Finding Your Own Style

The ideal garden is a place in which nature can revel within an artistically arranged design. Every garden can benefit from having a few formal aspects or well-defined boundaries—a few straight lines, a spiral or a square, a triangle, or a circle. Vita Sackville West once said that above all she wanted her garden to have the greatest degree of formal design combined with the greatest degree of informality of planting. A remarkable atmosphere results when people create a formal design and then allow plants to run wild in it. Geometric shapes with straight or curved lines are clean and cheerful, but their sharp edges need to be softened, and the juxtaposition of formal shapes, elegantly arranged, and then extravagantly overgrown can take one’s breath away. So when a plant in full bloom fell across the edge of a path, Vita let it lie there untouched until it had finished blooming.  She would never do what one sees done in California almost daily. Last week I drove past a crew of hired gardeners next to a road, while they were cutting off all the heavenly blue blooms of a Pride of Madeira (Echium candicans) in full bloom and slicing the plant’s gracefully flowing foliage into a square block. These kinds of maintenance problems are partially caused by putting the wrong plant in the wrong place. If you must destroy a specimen’s natural beauty to make room for a path, for heaven’s  sakes plant something smaller.

garden photo

Photo by satguru

During the last few thousand years, in such places as China, Egypt, Persia, South America, India, and Europe there have been many eras when great gardens have been laid out and planted by the rich and powerful, but few times in history when, like now, almost every household boasts a small garden. Virtually every suburban home-owner today wants some kind of garden, but not everyone wishes to be involved with doing the gardening, and if one doesn’t like the process, why do it? Far better to hire someone else and spend one’s precious leisure time doing something one enjoys. Gardening is a hobby for those who love it. Those who don’t should take up golf or cooking or fishing or whatever else catches their fancy. Whenever someone says to me “Isn’t it a lot of work?” I know that person is not a born gardener.

Most things that are fun take time to learn and work to accomplish, but if one loves the process it’s not work; it’s play. The true gardener loves every step from the choice and cultivation of plants through their care. The very smells of moist black earth, old clay pots, and pungent leaves mean happiness. When I was young I often felt the most intense excitement while working in the garden and thinking ahead to what my project would look like in the end. It’s the same feeling that a painter may experience when painting or a writer when writing. The magic ingredient that can make hard work enjoyable is the inner vision of a good result. Planting seeds wouldn’t be any fun if we didn’t trust that they were going to coming up, but in return for each completed task, plants repay us many times over. The satisfying thing about gardening is that it’s filled with thousands of varied and pleasing rewards. When we plant a bed or finish building a wall, the sight of the improvement we’ve made is ample reward. And all the tips of plant care we pick up and use pay off, some within months and others within a few days. Deadhead a clump of annuals, and they continue flowering. Cut back a wisteria twiner to two buds, and it sports a bloom. Pour a kettle of boiling water down a row of parsley seeds right after planting, and they spring up in three days. Experiences like these can turn confirmed pessimists into optimists and make gardening a passion never to be given up by those who love it as long as strength and hope remain.

But before succumbing wholly to the passion of gardening, it’s necessary to define one’s practical needs. How does the space need to perform? And in what way might our needs change through the years? When the family is young we might want to create an outdoor space where our children or later grandchildren can play their games of imagination, perhaps with swings and slides, a tree house, a play house, or paths for tricycles. Other times the desire is to make outdoor rooms for entertaining, a central swimming pool perhaps, with places where people can gather, with comfortable furniture, fireplaces, and barbeques. Some folks love growing vegetables, or an orchard of deciduous or tropical fruits. Others desire a collection of plants, a sort of botanic garden. In this case it might not matter how the plants are arranged or if the paths go anywhere other than providing a way to get around and see the plant collection. I have friends who have an almost unquenchable desire for what’s new. They want to find and grow everything they can squash into every inch of available space, and the more exotic and rare a plant is, the greater their love for it. Most wonderful to them is the joy of finding a new plant that no one else knows and no one else grows.

When choosing a garden style, it’s well to remember that the style of the garden needs to go with the style of the house or it may seem grating and inharmonious. The style of the garden also needs to be sufficiently practical to fit one’s needs. For example a garden of hard surfaces, completely planted cacti won’t be practical for raising small children. Beyond these two limitations, in California, any style goes. Travelers create gardens to remind themselves of beloved places, immigrants fashion gardens reminiscent of countries where they were born. There are gardens made of nothing but seashells and others of fence-to-fence topiary. On the same block you can see a blousy English garden rubbing elbows with the austere all-green Japanese scheme. A South Seas paradise threatens to consume the drought-resistant, Spanish-style succulent garden next door. It’s all a matter of what makes you happy, and the very first step in creating a garden is to discover just what that is. I know of no other place where the choices of style are so many and varied as they are here in California.

I went on a garden tour the other day with two friends and one of them remarked to me, “I get so fed up when I hear people say ‘my garden is a Provencal garden, or it’s an Italian garden.’ Not all gardens in Provence are good ones, and many Italian gardens are a total mess! Why can’t gardeners say ‘This is a California garden!’” To some extent I agree with her, but not totally. I do agree that Californians, and Americans in general, tend to be too modest about their gardens not realizing what wonderful creations they have made. When Penelope Hobhouse was lecturing in Southern California a few years ago, she stayed with me in my house. In the course of one conversation Penny remarked how many outstanding gardens she has seen in the United States yet the owners often say ‘This is an English garden.’ “Americans aren’t yet quite sure of their garden talent,” she said, “but I have seen many great gardens in America that are every bit as good as English ones.”

But on the other hand, there is nothing wrong with imitating something good and worthwhile. The greatest gardens, both ancient and modern, always contain unique features you can’t see anywhere else, but some very good gardens have come about through taking inspiration from great landscapes that embody imaginative and original ideas. The memory of a marvelous foreign locale might suggest a way to frame a view. Handsome pots from Italy or Crete can set a tone. Olive trees and lavender remind us of the South of France. In my own garden I like to use natural materials such as bamboo and twigs cut out of the shrubbery for plant supports, but I got the idea while traveling in England and seeing the marvelous trellises that gardeners make there out of willow. The most important ingredient is creating a place that pleases oneself. By following your own heart and not caring too much about what other people think it’s quite likely you’ll end up pleasing the people whose opinion really counts.

Travel has influenced the style of American gardens since the 18th century, but since the 1950’s nothing has done more than color photography and printing to spread various styles of gardening and influence public taste. By studying photographs in the best magazines and books and by going on tours one can gradually develop educated taste and see what works and what doesn’t, what one likes and what one detests. One can look for ideas to adapt to one’s own space, see how other gardeners have terraced banks, or put in steps and paths and what plants they have chosen. For a gardener going on a garden tour is like visiting an art museum for a painter. Artists study the paintings to see how another painter got his effect, and gardeners do the same.

When people come to my garden they often say it is an English garden, but to me it’s not at all like an English garden. Like my friend who went with me on the garden tour last week, I want to demure, “It’s a California garden.” But if I wanted to honor the source of my inspiration, I would say it was California/Mediterranean, or perhaps French, since many French home gardens are thickly planted and more relaxed than English gardens.  I try to grow only those plants well adapted to our Mediterranean climate of plentiful sunshine, winter rains, and dry summers. To survive in the basic landscape of my garden, a plant has to be willing to go dry at times and not curl up and die. One thinks of the Mediterranean gardens one sees in Spain or Italy that are usually sparsely planted with many open spaces. I have open spaces in my garden also, but the beds are thickly planted, and I don’t like bare ground to show. To me, bare soil in a flowerbed is like a smile with a few missing teeth. If ever there is a patch of ground in my garden with no plant growing in it, I cover it with mulch. Years ago, I preached mulch with such vigor that one of our TV anchor-persons suffered a slip of the lip, “And now to show us how to plant potatoes,” she announced, “here comes Pat Mulch!” Today I’m beginning to temper these ideas because of concern for beneficials. I now leave some bare patches here and there in my garden because native bees need bare soil for survival.

Attention to details, such as the use of natural materials or allowing no bare ground, leads gradually to the development of an ideal or philosophy in gardening that goes beyond style. It could apply to any style or any climate just as Vita Sackville-West’s ideal of formal design with informal planting could apply to any strong design having formal aspects, including many unique modern gardens. My own ideal is to create a garden with a romantic atmosphere and then to live in it as much as possible. You could also call it a paradise garden, a “Garden of Eden.” But what do I mean by romantic? Here are some of the words I found in more than one dictionary to describe romance: “imagination, love, idealization, wafting one to another time or place, excitement,” and phrases such as: “adventure of the kind found in romantic literature, a romantic quality or spirit, to be fanciful or imaginative in thinking or talking, having some aspects of an imagined, though unseen reality, adventurous, idealistic, passionate, visionary, emphasis on feeling and originality, a suitable setting for love.”

I’ve known people who became so passionate about gardening, that it made them almost as happy as falling in love. Projecting one’s own feelings onto the garden is similar to an artist projecting feelings onto a painting or a lover onto a beloved person, and in return one’s own love is reflected back. But though gardening may become an obsession, it’s also very practical; it’s not all ideals and design, it’s mulch and it’s pea stakes. How does one actually carry out the plan and turn this nebulous idea of romance in the garden and romancing the garden into concrete reality without allowing the garden to completely consume or worry us?  It’s meant to provide happiness, after all, not stress. And how can anyone say what is good taste and what is not? Two people might look at the same landscape and one will like it and the other won’t.  Good taste in garden planting and design is one of those qualities about which we say, “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it if I see it.”


  1. Thankful Gardener

    No questions here, or maybe a million questions some other time. I just want to thank you for your Southern California Gardening books. At this point, I have read them and re-read them so many times that I just pick them up now and then and wander around in them. They remind me of the gardeners in my family, casually dishing out crucial bits of advice on gardening in California that work whether the garden is in Santa Barbara or San Franciso or Morro Bay, advice that made gardening here a joy for me and baffled so many friends who had grown up gardening elsewhere. So thanks for all your help and thanks for putting it all down and sharing it with everyone who didn’t have a Grandmother Lila or a Great Aunt Ethel to guide them and thanks for bringing them back to me in your words.

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