Accidental Garden, Natural Beauty

Natural GardeningXeric and natural landscapes ask, “What is a garden for?”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That well-manicured lawn with its precisely-trimmed shrubs and hedges may look okay around an old-money McMansion, but is that what you want in your open space? With water-wise planting, conversion of labor-and-liquid-intensive lawns, and utilization of native plants, many of us are providing new answers to an old question: What is a garden for?

James Golden’s garden in a cleared patch of woods above the Delaware River in New Jersey is, as he says, good for nothing. But he doesn’t really mean it. His acreage is a jumble of native and exotic plannings, a sort of living collage constructed of many pieces, each having their own interest, but assembling into one attractive whole. When he says it’s good for nothing, he means that it has no utilitarian uses. But it is plenty useful in the larger sense. You can see a slide show of Mr. Golden’s garden, one that emphasizes its various parts, here. To get the full effect, visit his website”View From Federal Twist” here.

Golden’s Federal Twist garden isn’t unlike any garden you’ve ever seen. It looks natural. Yet it’s anything but. Golden has crowded a variety of plantings, mostly grasses, into the space he made by cutting out some 80 scrub cedars. It’s meant to be something of a prairie but its actually full of berry-bearing brush, tall plants that might elsewhere be considered weeds with dangling seed pods, and clumps of exotic grasses not readily apparent in any natural grass land. The place is a curiosity that provides an unusual answer to our question about the purpose of gardens.

Golden recently came up with the kind of answer that most of us–me anyway–wouldn’t normally consider. I’ll admit right here that landscapes and garden beds aren’t my emphasis. Sure, I like to grow flowers along borders and give the patio some life with beautiful plants, maybe even vegetables growing in pots and hanging baskets. To me, a garden is utilitarian. I’m growing vegetables.

While not completely utilitarian — vegetable gardens, with their trailing squash vines, bushy tomato plants, upright rows of broccoli, and tall clusters of sweet corn — have their own aesthetic appeal. But Mr. Golden is adamant. His garden, he declares, has no utilitarian value whatsoever. “I would say the main purpose of this garden is aesthetic, ornamental, even emotional,” he tells a reporter. “And I don’t think most Americans think of gardens in those terms at all.” Mr. Golden describes his garden as a place “to sit in, think about, look at the sky in, live in. In my case, it’s sort of a psychological exploration of the hidden, the part of myself that never got expressed because I was such a timid, shy little boy. I learned to adapt over the years to living in the world.”

In a sense, everyone’s garden is a reflection of themselves. Golden’s is just more creative, more expressionistic, and more honest than most. Those of us who choose to plant our lettuce in tidy rows and set individual marigolds along our sidewalks are doing what thousands of others have done. And if that’s what satisfies us, fine and dandy. But being just a bit adventurous, say trying to grow that lettuce in foot-square plots or crowding in some other annuals along with our marigolds is something of a liberating experience.

This kind of personal expression through gardening, always an aspect of considered landscaping, is even more prevalent now with the growing interest in natural plantings and xeric landscapes. Mr. Golden’s garden is a sort of exaggerated form of that, a multi-faceted creation that may seem cluttered and haphazard but, in that (we suspect), reflects Mr. Golden’s world view. We can see for ourselves that it’s a beautiful place. Another interesting quality: with its changing colors and dried flower arrangement look, it’s especially attractive now, in autumn, when our manicured, utilitarian gardens are shriveling away. We bet it will have an entirely different set of attractions come winter.

Golden’s website lists other like-minded (and not so) gardeners from around the globe. Here’s a couple, here and here. We invite you to explore the whole group of sites. We found each valuable, like a garden, in its own way.