What Does a Garden Mean?

What Does a Garden Mean?

Originally published at Substack, 11/29/2020

Raised garden beds with vegetables, gravel path between beds, yellow shed in background.

I’ve spent much of the pandemic on a kind of crash course of garden design. It started when I went down the rabbit hole of Monty Don garden series videos on YouTube — Gardens of France, Italy, the World, America … what is a garden? What does it mean to build a garden? Is a garden a form of art? What do gardens mean in different cultures? When is a garden a symbol of power, and when is it a means of sustenance? 

It’s something I was thinking about as I tore out my old raised beds early this summer, and replaced them with new ones. The new beds are new wood, so look quite spiffy. I kept the two long beds a single 12” board high, but reduced them from 3 1/2 to 2 feet wide. At 3 1/2 feet wide, I couldn’t easily reach across them, so planting and harvesting was always a chore. In the center of the space, I built four 3×6 beds that are two boards high. I was after a garden I can toddle out to on my walker in 20 years. I wanted a garden that was ergonomically pleasant to plant, and weed, and harvest from. And so, I lined the paths between with heavy weed cloth, and then late in the summer, my hippie neighbor Mike helped me fill them with gravel. The whole thing was already fenced in cattle panel and chicken wire to keep the animals out, and I have to say, although it looked fabulous by the time I was done — it was a little alienating. It looked so fancy. Like a garden someone would have built, rather than build themself. 

Raised beds make Himself grumpy. “Just grow a carrot in the ground,” he gripes when I show him Instagram photos of gardens like the one I just built. And I can see his point. Building tall boxes in order to grow vegetables does separate us from the actual earth. My boxes are currently filled with layers of plain straw, garden soil, straw chicken litter from the coop, and then topped with bagged compost that claims to be organic, but really, who knows where it comes from. The things I grew this summer in those beds, well you could argue that they’re not even really growing in my yard at all, but rather, in an artificial environment. 

Which was part of the project. The “natural” environment of my backyard garden, even after 17 years of gardening there, had become defined by invasive Bermuda grass. Every spring for the past few years, I couldn’t plant until I’d dug out the beds, hauling out enough Bermuda grass roots to completely fill the 64 gallon trash can they give us for yard waste here. While I’ll probably still have to dig out the long beds, at least the four tall beds should keep the grass mostly at bay. 

So, what is a garden? Is it, as in this case, a sort of “machine” for growing vegetables? Because no matter how many flowers I also grew out there this summer, the purpose of that garden space is to grow enough veg for us to eat all summer (made easier by the fact that Himself is not a veg guy), and for me to put up for the winter. And I did. I put up enough greens, scallions, and tomatoes to see me through until spring without having to buy much at the store. Especially if my plans to turn a couple of those high beds into hoop houses works as I think it might. I should be able to start planting again in late January or early February. Once the light comes back.

Knowing I can grow food is a source of real solace to me. That vegetable patch was one of the biggest reasons I bought this house back in 2002. It was established. The people who lived here never had any money, and raised eight kids in this house. It’s clear they grew food not just for pleasure, but out of necessity. We’re a rural state here in Montana, and an agricultural one, and Livingston in particular has been building out resilient food systems in a very intentional way for the past decade or so. The crash of 2008 hit hard, and our Food Resource Center has worked to not only provide food for those affected among us, but to build a local food system. They teach classes on kitchen skills and train folks for restaurant work. They’ve partnered with local farmers to grow produce, and built facilities to process and freeze it each year. That food goes into the school and local hospital supply, as well as into our homegrown Meals on Wheels program to feed our seniors. When the pandemic hit, a local rancher started the Producer Partnership to solicit, process and distribute local beef to folks in need across the state. It started with an offhand remark from one of the guys he worked with: “Look at all that hamburger walking around out there.” They’ve donated almost 42K pounds of meat this year so far. 

As I said when I started this blog up again, if we’ve learned anything, we’ve discovered that the local matters, that we actually don’t live in some global nowhere land of digital space, but in our homes, in our towns, in our communities. 

My vegetable garden, and the chickens who I think of as a part of that little backyard food system, what they mean to me is that even if it gets really bad, I can get by. They mean security. Even if I couldn’t entirely live off my backyard, that I could get part of the way there makes it possible for me to sleep at night. 

But gardens aren’t just practical, and I think that’s why I’ve been down such a rabbit hole of garden design all year. As I was redesigning and rebuilding the vegetable garden, I was also reading Olivia Laing. I’m a little late to that party, but the way she writes about her love of Derek Jarman, is one of those threads that makes having a reading life so worthwhile. Everything was falling apart this summer. The world was in chaos. No one was paying attention to the pandemic. When you’re raised by people as unreliable and unrealistic as my parents were, you get a sense for when it’s all about to come right off the rails, and that’s how I felt all summer. Laing’s book The Lonely City was a balm, but it was Funny Weather, Art in an Emergency that really got me. In “Sparks Through the Stubble” she writes: 

“Returning to Modern Nature recently I was astounded to see how thoroughly my adult life was founded in its pages. It was here I developed a sense of what it meant to be an artist, to be political, even how to plant a garden (playfully, stubbornly, ignoring boundaries, collaborating freely).”

Scouring the house, it turned out that I already had a copy of Derek Jarman’s Garden, the 1995 book photographed by Howard Sooley. I remember buying it years ago after hearing something about Jarman’s garden, but being slightly baffled by it. Jarman is not the household name here he was in the UK, and I couldn’t parse what he’d been up to. It’s such a strange garden — all driftwood uprights, iron bits, and scrubby plants. Jarman’s garden at Prospect Cottage has, in the intervening years, come to serve as something of a talisman. Seems like every six weeks or so, I’ve seen something about Jarman, someone musing on Prospect Cottage, the garden built in sand, on a shingle promontory, in the shadow of a nuclear power station, by an artist fighting AIDs back in the days before the anti-retroviral drugs. I remember those days. I lost a dear college friend, and my Uncle Jack, and I lived in NYC then. I remember the faces, the men losing weight, the Kaposi’s spots. The way they disappeared. The way a whole generation disappeared and no one even seems to remember it. As though it was erased. 

So when the pandemic hit, and we saw the same thing start to happen again, well I think that might be why so many of us turned to Derek Jarman, and his garden. It feels like the kind of beacon many of us have needed. An artistic practice based in hope, against all odds, that succeeded nonetheless. That funds were raised to save the place, in the wake of the death of Jarman’s partner Keith Collins, and that it’s in the safe hands of the Garden Museum in London felt like one of the few good things to happen this year. Even today, in Allan Jenkins Guardian column about his allotment, Jarman shows up. Jenkins, for those here in the US, is a longtime writer for the paper, and the author of the beautiful and heartbreaking memoir, Plot 29. In today’s column, he addresses the longtime companionship his allotment has provided, with, it turns out the same Howard Sooley who photographed Prospect Cottage. Jenkins says about Howard: “His book with Derek Jarman at Prospect Cottage helped give English gardening a new aesthetic. Together, they unleashed an almost feral freedom that informs everything I do.” 

A feral freedom is what I’d always aimed for in this garden, and it’s why the raised beds, as useful and necessary as they were at this point, feel slightly alienating. I keep telling people, “Look, they’re like a fancy-person garden.” Which is sort of amusing on a consumerist acquisitional level, but as the long-term project of this house and this garden has been to provide a safe place to live, without succumbing to mindless bourgeois trappings, it feels weird. Those beds are the antithesis of feral freedom, although the self-seeding calendula and nasturtiums, cascading down over the sides, do their best. 

And so, I started thinking about the rest of the garden, particularly the front yard. Since Hank-dog has been banished from the front yard (because there are dogs he doesn’t get along with in the yards on either side), suddenly, I had a blank canvas to work with. As fall wore on, I mowed the grass very short, then buried it under layers of soil and fine bark mulch. I ordered peonies and spring bulbs. I moved one small cherry tree and bought another, so there will be a tiny “grove” of sour cherry trees which echoes the feral grove down the block, a grove I was overjoyed to see bearing fruit this year after having been nearly killed off in an early subzero frost in 2017. 

I had a little money this fall, and considered getting someone in to scrape off the grass entirely, maybe lay down some new soil, but every time I looked at photos of those kinds of garden installations (see these pics of the new Piet Oudolf garden going in at Belle Isle in Detroit) they felt alienating the way the raised beds are alienating. It doesn’t feel organic. Plus, I don’t have the kind of imagination that can envision all those new plants at once — I tend to buy things here and there, often off the sale table. My perennial bed in the backyard was gorgeous this year, because sort of by accident I’ve wound up with enough different varieties of hardy shrub roses that they bloomed in sequence, over and over this summer, and sent up shoots in bright greens, or even a sort of maroon. It was lovely to watch unfold. 

So we’ll see what happens in the spring. It’s certainly going to be feral. The grasses are mostly bunch grasses, so here’s hoping they won’t get too tall and overwhelming. I put a lot of bulbs in, and I’m planning on more catmint, and shrub roses, and peonies, and daisies, and the blue perennial geraniums. As for what it means, well, like all good projects, I think I’ll just have to figure that out as I go along.

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