The Garden as Artifact
By Christa Watters
Garden: n. Planted area of ground, a plot of ground where plants such as fruits, vegetables and flowers are grown. (Latin origin hortus garda implies a closed area. Ultimately from a prehistoric German word that is also the ancestor of the British word yard.)
Gardener: somebody who tends a garden or lawn, either as a profession or hobby.
~ Encarta World Dictionary (1999)
Garden: n. a plot of ground where herbs, fruits, flowers, or vegetables are cultivated. vt. to lay out or work in a garden.
~ Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition
Sitting out the cold and snowy days of late winter is a good time to consider what it means to be a gardener, particularly for those of us trained to share our knowledge with the public. Often it is useful to turn to the dictionary to guide one’s rambling thoughts.
The common thread here is that a garden is a planned space where plants are cultivated. In most definitions, a garden is a construct, not a product of nature, though we all know nature is a critical factor in how it grows. The verb cultivate and the noun horticulture both imply a made artifact, a space imagined and then designed and worked. Hence the inherently conflicted world of today’s gardeners, who are tending plots constructed by human devising, yet trying to create “nature,” using native plants.
We gardeners are makers, planners, designers – who work to make spaces that sometimes strive to imitate nature, at other times to improve upon it. Historically, gardeners took great pride in cultivating nature, taming it, making it usable for growing food or ornamental plants that please the eye. People have also made gardens to show off their wealth, provide attractive spaces to spend leisure time, or to show off rare specimens found in distant climes.
Today’s trained gardeners continue to learn more about nature and the need to work with the natural world, replacing habitats long alienated from nature by overdevelopment and modified by climate change. We are taught to be more in tune with the natural biology of our geographic regions, rather than introducing non-native plants. Yet this more recent emphasis in gardening can sometimes bring us into conflict with our gardening forebears, who often imported exotic plants in their search for beauty or new genetic traits to strengthen existing plants that struggled with the effects of urban pollution or climate change. They cross-bred and hybridized and altered nature. Many gardens and gardeners still follow that pattern and most gardens still embody some of the results.
As we go forward on our gardening path, we need to be generous to the efforts of our predecessors, and respect their scientific researches as well as their cultivation of beauty in the garden. Even as we strive to avoid the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, to know our soil and improve it naturally, and to use plants suited to our climate, geography, and specific site, we must be aware that perhaps as climate change speeds up, we may need to adapt even our concept of native plants. While we continue to use plants that provide food and habitat for local wildlife, we must be aware that some of those very birds, insects, and other creatures may not continue to thrive in the same areas. Climate changes affect food supplies and have already induced altered migration patterns, leaving, for example bloom patterns in some areas out of sync with hummingbird migration and reproduction (see http://cmns.umd.edu/news-events/features/1918).*
Gardening, by its very nature, implies some artifice. Gardeners have historically taken pride in pushing the boundaries, creating microclimates, importing amazing plants from afar and seeing if they can grow them in their own spaces. They have developed hybrids to improve color or size or hardiness, or simply more ample crop production to feed us in our many millions. Our own generation has learned practices that help prevent soil erosion, replace lost tree canopy to offer shade, moderate temperature and improve air and water quality. We try to offset the adverse consequences of earlier gardeners’ decisions that led to the proliferation of invasive species. But we must bear in mind that we may similarly be making our own mistakes, even with all the best intentions. Nature is not static; hence learning and change are a constant given for the gardener.
We are human, we are tinkerers: we innovate, invent, readjust. We try to make things better, or to our liking, or to fit, or just plain different. We make gardens that reflect our individuality and adjust to changing circumstances. In a word, we garden.
*Thanks to MG Mary Free for leading me to this link.