Landscapes can humble us and help clear our mind. He mentioned an annual walk he takes in southern Spain, where for 2 weeks he walks the same path (to a remote limestone cliff beach. Please.) and every day as his eyes become accustomed to the landscape, more and more details are revealed to him. I know that people visit (and re-visit) Blithewold for the solace of a comfort-zone connection to nature, and although it might not be Andalusia by any stretch, regular walks here – anywhere – can be every bit as meditative.Joe Pye Weed and the pond

Some of the places he’s been -and designed- were spare to the point of austere. But elegant and perfect in every way. Gail and I spent the train ride home talking about the mental toughness test we’d have to keep from embellishing some of these places. We, I think, focus a lot on long seasons of interest (more blooms, no waiting!) whereas he celebrates the ephemeral. – It seems difficult to reconcile being a plant junkie with a nature inspired design and an elegant touch. (But I suspect Pearson’s a bit of a junkie too – he just has more self-control perhaps.)

lichen on the Cornus masHe is so immersed in his work that by now it is – and maybe it always was – instinctual. When someone asked about his actual design process, Pearson said that it’s like when you meet someone for the first time, you know very quickly if you have things in common and whether or not a lasting relationship will follow. Same thing with a garden. He just knows it. I realize now that I have completely lost sight of the first impression I had of my own garden – before it was mine, which was a sublime feeling of being perfectly “at home”. That is what should whisper the changes I make there.

Do you look for or feel the spirit in places? – Where? Are you a garden whisperer?

7 thoughts on “Garden whisperer

  1. I cannot claim to be a ‘Garden Whisperer’ but my garden does whisper, and sometimes it screams at me. Mostly the whisper though. I wish I had heard him speak. You will have to tell me more. He seems to have inspired you.

    Layanee, He definitely got me thinking – not altogether clearly! I realized that I have been so impatient with my own garden – been shouting at it (“grow! grow! more!”) that I haven’t taken the time to really be inspired. -kris

  2. Personally, I find the most challenging thing about finding my garden’s spirit to be the fact that it lives in the modern world on a suburban lot. There’s an easy spirituality I see in wild places, quiet places, but those are usually places of solitude — how to bring a kind of spirituality to my front garden, near the driveway I share with a busy dentist’s office? It’s not something that’s come immediately, but I’m getting there.

    Andrew, Dan showed pictures of urban gardens too that were full of the spirit of nature so it must be possible… I struggle too with un-pretty (OK, ugly) borrowed views and harsh edges and find myself fighting against them (shouting). But maybe it would be better to think of it as trying to fit the garden like a little jewel into the box of the neighborhood. And like Kathy says (see below) gardens are very different kinds of spaces than landscapes… -kris

  3. OMG, I would have loved to go to that lecture. I’ve always had a strong affinity for wild woodland places, and I’ve tried to imbue my shade garden with some of that spirit. As for the sunnier parts of the garden, I’m still working on figuring out what their spirit is.

    MMD, You might love his book… It’s on my list to buy now – I wish I hadn’t run for the early train instead that night! -kris

  4. What an interesting thought… No, my garden doesn’t whisper to me, but then, I’ve got a lot of other things happening at the moment, and it’s on the back burner.

    Chookie, I think there are different times when our gardens call to us and we to them – and I think it’s hardly ever in the heat of summer!

  5. Really relate to the garden whispering. Love the idea. Especially now when all is so quiet out there. Let the garden tell you what it wants to be? Have to be wary or around here it will turn into Sleeping Beauty’s forest.

    The boxwood and the lindens are definitely whispering ” thank you” for loving them. I remember the day I first discovered this place ours. I was hooked immediately by a voice that said “take care of me”. Overgrown, shabby and leaf-strewn though it was, my heart beat faster. Here we are over thirty years later and I still hear that voice.

    Ginny, It seems like you and your garden were made for each other – soul mates who finish each other’s sentences. -kris

  6. A plot of annual flowers has a childlike charm, but will never have the sacred character of a garden with ancient trees, with carpets of naturalized plants, with the annual appearances of ephemeral bulbs, which present themselves as a once a year gift.

    As gardeners, we are always trying to improve on nature’s beauty, but our best efforts usually happen when we act as careful editors. How lucky we are when we inherit a garden already begun, one with established trees and stone walls, for this garden has the benefit that only age can offer.

    I’ve always thought of a garden and a landscape as two different types of space. I think of a garden as a somewhat protected place ( it’s derived from a French or Latin word meaning: to enclose or protect). A landscape is a much larger open space, with views of what lies beyond. Each space will have a different voice whispering to you. Of course a landscape can harbor hidden gardens… and that is always most interesting.

    Well said, Kathy – all so true. And it (garden v. landscape) is a really important distinction to make – and one we (sub)urban gardeners should remember. (And maybe cut ourselves a break!) -kris

  7. Lucky you & Gail! What an interesting thought you’ve put out there. My experiences in the wild are most often whisperish, and I feel a communion often (which is why I could never be an all-out city girl), but in my short garden career, I feel like I’m having a conversation in 1st-year Spanish with Pablo Neruda.

    Too funny, Lynn! I say if you’ve got that poet in your garden, just listen – and let him eat some tomatoes. -kris

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