When planning a garden, it is natural to begin with a mental image. I remember my father drawing his garden with great precision before planting. Those drawings were not so much about what we would plant as they were about how the garden would look from the yard and from the other side of the fence.
We lived in a suburban area and our backyard sat along the edge of a public park. My father took great pride in his garden and the hoooo’s! and haaaa’s! of neighbors who admired the visual effect of flowers and cucumbers, the semi-circular standing ovation of the tomato plants, the boomerang shape of the patch and the paths that meandered between the vegetables. Truly, it was tastefully done.
The front row of plantings, along the inside edge of the boomerang if you will, was narrow. A path ran along its inner edge and separated it from a much wider row of vegetables of all sorts. I can think of only one flaw to the design, which for some reason persisted from one year to the next: One had to walk all around the garden to get to the tomato plants on the “outer edge of the boomerang” because not a single path, however artistically pleasing to the eye, would lead to them.
When our father was not looking, we’d cheat and carefully step between the cucumbers to get to the tomatoes. The cucumbers were the centerpiece, always. Our crops, I must admit, were abundant and as busy as she was with a full-time career, I can remember the pure delight of eating my mother’s out-of-this-world preserves and canned beans. She even made her own ketchup.
My father spent weekends cultivating the patch, watering – “never when the sun is out,” he would instruct – or weeding. It was his garden patch; his artistic expression. I don’t know if weed mats existed in the 1960′s. We did a lot of weeding. I hated killing plants for the sake of beauty. In the fall, we’d collect leaves in giant bags and empty them over the entire surface of the garden. Then, one year, all of a sudden, it was too much trouble. The garden faded away into the ground. Grass took over. The last time I saw the yard, a couple of years ago, you could still make out the outline of the boomerang under the freshly mowed grass.
In hindsight, I realize how much gardening is a matter of personal taste, beliefs and perspective, and how sticking to one’s perception may not be in line with what nature has in mind. By nature I also mean human nature. Children played in the park, causing stray balls and Frisbees to land in the garden. This made my father furious, yet it was inevitable, the garden sat about two feet away from the park and the fence was not high enough to prevent the intrusions.
I remember what I have called the standing ovation of tomatoes in the back of the garden. This provided a spectacular backdrop seen from our lawn, where we seldom sat interestingly enough. The tomatoes were staked in such a way that they marked the outer angle of the boomerang, yet revealed the rest of the garden to passers-by as they progressed forward on the park path in one direction, and allowed full view from the opposite direction. It was as though my father had meant to create a set on a stage.
But the garden is the sacred place of the gardener. If passers-by cannot see the entire garden from where they stand, then there is only one logical solution and it does not involve designing the garden so they get the best view. The only solution is to invite passers-by to come around and sit with you for a while.
I began writing an article I thought would be about why we should sit to garden. In searching for data to support this topic, I came upon several articles about gardening for physically challenged individuals. In an instant, I realized that most gardens are planned from a standing position, from a particular angle, perhaps even while admiring the possibilities from a second-floor window.
We know we want carrots, cucumbers, pansies and string beans. We know exactly where we’ll set up the garden patch. We dream of afternoons spent canning and putting away the harvest. It takes time to learn to do a truly functional garden. It takes time because it is so difficult to think of the beauty and bounty of a garden in terms of precise logistics. Will we use a weed mat? Will we draw water from a hose or a rain barrel? How far is the water source? Maybe the corner of the yard is the perfect spot for a spectacular view, but will you find enjoyment in the project if you spend more time dragging tools to it than actually digging your hands in the soil? And what if you have a bad back?
Most of all, gardening requires tools and space, thus perhaps the most important thing to consider is how you are going to move things around the garden and whether the design you have in mind is likely to provide an enjoyable gardening experience in addition to providing sustenance and beauty.
In a sense, put yourself in your body’s gardening shoes. “Here, tired back of mine, this is how I think our garden should look. Do you think you can handle this?” Imagine moving around the garden and the ways in which you might twist and bend to accomplish the necessary tasks. If your first thought is “Ouch?” be willing to change your plan. A garden is not a set on a stage; but it is a stage where all senses and surroundings come into play.