Plant-Driven Design and My Garden Manifesto!

“The single most important element in any garden is not some particular object, plant, or tool.  What’s vital is a gardener who loves it.”  — Scott and Lauren Springer Ogden, Plant Driven Design

One of the reasons that garden design fascinates me is because of the push and pull between those two words: garden and design.  Put another way:  which is more important in gardenmaking – aesthetics or experience?  In Plant-Driven Design (perhaps my all-time favorite design book), Scott and Lauren Springer Ogden argue firmly in favor of experience over aesthetics when it comes to garden design.

Now, you could argue that being immersed in an exquisitely designed space is an experience.  Of course it is.  I’ve never visited the gardens of Versailles, but I have no doubt that it would be unforgettable, that its elegance, opulence, and vast scale would evoke a powerful emotional response, just as Louis and Le Notre intended.

But that’s not the kind of experience I’m talking about.  Nor is it the kind of experience sought by the Ogdens in their design practice.  Gardens are not only about pleasing the eye.  They are not simply “outdoor spaces” in which architecture reigns supreme and plants are used merely as flourish, or worse, as “material” by which to achieve architectural goals. They are adamant in their distaste for “landscape installations,” and the fact that the garden has been reduced to “a product, a home-improvement project, a look.”

In an Ogden garden — and in the gardens I hope to design — the plants run the show.  They are unequivocal in their belief that gardens should not simply be designed spaces, but rather places where people connect with plants. This is obvious when you flip through the book and see gardens bursting with a diversity of luscious plants, all carefully and lovingly chosen according to the conditions and spirit of the site.

It follows then, that the experience derived from a garden should really be an intimate one.  It should involve all the senses and involve them across time.  Buds should be examined, flowers sniffed, leaves crushed between the fingers in summer and in fall admired as colorful filters of sunlight.  Spring’s cool mud and summer’s baked clay should both be felt with the hands.  Death should be witnessed and accepted.

Obviously, this is not the experience Le Notre was trying to create at Versailles.  As the Ogdens put it, this is about “unlimited possibilities for reconnection with the natural world.”

Actually, what we’re talking about here is a relationship – a serious, long-term relationship.  The problem for the garden designer is that many clients do not necessarily seek this kind of relationship with their gardens.  Clients often want something “attractive but low-maintenance.”  In other words, they want a Stepford wife that looks pretty, serves up cocktails, and never throws them a challenge.  As a result, they wind up with a hardscape/cherrylaurel-based design that may be pleasant enough to look at but which will never touch the soul.

This is not acceptable.

Like the Ogdens, I believe that gardens should touch our souls through sensory experience with plants.  I know that there are different definitions of gardens out there, but I’ve adopted this one and I hope other homeowners and designers will consider adopting it, too.

The poet Gary Snyder said: “Nature is not a place to visit; it is home.”   Snyder may not have been trying to express a new paradigm for how we Americans should envision our gardens, but I think this quote expresses it perfectly.

The missing ingredients? Love and attention.

Most of us, when we buy a house, are given the gift of a quarter acre of soil and sunshine. (Or a half, or a tenth – size isn’t the point.)  Many of us don’t see our little patches of dirt as “nature,” but our lots are as “natural” as the local park, the fragment of forest at the end of the block, the meadow we admire on our favorite local hike.  Our yards are, collectively, the nature that is left, the nature we experience every day.  We should honor our little patches with our time, sweat, and creativity, not just design them as pleasant places to grill burgers.

7 thoughts on “Plant-Driven Design and My Garden Manifesto!

  1. Mary,

    Thanks for this. I was not aware of this issue in landscape. Your post is intelligently conceived and beautifully written. My mother was, as I think I have said, a master gardener and while she had no formal training, she certainly intuitively believed in the garden as an experience that she participated in with all her heart. I recall her transplanting in the rain since that was the best time to insure the survival of the transplants. You would have loved talked with her about gardens and seeing her garden but she passed away in late 2007.

    The gardens of Versailles, while beautiful, are more a display of power than an experience. When I was there my primary emotion or experience was sadness thinking about the lives of the oppressed people who built and maintained the gardens for the aristocracy. That’s maybe getting into economics and politics more than gardening, but that’s what I experienced.

    Thanks for an evocative post.

    • Thanks. Your mother sounds like a woman after my own heart. If it were possible to garden in the dark, I would (hmm…spotlights? flashlights?)

      I’d love to go to Versailles one day, but yeah, thinking about all those lives lost for one man’s ego is pretty astounding. An interesting book I read recently about the building of Versailles was The Sun King’s Garden…I recommend it, if you’re into that sort of thing.

      I’m so pleased to have you as a reader! :o)

  2. Mary,

    Thank you for this moving post. I only wish more bloggers were writing from the heart like this. The garden is all about relationship. Even for gardens I design, the ones that come out well are those where the owner engages with garden.

    You’re blog is fabulous. You will be famous soon, I’m sure!!!

    • Thank you, Thomas. I must say that I was very inspired by your class and wish there was a “Planting Design 3” I could sign up for.

      Have fun at the Turning a New Leaf conference. Next time it’s back in DC I will definitely be there.

  3. I think designed gardens can trick people into being intimate with nature, non sexually. And here I mean flowers that have scent–which means fewer hybrids–plants native to the area so they are easier and pull in lots of divers local wildlife so that something is always going on. Maybe, at some point, with all that action, the insects, the scents, the sounds, the homeowner will stop for a moment and BAM! they’re hooked. Our little lots are so important, and it’s proven time and again how if they are patches of real nature, we feel happier, more connected, and are healthier. Rant done.

    • Absolutely, Benjamin. I hated the the Aesclepias I planted a few years ago, until I found several monarch butterfly caterpillars on it. I was so psyched about that…my son and I would go out and watch them get bigger and fatter each day. So much cooler than just a “pretty” plant.

      • When I started my garden 4 years ago, I knew nothing about butterflies and plants, let alone monarchs and milkweed–I just planted milkweed because I heard some rumor about it. Like you, I spent hours on my hand and knees watching, following grownups go off to pupate, etc. The last two years I’ve raised over 400 monarchs inside my house in a 10g aquarium. It starts so small–what you’ve shared with your son is the universe in that one small act.

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