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Nature is so full of purposes that her wild landscapes confuse us. There's much more information in the wilderness than we can comprehend. The closer we look, the more we see, until it all shimmers out into visual white noise, beyond our sensory grasp or our intellectual capacity to understand.
In the grand ecology of the wild, nature has plenty of uses for the dead tree limbs that litter the forest floor in a tangled jumble. But when we garden, we simplify. We clear away the detritus of life. Like a sculptor revealing the statue hidden in the stone, we remove things until the picture freshens for us, and becomes more comprehensible. Through simplification we make a defined bit of nature-the garden-understandable, and through decoration we make it appealing to our senses.
Our gardens begin with simple ideas: making a woodland path through the property, or a bed of perennials for color all season long. Nature, on the other hand, embroiders a million ideas into every bit of her natural scenery: A root exudes a substance on which a fungus will feed; the fungus takes phosphorus from the surrounding soil and feeds it back to the plant; the plant provides food for the larvae of the armyworm; and adult armyworms feed the wrens. The cycle spirals onward through the web of life, until we come, by a commodious and nearly infinite recirculation, back to the root we started with.
In the garden, we arrange plants in ways that reflect our human essence, whereas nature provides for the needs of all the creatures present. We repeat groups of the same plant at regular intervals-a form of regularity seldom, if ever, found in the wild. We place plants in sites where theywouldn't naturally occur. And we import plants from around the world to grow side by side with natives. Modern gardens are very much like modern cities-melting pots of individuals from just about everywhere.
Although we may design our gardens and place plants as we will, we cannot exclude wild nature. All the energies, tendencies, and habits that characterize a plant in its native home are still part of its genetic code. As every gardener soon discovers, plants react to nature's imperatives before they do our bidding.
A garden, then, is a mixture of human intention and the plants' obedience to their innate drives, whose purposes are hidden from human view. We may believe we are in control of the garden-we choose and place our plants; we uproot them, divide them, and move, prune, pinch, and thin them. But part of the delight of gardening surely comes from nature laughing at our pomposity. Our control is mostly illusory.
Plants continue to react as always, with a relentless dedication to their inner truths, quickly reestablishing themselves after our intervention, the ultimate arbiters of their own fates. They display their limbs and leaves in ways they deem appropriate. They twist and turn to maximize the light their leaves receive. They shy away and die away from soil they don't like, or light that is too bright or too dark.
The choicest beauties of the garden are usually unplanned. I've seen a lady banks rose climb up through an apple tree, sending down showers of little pastel yellow flowers amid the tree's upwelling pink-and-white blossoms. The casual encounter of rose and tree is given a twist, and we suddenly perceive such great beauty that we fall silent. Now the unspoken message of the one who controls chance can reach our hearts: I am here.
I am not far away. You are all mine-you, the tree, and the rose.
The soil is the part of the garden from which everything arises. It is the mother of us all, into which the spirit blows life, and out of which come peonies and people. The soil is the source and destiny of all life. Plants spring from it and die back into it yearly. It takes us longer, but so do we. Soil is the archive of all past seasons and the raw material of the future. Our part is to care for it, improve it, and add to its richness.
Finally, the garden has an aspect that is purely human. This part includes the fences, walkways, patios, terraces, arbors, pergolas, gazebos, walls, hutches, skeps, birdhouses, waterfalls, pools, tables, chairs, benches, lighting, and bridges. Here we can also include constructs made from soil, rocks, and water: berms, pits, hollows, grottoes, leveled places, and peaks of the landscape's architecture. In other words, it's everything in the garden but the plants.
Here wild nature pretty much gives way to our human desires. Here we are finally in charge, with the power to do what we wish with the land. This power brings responsibility, however. We must remember that we don't see all of nature's purposes, or fully understand her motives. We should create our gardens humbly, and decorate them with as much taste as we can muster.
Part of the great, grand fun of creating a garden is to infuse it with personal meaning, or with purely human ideas that visitors can comprehend.
Take as an example my clamshell garden. I grew up near the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, and digging in the soil of my backyard, I often unearthed clamshells deposited there thousands of years before, when our property was shoreline. Today, I have a small side garden where I have buried many clamshells left over from the times when they were part of our nightly dinners, months or even years ago. Now when I dig there to put in annuals or divide perennials, I usually unearth a shell or two, and I am pleasantly transported back to my early childhood on Long Island.
My clamshells are personal; but everyone can relate to another of my favorite garden devices: a place of refuge-and-vista. The refuge may be a bench placed back in the shadows of a leafy bower, and the vista, seen from the bench, is of a sunny, open space where one can secretly watch the world go by. This kind of idea appeals to nearly all visitors.
Personal and human expression determines how we decorate our gardens. This book is devoted to describing the many ways people decorate their gardens, and the many things they use in this pursuit. The purpose of decorating a garden-which we often (incorrectly) assume is decorative enough with no help from us-is not to gild the lily, but to enshrine the lily in a place that illuminates its transcendent beauty.