The Earthman went to London to see the Queen, and the Prince and the Princess. Until we can get him back to earth again, here is an earlier column of perennial interest. TT HERE ARE small gardens and then there are minuscule ones, and then T there are places to set the trash can.
It commonly happens in crowded cities that the dwelling house has a garden 11 feet by 191/2 feet, or some such absurd dimension, and the owner may ask what can be done with a "small" garden that "does not get full sun."
What he usually means is that if he moves his garbage can into the alley and does not make any abrupt movements of his body, he can sit and walk a little in this space and it will become his garden.
First off, we will observe that nothing is impossible, and that the point of a garden is to surround the gardener with nature in her most smiling aspect. Thus the problem (if any problem) is inherently the same whether the land is Versailles or Bodnant or Tivoli (the real one, in Italy) or the middle of Washington.
Suppose the garden is 12 feet by 20 feet, quite overhung with vast branches of a mulberry, enclosed by two or three kinds of fencing, none handsome, and overlooked by row houses.
Despair is not allowable because we do not allow it.
We cannot, on the other hand, start thinking of beech groves and lakes, with perhaps an island for the rarer sorts of conifer. We must be very firm and very real.
This is the best kind of garden, you might say if you were drunk and euphoric, because its limitations are so insistent. There are only a few dozen ways to err, whereas in a larger one they multiply. Some steps were suggested to the owner of this garden:
Make the enclosure of the garden dark. That is, paint the fence black. The owner does not like black, but he consented to stain the reed and bamboo and wood dark brown, all one color, needless to say, thus ameliorating the quite distracting effect of various textures and colors in the existing fencing.
Leave the clump of bamboo alone. In the northeast corner there was (and I trust, still is) a clump of the Japanese grass sometimes called Semiarundinaria japonica or the Metake. It is evergreen. It is alive. It is over-scale, and that is good, for nothing is worse in a tiny space than reminding the eye constantly how tiny it is by growing only microscopic plants.
Take up the white marble ribbon that meandered, in quite an insolent way, like a neon swastika over Chartres, through the garden. Though the garden is indeed small, it need not be infuriating. It need not be play-like, nor cute, and small though its scale may be, it need not be offensive to the gardener's dignity, nor an open insult to his reasonableness as a man.
It need not, in other words, be some loon's casual and depressing version of a Shinto shrine (which is what, I presume, the curly ribbon of marble chips was supposed to suggest).
Lay down more bricks (half the garden was already paved, nearest the house) to make a walk all the way to the alley, to take the trash out. And make that walk four feet wide, wide enough to walk down with a sack of trash without discomfort.
Since the second half of the garden (the half nearest the alley) is garden, the means of blunder, the possibilities of falseness, are endless. Before we can even "design" this garden, we must ask what purposes it must serve, apart from the general purpose of retreat and earthly paradise.
And we discover that, since the garbage cans have been exiled to the alley at the end of it, the owner must pass the entire length (all 20 feet of it) bearing such trophies as six-pack cartons, turnip trimmings, eggshells and on festive occasions, ashes from the fireplace.
This is human life in a nutshell: We must think first how the fellow is to get his trash from the kitchen to the alley. Even in the garden, extraneous matters must not only be thought of, but must actually limit still further what slight freedom we had to begin with, in our design.
Opinions vary, but for my part I think nothing surpasses a straight line to get the trash out. There is a door from the kitchen, opening on the garden. There is a door to the alley, beyond which are the garbage cans. It is a profound insight that I refuse to give up, that there should therefore be a walk between the two points, and that it should be paved, and that in a garden of the size it should be four feet wide.
I see no point in disguising it, and no point pretending the alley door does not have to open.
At the same time, if the only purpose is to get the trash into its cans, then we might as well have left the cans back of the kitchen door in the first place.
As in all great challenges to the human spirit, we have here the common tension between those fixed and inviolable boundaries and the free soaring of the dream.
In actual practice, the following walk raised one foot higher than the half nearest the kitchen, leave the grading as it as, and leave the little brick retaining wall (a foot high) alone. But make the step leading to the higher level the same width as the walk, that is, four feet. Do not squinch and slight anything, but let what must be, be generous and reasonable and full of dignity, as if nothing were done out of iron necessity, but rather in a spirit of enlightened acceptance of the human scale.
Now then, since this damned walk to the alley has managed to gobble up much of the space we might have played with, let us make the most of it. Why should we apologize for having done the only reasonable thing? Let us rather see, since we had to build the walk, and since its size (a human size) physically dominates the tiny space -- let us see how we can enhance it, exalt it, glorify it. This is the way to do things, not to pretend we do not need the walk, or to try to make it 14 inches wide, or try to pretend the walk to the trash can is the St. Lawrence River as viewed from Mars.
Since we are stuck with this relatively huge walk, let's emphasize it decoratively. We have already had to yield almost everything to the necessity of installing it. We have kept it to one side of the garden, so at least it does not cut the tiny space in two. It is bounded on one side by the dark-stained fence, and on the other by the open space remaining in the garden. This North Meadow (as I call it) is about eight feet wide, before it hits the other long boundary fence. Along the open side of the walk, then, let us erect some 4-by-4 poles. We will not merely accede to the need for the walk; we will focus the design on it. These vertical shafts (which doubtless recall the avenues of obelisks at Thebes) may not be anything grand. We may not use polished granite, or marble from Ravenna or bronze or anything of the sort. No, only plain wood, stained the same dark color as the fence. They may not be showy in dimension or material as to seem ridiculous; on the other hand they must appear to be (and must be) substantial; hence the choice of simple 4-by-4 poles.
On them we will train vines. We will produce something of the effect of a vine-clad gallery or loggia. We will give the eye, even in this tiny space, the luxury of looking through a barrier, with the implication there are things beyond. Also, and by no means accidentally, we provide a new and soaring dimension to this tiny flat space; and we also use these poles to provide (without taking up the tiny ground space) texture and a bit of color, and a sense of evergreen life all winter. The vines must be able to endure much shade, they must be beautiful to look at, they must have splended foliage, and they must look good at all times of the year.
The vines I would consider are Akebia quinata; Gelsemium semper-virens (the Carolina jasmine) and the naturalized and invasive Japanese honeysuckle, which is a pest in the hands of bunglers and such a first-rate plant for difficult spots in the hands of the enlightened.
Also, tentatively, we might try a large-flowered clematis or two in large pots, knowing full well they might sulk, and in any case not depending on them for the important work entrusted to the Akebia and jasmine, of providing textured green throughout the year with very little sun.
Parallel with the walk, we install a pool of water. The one is 6 feet by 21/2 feet and 22 inches deep. It is a galvanized tank for horses and cows to drink from on farms. I might add that among the relatively few happy features I noticed, in trying to suggest things for the gardener, he does not have a cow, a horse or two St. Bernards.
Since the owner likes azaleas, they have been planted in the little space between the clump of bamboo and the pool, which incidentally I suggest be edged with the same brick as the walk. In such small space as is not already taken up, there can be impatiens blooming in the summer. On the top of the small retaining wall, there can be two or three pots of plants in bloom (hyacinths, tulips, lilies, hydrangeas, fuchsias, chrysanthemums, holly, in due season) or there may be found space, in every odd corner, for various ferns, or a couple of hostas.
In the pool there should be goldfish, and a small water lily (which probably will not bloom, but the old Marliac variety 'Yellow Pigmy' is as good a choice as any). If this fails, we may try a water hyacinth.
These then, were the suggestions. How small and ordinary a thing we have to show for our earnest thought. The merit of our design, if there is any, consists largely of its constant focus on the owner of the garden: his need to take the trash out, his need for a place to sit, his need to set his feet physically on the longest axis possible (for a human, like an antelope, needs more than a cubicle to sleep in) his need for color, in the form of azaleas; his need for varied geography (the rise of level in the garden, the presence of water in the pool); his need for privacy and retreat (the vines and the bamboo); his need for harmony (the dark clear greens against the dark stain); his need for cheer in the dark winter; his need for a space in which he need not feel like a fool merely because he is large and the space is small.
Another thing, if it is not outrageously immodest to point out the splendors of my design: I have suggested nothing beyond his means, and nothing beyond his time. Nothing he cannot easily change, if something better occurs to him. All I have insistently urged is simple shapes, simple divisions, the presence of gleaming water and amicable fishes; a care for contrasts, a great care for green all the year. How marvelous it sounds as I go on and on about it. But this is my only triumph.
I saved him for a time from marble chips and he will never reproach me for encouraging silly ornament, false scale, stingy dimensions, shallow shows. Nothing but good and fair, and what may comfort us in a space too small, when you think of it, for even a beagle. Yet I hope he and the fishes (and he is thinking of some moderate turtles as well) will flourish there. Summer and winter, growing and ordered. How light hits in a garden is everything.