Like most people, gardeners can be categorized as liberal or conservative. It is the liberals who concern me. Their hearts may be in the right place but, as a result of attachment to dogma and oversimplification of facts, there is much that they fail to understand. Since they are the majority, and their views the predominant ones, I feel compelled to come forward on behalf of my fellow politically incorrect gardening compatriots.
Liberal gardeners are people who feel that, through gardening, we can alleviate our sense of alienation from nature; and that, through good gardening, we can repair some of the damage we have done to our environment. The most extreme liberals believe that there is an original or a natural state in which the environment would be if we hadn’t shown up on the scene, and that we have not only the ability but also a moral imperative to help nature return to this state. Remember the ‘70s, when people were turning their suburban lawns loose and allowing them to aspire to being meadows? They were letting the grass express its natural inclination toward longness and reduced greenness, while their neighbors were handing them citations demanding a return to neatness and neighborliness. This liberation of grass struggling to be free was yet another response to the man/nature divide that has worried liberals for centuries. The basic idea is that nature is good, man is not, and the more we can keep the beastly hand of man out of things, the better.
The liberal solution is what has come to be known as a “natural garden.” Judging from the looks of it, it might more properly be called a “naturalistic garden.” These gardens contain many elements cribbed from nature herself, such as sinuous paths, free-form ponds, curvy clumps of shrubs, and squiggly planting beds. Curvilinearness is believed to be next to godliness. A walk or a drive up to the house or through the garden should bend and wind and provide a “sense of journey,” as one might experience on a walk in the woods. Such a garden may even contain a craggy-ledged waterfall or some other wonder of the natural world. Sometimes, if the garden seems very “natural,” as Central Park is meant to, people may even mistake their experience for one in nature. But Frederick Law Olmsted, the park’s architect, is no hero to our liberals, for he committed the unforgivable sin of using “exotics”–plants of foreign origin come to mingle on our virgin terrain. “Natural gardening” is a strictly regional affair, done with those plants that thrived in a particular area–around say, Des Moines or Dubuque–before the fall of man. (This type of gardening came into vogue in the 1980s as the gardening environmentalists’ response to the excesses of that decade. It incorporated the teachings of the organic-gardening movement and spun them not only with lessons about water conservation and ecosystems but also with the promotion of natural-seeming styles and plants.)
So, after setting their turf free, natural gardeners began to regard the chemical- and water-dependent lawn as a villainous expression of suburban man’s environmental insensitivity, and turned against it entirely. Grass was yanked out by its roots and tossed onto the compost heap. Those offending areas are now populated by happy natives thriving in their xeroscapes in xenophobic splendor. Presumably these indigenous plants refrain from sending their seed downwind into other areas where they do not belong. But can we be sure that any “native” plant was not merely brought into alien territory on the sandal-sole of an unwitting nomad long ago?
Henry Mitchell, the late, great, and I think, conservative garden writer (he smoked cigarettes in his garden, an act incomprehensible to liberals), poked fun at those who think they garden in “a natural way.” That, he claimed, could be seen in “any desert, any swamp, any leech-filled laurel hell.” Gardening, on the other hand, was for him the “high defiance of nature herself.” Nature has no patience for your garden. She wants to reclaim it, and if you turn your back on it for a moment, she’ll be there, with weeds and vines and tangled brush. It is men and women, not gardens, who are found in nature. And because we conservatives view ourselves as part of nature–albeit a quirky, self-conscious bit of it–we feel we have the honor and privilege of tussling with it.
Where liberals are moralists, conservatives are aesthetes. Gardens, particularly flower gardens, serve no real purpose. If gardens must have a higher calling, it is the cause of beauty. Failing to recognize the primacy of aesthetics in gardening, liberals are left vulnerable to all sorts of unnecessary errors, such as using bark mulch as a decorative element. This can lead you down the slippery slope toward plants artlessly plunked down in an unrepentant mishmash, the garden equivalent of an unshaven armpit.
Conservatives like lawns, especially when we call them tapis verts. We like topiary, pollarded trees, allées, bosques, exotic plants, and formal rigor. Of course, we may also love wildness, meadows, indigenous plants, woods–we are not without our libertarian inclinations–but not exclusively or senselessly. Gardening is ultimately a folly whose goal is to provide delight. A liberal may look at a boxwood bunny frozen in mid-hop and see only a plant in bondage. Conservatives love gardens because they are artifice. Dan Kiley, one of the most important landscape architects of the 20th century, creates landscapes based on a grid. His belief is that we should not shy away from geometry in the design and layout of gardens, since the entire cosmos is based on it. To garden in this way is to copy the spirit of nature, not its letter.
The most slanderous thing liberals say about conservatives is that we are not sufficiently concerned about the environment. We, too, are concerned. We just express our concern in a different way. Imagine Nature looking down at what we have made at, say, Versailles, and also at a low-maintenance ornamental grass planting around a boggy pond. Which would it feel was a more fitting testament to its mysteries and strength?