There are almost as many different kinds of garden designs as there are gardeners. A garden can be as formal as the place setting at a royal wedding or as informal as a weekend scratch patch. It can range from urban chic (in which plants are almost incidental) to rustic or au naturelle. The whole garden can be an art form in which each plant, rock, or sand particle is a painfully chosen part of the abstract whole. It can be desert, tropical, English, Mediterranean, oriental, or Disney in theme. Or the theme might be literary, such as all the plants mentioned by Shakespeare or the Bible. It can be a rock, sand, or water garden. Or even a tactile, scented, or stir-fry garden.
Frankly, I am bored with these designs. They’ve been done to death. And I can do without terms such as harmony, simplicity, repetition, unity of design, and all the other ho-hum elements that well-designed gardens are supposed to have. Why can’t my garden be disharmonious, complex, just full of singularities, and have not the faintest trace of unity? We need to overthrow the smug know-it-alls who dare to decree what principles of design we must follow. Arise, ye poor browbeaten gardeners. Create gardens of anarchy, I say!
What we need are some wholly new designs. For instance, I would like to someday create a garden in which not a single plant has anything at all to do with any other. It would defy anyone to see a theme, pattern or relationship. The first hint of such a thing would cause me to yank out the offending plant. The plants would be from all corners of the world and have absolutely nothing in common. There would be a boojum tree right next to a pink petunia and a monkey flower. Next to these I’d plant a cabbage. And if someone asked, why did I choose this particular juxtaposition? No reason—no reason at all.
How about a garden devoted completely to weeds? Pick all the nastiest, ugliest, toughest and most despicable weeds you have ever heard of. Toss a bunch of seeds over the ground. No need to water or cultivate. Just give them plenty of room, step back and watch them fight it out. I can just see an army of Russian thistle, advancing forward to dominate the landscape, met by hordes of ragweed, nut sedge and bur clover. Who will win, and what kinds of patterns might develop in the process? Can you imagine the interesting combinations of shapes, colors, and textures that might evolve? And the best part of all is, you never have to weed it.
For those with truly weird tastes, why not plant a garden devoted to odd shapes? A garden of grotesquerie. Think of plants so monstrous, so fantastic and bizarre that they would stand out from any other. Imagine a whole garden full of such freaks. There would be crested forms of cacti, of course, and mutant examples from every major plant group. From the deserts of southwest Africa there would be a Welwitschia plant, with its long, splitting, strap-like leaves wrapping themselves around the landscape. There would be ferociously thorny, succulent Euphorbias from Africa, Madagascar palms, creeping devil cacti from Baja, and plenty of white baneberry (or doll’s eyes) flowers, whose white fruits with black spots look like hundreds of angry pupils staring back at you.
Or how about a garden devoted entirely to dead plants? Included here would be examples of species which die right after blooming, such as the most of the agaves. Just imagine what you could do with their bold, withered stems and flower stalks in every size and shape. A nice big saguaro skeleton, with ribs splitting wide open, would add a nice accent. You could also include, of course, all the thousands of plants that you have personally killed over the years. Rather than chipping them up or throwing them on the compost pile, why not utilize all those dead annuals, shrubs and trees in morbid arrangements of gray and brown? They would remind us daily of the grim mortality that lurks behind each one of our garden success stories.
Or you could opt for a variation on the scented garden, one in which each plant is chosen for its foul-smelling qualities. There would be trilliums, stapelias, skunk cabbages, carrion-flowers, of course, and lots of flies to boot. And, yes, there would be whole rows of the giant titan arum (also known as corpse flower), whose flower shape so titillated the Victorians in their steamy hothouses.
But the weirdest garden of all is the one without any plants at all. There would be nothing, in fact. No soil to till, no sand to rake, and no rocks to move around. No distracting gazebos, statues or water features. It would be a bold statement in minimalism and the ultimate meditation garden, with only the bare horizon left to contemplate. Meanwhile, I still have a few details to work out in the design.
©Gene Twaronite 2013
Originally published in 5enses Magazine, May 2013. http://www.5ensesmag.com