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Writing a Garden

by Karen Simmons

As Dan takes a break in the heat of this year’s early summer, I thought I might fill in with some thoughts on gardening. Gardening, you say? What does that have to do with writing books?  You’re not interested in digging, planting, watering and weeding? Well, let me take you down the path that goes around our property and see if there might some boulders to sit on where we can think about this. It’s hot out there so bring a hat and some lemonade.

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The new house we moved into, almost six years ago now, sat on 1.2 acres of dirt plus a few weeds. It didn’t blend into or nestle into the land -- it just sat there, its long horizontals honoring the spirit of Frank Lloyd Wright but proffering no honor to the land around it. Could there be a better blank page? Like a novelist facing the symbolic page, the prospects for creation were both overwhelming and energizing. We spent the winter months thinking, researching and kicking around all the ideas that inspired us. Our motto was “Dare to begin!” With the help of a neighbor/landscaper (whose artistry with boulders is unsurpassed), we did dare to begin the creative process of making something out of passion, curiosity and emotion.

Ok, the blank page is an obvious place to start on our analogy. But it is central to how we approached our creation. Research was everything: books on native plants, prairie ecologies, stone, trees, Japanese gardens, meadows and groves; notes from garden lectures; photos from botanic gardens. Inspiration was drawn from gardens such as the meadow garden at the Aspen Music Festival, the Denver Botanic Gardens, garden tours and friends’ gardens. The novelist is often asked, ‘where do you get your ideas?’ The answer: all of the above. And then some.

And then there’s that urge to create. Something. Something beautiful and moving and interesting and involving. Something to engage one’s curiosities about the living world and one’s place in it.

Where to start? We had a few basic considerations that were the foundation. The views of the Front Range of the Rockies -- extending to Pike’s Peak over a hundred miles to the south – were to be preserved and enhanced. The sense of place – backing up to a neighborhood common space knoll – was to be honored, as was the historic prairie that defined this part of the Rocky Mountain region. We wanted to honor the architecture of our home and we wanted to honor the landscaping of our neighbors on each side. That was the outline of our book – I mean, our landscaping project.

And, of course, the path. How could we pull someone in and move them along? How does one move from this “chapter” to the next? The connections to the gardens and the views and the prairie out our back door would be laid down by the paths, the building blocks for our ideas – a maple grove, a Japanese garden, a front patio with a hedge (my homage to my eastern roots), a prairie garden, a montane garden – and a yellow garden and a blue garden for a fun challenge.

As in a novel, there also had to be places to sit, places that would invite us to stop and observe and use all of our senses. To connect to the gardens and the richness of experience that they provide. Some well-placed boulders would suffice.

Once the outline was drawn up, the challenge to make a living, breathing series of gardens that connected us to our place on the high prairie was sometimes daunting but always energizing. Like any creative endeavor, the gravitational pull of rote imitation had to be resisted. Gardens aren’t so much designed as they are expressions of the gardener’s fascination with process and change in the natural world. They allow for – in fact, they invite – serendipity, allowing plants to respond, sometimes to the delight and sometimes to the chagrin of the gardener, but always on their own terms. Like characters in a novel, they have to have room to breathe and to be true to themselves.

And as with a novel, gardens thrive on editing and revising! Sometimes the greater pleasure is not in planting but in digging up. Taking out that white centranthus opens up the view and never did look good in the flat blazing sun anyway.  And that tall line of goldenrod was clunky and crowded before one was moved to its own space and now leads my eye farther down the path. Like the novel  whose seamless reality shows no fingerprints of the author, a naturalistic garden is the hardest to create. And perhaps it also has more to teach the gardener. But like any novel, a garden does express who the gardener is and that is what makes each one unique. A garden connects the gardener to the natural world, to history, to other cultures – and to neighbors and friends. In turn, it is the gardener’s response to all that she has learned.

If a love of language propels the novelist, a love of the language of botany can also inspire and inform the gardener. As the commercial world of gardening evolves, we now see nurseries organizing their plants by their botanical names. It may seem like the train has left the station for those who haven’t had the chance to learn their Latin, but the Latin names are not only descriptive, they’re also universal. And they’re also …. well, fun!  Who could resist buying a plant called marrubium rotundifolium? It just trips off the tongue. Musical? Try ratibida columnifera. And my new favorite (yes, I bought nine of them) is tanacetum cinerariifolium. And I love them.

If a writer often looks to other writers for insight, be it Keats or Shakespeare or Fowles, then a gardener need look no further than Lauren Springer, renaissance woman of the horticultural world. Her latest book, Plant-Driven Design (written with her husband Scott Ogden, also a fine plantsman), could be considered the bible of all things philosophical and enduring about the way we think about both the natural and the cultivated world. One could sit and ponder a paragraph at a time, but let me offer this one tidbit that connects my world of gardening to Dan’s world of writing:

     Plants, exceptionally diverse living beings that they are, grant a richness that architecture or artifact cannot. The power to elicit a sensory or an emotional response gives plants presence. Through our senses’ interaction with the green world, we connect with nature, with the uniqueness of the place, and with the gardenmaker. In this way, a garden becomes more than a mere snapshop or viewing place. It passes into transcendence.

KJS
June 2012

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