I’m an idiot when it comes to garden design. To up my skills in this department I attended the annual Garden Blogger’s Fling last week, which took place this year in San Francisco. Thankfully the Fling did not involve sitting in a sterile hotel conference room. Instead, we boarded two buses and took a look at fifteen spectacular gardens in the bay area over three days.
I’ll share the gardening lessons I learned over a couple of posts. But if I could take away only one lesson it would be this: every garden has a purpose, but great gardens have clear and beneficial purposes.
Dead Grass and Junk
I actually had two garden tours. One was the aforementioned curated bus tour, the other was an un-curated view into hundreds of ordinary backyards on the second level of Amtrak’s San Joachin train. That train ride reminded me of Bill Mollison’s quip that “everybody gardens.” I’ve always taken that to mean that even folks who eat all their meals at McDonald’s and think of plants as being a kind of green background material are doing a kind of gardening, albeit one that is not helping our planet. What kind of gardening did I see from the train? The photo above sums it up.
The most common sight was dead grass and junk storage. In more affluent areas people had lush grass and maybe a pool. Some had vegetable gardens, a few chickens and goats. One enterprising person, somewhere between Bakersfield and Fresno, had a walled garden protecting lush marijuana plants. Other than the food gardeners (a small minority even in rural areas) there was little evidence that people ever went into their yards. It confirms what a UCLA anthropology team discovered when they placed cameras in 32 Los Angeles homes to see how people used their houses and back yards,
“More than half of the families in the Los Angeles Study spent zero leisure time (none for kids, none for parents) in their back yards during our filming. In quite a few of these cases, no family member so much as stepped into the back yard for any purpose. For another 25 percent of the families, the parents did not carve out any back yard leisure time (relax, play, eat, read, drink, or swim) despite the presence of pricey features such as built-in pools, spas, above-ground pools, dining sets, lounge chairs, and swing sets. Children in this group of families enjoyed brief periods of outdoor recreation, but less than one hour in each case.” – from Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century: 32 Families Open their Doors [italics mine]
The unused yards I saw from the train and the ones in the UCLA study do serve a purpose. They are the legacy of mid 20th century suburbanization–the idea of combining country and city in a fantasy of being a petty king and queen of your own mini-real estate empire. Wouldn’t it be nice to give a better purpose to these spaces rather than their merely symbolic role? The space is there, shouldn’t we use it? Growing food would certainly be one option that we’ve talked a lot about on this blog. But what about apartment buildings and difficult spaces where growing food isn’t practical?
The first stop on the Garden Blogger’s Fling was to a garden designed by Sean Stout and James Pettigrew (who, together, run a landscape design firm called Organic Mechanics). They turned the difficult space behind the apartment they live in—two small, very shady yards in adjoining buildings in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin district—into a place to sit, eat and enjoy nature apart from the hustle and bustle of the city. With that clear purpose in mind you can see why they made the design decisions they made. To fulfill those functions they created multiple outdoor rooms. It was easy to imagine living in the building and wandering down to the garden to read a book, do some work on a laptop, throw a party or simply to soak in the overwhelming peacefulness of this lush space.
It’s also clear that the Organic Mechanics created this garden on a budget. The materials were scavenged, but carefully chosen (I’m often too indiscriminate with the objects I place in the garden to the eternal frustration of art school damaged Mrs. Homegrown).
Lessons From the Organic Mechanics
Before designing a garden sit down and identify the purpose (most likely multiple purposes) of the space you are designing. For many who read this blog that will be to grow food. But edible gardens can be just as beautiful as ornamental ones. They can also provide a place to rest, to entertain, to play.
As we sit down to rethink our backyard yet again, we’re going to list off all the purposes it needs to fulfill. Growing food is one purpose. But in our case, as the authors of two how-to books, our garden has other needs to fulfill: we have to accommodate visitors and classes. Our garden also needs to provide a backdrop for the photos and videos that we create for this blog. And, like the Organic Mechanic’s garden, I also want a space to enjoy nature in our equally gritty city location.
Let’s hear from you. What are the purposes you have identified for the outdoor spaces you are working with?