T SEEMS to me we are forever discussing the importance of enclosure, pavements, pools for fishes, places to sit. We are forever drumming, in this garden space, at the outer limits of architecture.
And yet it is clear, I guess, that my heart has never been very much with neat balances of stone and clipped ivy, and the great Renaissance gardens of Italy and France seem to me no gardens at all.
But a fellow of some wit likes to complain, when we occasionally meet, that I err in talking overmuch about plants and flowers which, as he says, nobody can grow in shady town gardens anyway.
Up to a point he is right. If the purpose of this space were to be immediately helpful to everybody, I should never have carried on about Ludlow's peony, the Ligtu alstroemerias, the 'Jelena' witch hazel, etc.
My friend is reasonable, and I do not even say he is wrong; only that we have different notions what a garden is for. We are agreed it should be pictorially satisfying, should have reflections on water, should have places to sit and dry places to walk.
We agree on the importance of leaf texture and color, the drama of contrast, in materials and mass, and especially we agree there should be an overall harmony.
But I say a garden could be all that and still be a sharp disappointment to the gardener.
There must be more than a picture, more than an esthetic combination of elements.
There must also be (and here we part company) a richness and profusion of life that runs its many cycles -- there is one cycle for an iris, another for an oak, another for a skunk cabbage -- within the general harmony.
For example: No garden should have been without snowdrops and such crocuses as C. ancyrensis and C. seiberi this past two weeks.
In a small town garden these plants, in these recent days, can hardly be said to do much for the general looks of the garden, and hardly contribute to the central serenity and balance.
Believe me, they do make a difference to the gardener's heart. To see them, sometimes giving off their faint orange or lavender glow beneath translucent snow, and then (once it melts) to sit there in complacent small hummocks of color, maybe no large individually than a thimble, and a clump no larger than a saucer; to see them so, when other things seem either dead or tardy, is an excitement for the gardener quite independent of architectural harmony or pictorial effect.
You will notice, in the account of the Creation and Eden, that the ideal situation for mankind was thought to be not an architectural or pictorial triumph but a "paradise" of "every" plant and animal. I have not found it feasible, in this imperfect world, to stock the garden with leopards and bears. One learns restraint.
It is all very well for the great harmony and blance and rightness to be maintained and achieved as paramount; but within it there need to be small Crocuses and similar similar small deer throughout the year.
In architecture, the Pyramids of Egypt are as impressive, when regarded as architectural pictures, as the church of Chartres. If esthetic wallop is the aim, then the massive geometric clean magnificence of the one works as well as the intricate light and color of the other.
But a garden, while it is architecture of a sort, goes beyond that mother of arts and presents us with life itself.
Thus men are more likely to have sacred gardens before (and long after) they have sacred buildings.
Now, symbols are all very well. In our town garden we may have one oak, or one dogwood, standing for the great forests of the world, and as much of those mysterious groves as we can manage.
I myself have a modest handful of irises, and since they are all I can manage now, they may stand for the thousands I love and would surely possess and live with if I could.
But they are more than stand-ins for missing spledors; they are also magnificent in themselves.
My 50 irises cannot accomplish the great garden effects of 10,000 irises. But they accomplish far more than 50 tenthousandths of that splendor.
They are valuable not only for the grandeur they may suggest (to one who knows and loves irises well in their tremendous range and diversity) but valuable also just as they are with nothing added to them beyond their own physical presence.
Once I tried to help somebody with a 12-by-14-foot garden, and we had so settle for giving most of the space to carefully cut stone pavement. But we also managed spring bulbs (daffodils, crocuses, hyacinths, tulips) and flowers (irrses, peonies, roses, clematis) and a thing or two for the fall (Japanese anemone, chrysanthemum, sternbergia) and for elegant foliage (boxwood, and the custy miller called 'White Diamond').
The trick, we thought, was not to make something merely pleasant to look at -- we could have done that with just yews and stone.
The real trick, we thought, was to work in so many realities of beauty, not merely symbols of it, and to do this without destroying the general harmony of so small a site.
The result, we thought, was as conventionally handsome and restful as any other 12-by-14-foot garden of the neighborhood, but in great addition to that, the people who made the garden (I merely suggested a few things, they made the decisions and did the work) had things to look at throughout the year.
They discovered the carefully chosen stone and fencing and verticals and horizontals and arcs were satifying throughout the year, as we had hopped they would be satisfying. But in addition they saw their daffodils come up, and the red snouts of the peony pushing through cold earth, and noticed the day lily leaves were handsome in April, quite apart from the glowers in July. And so on.
The rhythm of natural life was not merely symbolized in their small place, but could be observed and lived with there.
Now then. Would dandelions not do as well?
Yes. Except that all dandelions follow the same cycle of growth and decay.
And in an estate so vast as 12 by 14 feet, one can afford more richness and variety.
Tiny gardens, despite the hard limits set on the amount of plant life in them, at least are much easier to deal with than larger ones. Just as it is much easier to sing a perfect middle C than to sing the role of Sarastro.
But the principle is the same in both, to my mind: how best to have endless cycles going on, and plants of exceptional ornamental qualities in themselves, while at the same time presenting a general harmony and serenity.
My friend who says I go too far yapping about plants would warm of the dangers of the incidental parts overwhelming the peace of the garden as a whole. The sins of fuzziness, assertiveness, bits and blobs are real sins in a garden and he is aware of them.
So am I. No gardener ever suffered more -- paid more for his greed -- in demanding 500 clumps of iris and to hell with their effect for 47 weeks of the year.
But I think I have detected equal sins that are less rarely preached about: a lack of exuberance and richness, a failure to make the gardener jump up and down with excitement at repeated intervals through the year; a tendency toward sameness, as if one were to say, "Stop searching, there isn't any more than the things you see right now in front of you."
Also, a too easy yielding of variety to a few somewhat rigid rules, as if the tigers and polar bears should be uneasy since their tweeds never came from Orkeny.
Have we not all felt in gardens, sometimes, that the thing was a bit prime and timid and could stand a little thicker blood?
At the last, there is a difference of appoach between the intelligent and somewhat sweaty gardener and the intelligent and somewhat cool theorist and connoisseur. The gardener is not necessarily "better" but I understand him better and we can only say the little we know.