The Spiritual Gardener: The Garden Is Bilingual

Unexpected Beauty: Pebbles, Weeds and Water. Photo Credit: David Jenson

The garden speaks to us in two languages: beauty and silence. One of the differences between an ordinary gardener and a great gardener is that the great gardener learns, usually over a long life of hard work and respectful study, to speak at least one of these languages.

The easier of the two is the language of silence. I do not mean that there is no noise in the garden, although in general they are not very noisy places. We love the garden for the sounds of birds and other wildlife that enliven the scene year-round. The sound of the wind in the leaves in summer and whistling through the bare trees in winter distinctive, symphonic and greatly varied; the blowing of leaves in autumn can be downright soothing. And what could be better than the sound of water in a garden, whether natural or artificial, for irrigation or contemplation or ornament?

A gardener knows that beauty is everywhere, but sometimes it is quietly subtle. Once, on a late autumn walk in some nearby woods, we came upon some common weeds growing in a shallow stream or rill, with half a dozen autumn leaves sprinkled round. Pebbles, weeds and water; silence and fluid movement, the spangle of a handful of fallen leaves. Sometimes, we find beauty where we’re not expecting it.

When the garden is speaking to you of beauty, it is as eloquent in its way as the loving look you get from a spouse when you realize you are quietly being observed, or the look you get from your difficult teenagers when they realize how much you love them but they don’t want to acknowledge it. The way your dog looks up at you with his eyes brimming with admiration for the brilliant and omnipotent friend he considers you to be, and you shrink a bit inside yourself because you know you are not really worthy of such great esteem. These are the looks that speak volumes, and our gardens communicate to us in exactly the same way. The difficulty is to hear it.

Go outside in the garden when you can have a quiet hour, and walk slowly through it. Stop to rest and look around in several places, study the garden intensely and listen to what it is telling you. The chores it wants you to do, the changes it wants you to make, the things that are just not right. That plant struggling hopelessly in the wrong sort of environment. That path that needs to be moved.  That beloved plant that just doesn’t look right anymore and needs to be brutally cut back or removed.

But look at the great things and the good things as well: all the successes planned and unplanned. The things that had the heart and character to grow back to strength when you had given up on them. The surprises that ended up looking just right. The dozens of creatures whose every look and need and habit you know intimately; you love them all, with all their faults, like family and old friends.

This special communion between the garden and the gardener, this sort of horticultural sympathy or telepathy has long been noticed and commented upon. The formidable English garden writer E.A. Bowles, for example, in his classic book My Garden in Spring (1914), wrote of great gardeners who possess “an inexplicable knowledge and feeling [enabling them to receive] a sort of wireless message from the plant to the invisible antennae of the gardener…”

Or listen to the way the great garden designer Russell Page articulates his special gift for seeing the constituent parts of the garden design: “My understanding is that every object emanates – sends out vibrations beyond its physical body which are specific to itself. These vibrations vary with the nature of the object, the materials it is made of, its colour, its texture and its form.” Compose the elements correctly and the emanations and vibrations are right and it feels right, the artist can see that it is so.  Change them slightly and the design is simply all wrong.

And what a good discipline it is for the gardener to listen hard to what the garden is saying. Too often the gardener is out in the garden as one imposing his divine order on a chaotic corner of the world. His is the power of creation and destruction, life and death, flourishing and perishing. I saw myself that way as a young gardener, in my juvenile folly.  As I have grown more mellow and more experienced, I have learned that at most we are a partner in the garden and, I increasingly suspect, the junior partner of the enterprise.  Sometimes I wonder if gardeners are strictly necessary at all.  Of this I am sure: a really great gardener has gotten most of the ego sandpapered off him over time, and he listens to what the garden is trying to tell him in the language of silence, and he knows in his heart that his place is not so much to order the garden to his liking as it is to cooperate with the garden in fulfilling its beautifully unfolding potential.

Most gardeners are drawn to gardening for strong esthetic reasons: gardens are inherently about beauty.  Other things too, of course: food, medicine, philosophy, tradition, life.  But beauty is right up there, and most gardeners have a strong sense of what is beautiful.

My mind is running along this groove of beauty because of something that happened just this afternoon.  I was suddenly struck by how over-the-top gorgeous our solitary, tall pink rose is as it stood in a shaft of sunshine that seemed to light it up like a spotlight. At the top was one last rose of the season, looking rather blown, but still magnificent. And as I stood still and was silently admiring it, at an unseen and unheard cue, the pink petals suddenly dropped, creating a shower of brilliantly lit pink spangles, floating silently down through a golden shaft of crystalline sunlight.  And to think I might have missed it had I not been right there just at that moment.  Yep, another miracle, all right.

There is more a gardener can do, other than just being conscious of looking at the garden more intently and with quiet study, to see the garden more clearly.  Two tools that should be part of every gardener’s equipment and should always be close to hand, if not actually in your pocket, are a small camera and a note pad.  The camera allows you to capture the beauty that you see and just having it in your pocket makes you look for beauty as you go about your rounds. In the same way, carrying a notepad to jot down some observations about what you are seeing makes you a more diligent observer. These are small things but they sharpen your sight in surprising ways.

Reading about the garden is as important as writing about it, and every serious gardener should be a serious garden reader. For beginning gardeners, I usually recommend books by Henry Mitchell’s. He has a lovely mellow gardening sensibility, and is serious about gardening but without being doctrinaire about it; he also has a wonderfully sly sense of humor and his books are crammed with information and wise experience.  Plus, these charming books will lead you on to other great writers.

One last thing. It was Elizabeth Lawrence who said, in The Little Bulbs in 1957: “From putting together the experiences of gardeners in different places, a conception of plants begins to form.  Gardening, reading about gardening, and writing about gardening are all one; no one can garden alone.”

No one can garden alone; what a wonderful thought. Really seeing our gardens, reading and writing about them, and photographing them, we are connected directly to the beauty strewn around us and to the great society of fellow gardeners who are steeped in it and who, like us, speak the garden’s languages of silence and beauty.

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David Jensen writes the popular American blog “The Garden Interior,” which chronicles his garden in southern New Jersey. Please visit at www.TheGardenInterior.com. You can follow David Jensen on Twitter at @GardenInterior.