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The Art of the Garden

Published in the six Nashoba Publishing papers on Friday, 25 January 2002

Gardening is an art. Art can get a bad rap — as esoteric, for the specialists, so that many people learn to think of themselves as "not artistic." But in fact art is a basic part of sensory perception of our physical environment — the part of perception that has preferences, values. Studies show that perception is not neutral: our senses are not simply animated receiving machines; rather we have demonstrable innate tendencies to interpret what we perceive in certain ways.

For example: two squares, each with a disk in it. One disk is centered in the square, one is off-center. Universally, people looking at the centered arrangement feel a sense of stability, repose, or calm ... and looking at the off-center composition, get a feeling of instability, movement, or tension. Paying attention to those reactions ... is art.

When you succumb to the charms of a pretty plant at the garden center, bring it home and then ask yourself where to plant it, you need to take into account where it will do well — but probably you also have definite ideas where it would look good. This is the beginning of the art of the garden. Why would it look good there?

Because there are a lot of blue plants there and it's red, and you like red with blue. Because you want to see it beside the front steps every time you walk up them. Because it's tiny and you want it out in front of other plants so they don't hide it. Because it has dramatically variegated leaves and will perk up a bed that's boring when flowers aren't blooming there. Because you need one more plant like the others in a row that curves almost far enough, but an itchy feeling in your mind wants to see that curve extend a little farther....

The principles of garden design are simply the accumulated observations of a lot of gardeners, about what looks good where and why. I like to look at gardens by professionals, but I also like to look at any garden, to ask myself what "works" for me — what looks good to my eye — and what doesn't. And I like to ask other gardeners — any gardeners — what they notice. Because the art of the garden isn't something only specialists can practice. It's simply paying attention to our senses, noticing what we like in our gardens, and asking ourselves why.

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Arggh. Gotta fix those graphics. But I guess I'll upload this anyway so the archive is complete. - chc

© Copyright 2002 Catherine Holmes Clark