But Is It a Garden?

In this recent post recent post, my good friend and fellow blogger said the following:

"It takes an aesthetic adjustment to see the beauty in "scrub." But for me it certainly is worth twiddling the knobs."

And that really made my whiskers tremble just a bit, because it brought up a question that the garden selection committee of the Going Native Garden Tour has to confront frequently during garden evaluations. What are the requirements for a garden worth including in the tour.

We actually have fairly clear rules for acceptance on the tour:
  • More than 50% native plants. 
  • No invasive plants.
  • Environmentally friendly garden practices.
  • Attractive design.

We are fortunate to always have at least one designer in the committee of three that visits gardens that applied. But I personally believe that we all know good design when we see it. A beautiful garden, whether with native plants or not, should not require an aesthetic adjustment.

I make a distinction between yards in which plants are haphazardly placed, taken care of by a mow and blow crew (or not at all) and gardens (below is a garden, even if the photo doesn't quite do it justice).

In a garden, plants are selected carefully. The garden includes plants with differently shaped leaves and different height, and the plants are placed in a pleasing manner. Different garden styles might make different placements more pleasing. In a formal garden, symmetry is key while a natural garden might group plants in threes and fives. The garden might include paths, birdbaths, art, seating areas, water features, or otherwise interest and draw in the visitor.

"Come closer," the garden says. "Enjoy! Sights, sounds, smells, it's all waiting for you!"

Of course, deciding which gardens to accept is not always easy. Sometimes we encounter a garden where the designer had specified 75% native plants and the installer substituted non-natives such as Mediterranean plants for half of those plants. We cannot accept that garden. Sometimes we encounter a garden that is truly overgrown and weedy. We might talk to the owner and find out whether they can remedy the problem to have something a little more like this on tour day.

For the most part, though, the wonderful people who are willing to have their garden on garden tour care deeply about gardening and about native plants. They are excited about the opportunity to showcase native plants in an attractive setting, and they know that aesthetically appealing native gardens are essential for inspiring more people to consider including natives in their own gardens.

Interestingly, Ms. Country Mouse's own garden would certainly be accepted on tour. Attractive bird baths, placed just so. Plants in containers around the pool, a front entrance area (shown below) with native flowering perennials, some trellised plants, a flagstone porch, and a comfortable place to sit.

Then the fun mercat guarding the small Victorian fence. There are also flagstone paths, hummingbird feeders, and birdhouses, all saying "A Gardener Lives Here!"

Which brings me to the final ingredient of a garden: The gardener herself, taking care of the plants or getting qualified help, and enjoying the garden and all creatures that visit. (No aesthetic adjustment required).


Christine said…
Yes! A native garden should need no visual adjustments! Sounds like you're ramping up to garden tour day- can't wait to hear more about the process!
Anonymous said…
I agree with your criteria and no need for visual adjustments. Natives can be beautiful and not weedy as so many unfamiliar presume.
Anonymous said…
Hmm . . . I'm not so sure I agree with the aesthetic concept you seem to be promoting here. Looking through the photos you selected to include in this post, I see obvious evidence that the plants in most of the photos were planted by humans. The most extreme example of this is the photo in which the clumping grasses are all lined up along the pathway, evenly spaced and identically sized, with lots of exposed mulch in between. This is the way gardens do tend to look when first planted. But is it the goal for how a garden ultimately should look? To me it isn't. I want my native plants to fill up the entire space, reseed, and become a self-sustaining plant community. To me, the very first picture in this post - the "scrub" picture - epitomizes that goal more than most of the other photos do.

There are exceptions: in particular, the photos of Country Mouse's garden show well-established plants that fill up their space and do appear to have formed a healthy, self-sustaining plant community. And I can agree that the pictures of her garden do look prettier than the picture of scrub. But I think I would prefer the scrub to some of the more newly planted gardens. I look at all that exposed mulch between the plants and see the ton of weeding that those plants are going to require for years before they become anywhere near as independent and self-sustaining as the scrub is. It's all very well to recognize that gardens inevitably look obviously human-planted in the beginning, and even to recognize that some (formal or semi-formal) gardeners are going to want their gardens to continue to look obviously human-planted forever. But I think we should also recognize the beauty of a wilder (and perhaps healthier for the plants) aesthetic, and celebrate that as being an at least equally worthy goal for a gardener to attempt to recreate.
Country Mouse said…
I was only saying that to like "scrub" (a pejorative term used by those who don't like it) can require an aesthetic adjustment, which usually is accompanied by an increased empathy with and appreciation for nature and all her mysterious processes. I know several people who think chaparral is what you have to remove in order to put in a beautiful garden. They are the ones I'm talking about in regards to the knob twiddling.

I would call the dune habitat garden in the photo at the top of the post a restoration. As QBC says, there is a continuum of native gardening bliss, from the creation of total new environments to the simple cleansing of what does not belong in an already native environment.

I also have remarked on that negative cliche of native gardens: a lot of mulch with little dabs of plants that (hopefully) will eventually fill in. My pool garden looks that way right now - it's a new garden and you gotta start somewhere. Ms Town Mouse's teemingly lovely garden it is definitely not, at this point. Follow up plantings (according to the aesthetic of the garden) help to fill things out. I'm sure there are articles and books on this topic of further developing a young native garden, though I'm not sure I've read any. I have started planting some of the madia, heuchera and eriogonum seedlings around the pool garden to see how they'll do.
Town Mouse said…
Good! That was exactly the discussion I hoped to stimulate. Queerbychoice, maybe you have a point. Maybe the all lined up approach to planting one sees recently is an aberration. But even for the more naturalistic gardens, I like to see a combination of different types of plants, plus seating, paths, maybe a water feature.

Keep those comments coming!
Byddi - We didn't come here for the grass... said…
For me a garden has to have an aesthetic quality. However, if it doesn't that's not to say it's not a garden. Conversely, some people call a lawn with a hedge a garden - although well manicured and stringently presented it not a garden to me. It's all a matter of taste. A king of gardening equivalent to art!
Christine said…
I think taking a hike and seeing natives in their natural habitat is a miraculous experience. However, I feel that in an urban setting, a human touch is necessary to create a space for the people living there. In the parks, we are only visitors, but in our gardens we are negotiating with our environment. I think it's important to abstract what we see in nature- it's part of how we process the world around us. Natives allow us to do that responsibly in terms of water usage, habitat, etc. Just because a plant is native does not mean our gardens need to look like the hills around us. (Although if that's your aesthetic, go right ahead!). We all have our little nitpicks about garden design- that's what makes it fun and varying! I think it's important, however to realize that natives can be used like any other plant in a designed garden and is adaptable to more styles than "wild."
This is an issue I frequently think about--it seems as though it's a question of intention, but also of time: in spring my garden looks like a garden. By fall, "informal" is a charitable word for what looks like a mess but functions well.

At that point I often wonder if I really am a gardener. Luckily snow covers many sins.
Marie Theron said…
Oh my, how clever of one of my blog followers to show me your blog! I will have to catch up with reading it all! I blog in faraway Cape Town and my newest post was called: "In Defense of Fynbos" where I sing the praises of natural shrub using my paintings to demonstrate the point. I have seen one of the lovely natural Californian gardens in Morrow on the Central Coast. Thanks for promoting this wonderful cause! http://artistmarietheron.blogspot.com/
Thanks for this! It sounds like my garden may be on an urban farm tour this spring and I've been focusing hard on the food. I think I'll take a little extra time planning what my ornamentals (especially the native plants) will look like as well.