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Garden Thought: Toward a Theory of Horticulture

Why do we garden? What are the conceptual origins of ornamental horticulture, and how does that inform a judgment of what might constitute a “good garden?” How does a garden come to be, and how does a gardener relate to those who share the garden with her? It’s surprising that these are questions that mostly remain unexamined, in a world where many people garden passionately. Scholars and theoreticians devote their lives to the study of art or literature or architecture, but somehow gardening philosophy is nearly nonexistent.

Garden Thought proposes a structure for understanding horticulture in coherent terms, and for practicing seriously and thoughtfully. There are terms and conceptual structures and parameters that inform those who garden; this is an attempt to articulate them and fit them into a coherent framework.

Available for purchase at Garden Thought: Toward a Theory of Horticulture or search “gardening theory” at

Garden Thought Chapter 1: Where Do We Start?

Why don’t we talk about gardening?

 We gardeners talk about plants and about the gardens we know, and the horticultural anecdote is its own literary form. But we don’t talk about what gardening means.

We should.

Gardening isn’t a trade or a hobby. It’s a true practice, an activity that is essential to our survival and to the meaning in our lives. It defines our relationship to our world, and it has since our first ancestors settled down to build huts in the savannah. A horticultural decision starts with a visceral experience of how a plant inhabits its ground, moves through botanical taxonomy, color theory, predictive entomology, soil chemistry, local climatology, design intention, original provenance, historical connotation, environmental awareness, site development, social theory, weed potential, structural function, temporal expectations, physical labor, critical interpretation…and these considerations and more continue until the plant is finally removed from the garden, perhaps generations of gardeners later. Gardening is sophisticated.

There are reasons to run scared from a rigorous conversation about horticulture. Planting a seed and watching it grow is fundamental and uncontroversial, and if simple seems to work, why should we be required to pay attention any other level? But we lose so much of the richness of what we do as horticulturists – of any stripe – when we don’t try to understand ourselves and the thing we love. This is a path that leads in directions yet unknown, and it should engender hot disagreements and passionate argument. There’s nearly none of that now, and, for the sake of gardening, there should be.

It’s important to start this line of discussion with a solid definition: What is ornamental horticulture, exactly?

This is a specific question. Ornamental horticulture is fundamentally different from gardening for food: there are different values, different processes, and different results. So, the definition we are looking for concerns only decorative gardens.

It seems simple enough, then: ornamental gardening is cultivating plants for aesthetic reasons. But let’s insist on a better idea of definition of an important human practice.

Let’s propose that a definition should be broad enough to include all the aspects of that which it defines, but it should be specific so that it doesn’t define anything else. It should be more of an argument than a fully-formed truth – that is, we should be able to launch alternate definitions and critique each, which means that our definition should not be merely obvious.

The definition above doesn’t measure up well to this proposal. Most clearly, gardening can’t ever be plants without context – and this is not a minor oversight. Among other enormous aspects of horticulture, I would argue that a gardener creates space as one of her or his primary goals. Without much thought, ‘taking care of flowers’ fails the definition test, and I think most practitioners would agree.

Then there’s the idea of aesthetics, a very troublesome and ill-defined concept. Does it just mean taste? If so, our definition above could just be, ‘Growing flowers that look pretty to me.’ But there must be something more if gardening is social and shared, as it obviously is. And this simple definition is not elegant; it is trivial.

The study of horticultural aesthetics has distinct characteristics of its own. Gardening assumes that perception of beauty is linked to being in relationship with that which absolutely is. To garden is to change something with respect to plants that are alive, with or without us. Whether they are beautiful or not is not just a matter of taste, it is an intricate relation with the realities of the world, profound ambiguities that are lost when gardeners make an arbitrary judgment or invoke a vague shared concept of attractiveness. There is much more here than meets the eye, so to speak.

Suffice it to say, then, that our definition above is limited to the point of meaninglessness.

There are other candidates for definitions. One is that gardening is ‘an art and a science.’ But art is usually about the creation of consistent statements – paintings that don’t change, poems that are the same text, ballets in which the choreography is the same – juxtaposed with the interpretation of viewers and performers. There’s always an element of analysis, because arts are created to be thought about. And while gardening certainly has elements that are similar to those of art, the extent to which plants have life of their own broadens their world in what would seem to be a completely different direction. We grow plants in part because they are their own statements, just by virtue of being. In other words, the audience and the gardener have entirely different relationships with gardening than the artist and her or his audience has with a work of art.

Horticulture is no science, either. It borrows heavily from botany, but ultimately its values are much more about what a plant does for a person than it is about objective curiosity about natural world. A botanist studies a plant starting with the smallest of details: the number of sepals, say, or the shape of the corolla. The analysis then builds on those features to create an identity and a name for the specimen, and to propose broader connections with other specimens as being of the same species or family or order. This extends further into questions of the way plants grow in a community, or into explorations of the ways in which plants operate internally.

Gardeners seldom know anything other than the most rudimentary botanical terms, and instead know plants based on their general qualities and their use in the landscape. Hardly any botanist would be interested in the variety of daffodils, for example, except a passing glance to the variability of flower shape and size and bloom time within a single species. Horticulturists, though, are obsessed with the minute differences between specific strains and cultivars, and the system for classifying daffodils is elaborate and very useful in terms of gaining some measure of control in the garden. Cultivar is a meaningless term to a botanist, and it is among the most important to a horticulturist.

A third definition is that gardening is a psychic connection to the natural world. Being in touch with ‘Gaia’ is an assertion of inexplicable spiritual connection that stops any intelligible discussion. This definition is absurd because it leaves nothing more to be said. Certainly, there is a spiritual element in horticulture, and that element can be thought about and talked about in many ways, as can any profound idea. But the choice to end analysis there is inconsistent with our capacity to think about our spiritual experiences, a basic feature of humanity. Proposing that garden is one of the few things we don’t talk about analytically means that its full complexity goes unexamined, which is an unnecessary and indeed a tragic loss.

It’s pretty easy to knock down the operative definitions of horticulture. But knocking down is not nearly as interesting as trying to build up.

There’s a philosophical tradition of trying to identify some fundamental ideas and techniques of thought to initiate a string of theories. It’s a good way to begin, not least because it invites debate at any stage of the structure. If I say that a gardening is x, which leads to a and b, someone else can say x, but not a or b. Or even more interestingly, someone can say, “x is ridiculous!” But we need an x to start with. Here’s mine.

People, as a fundamental and necessary trait, wreck the ground around them as they carry out all of their activities. The four most important human functions are perhaps the four most serious offenders: building a hut produces harsh, packed earth; paths are edged by tangles of brush and vines; vegetable gardens or fields invite weeds that spread outward in every direction; and animal husbandry creates packed earth and destroyed ecosytems. These are unavoidable consequences.

The most modern equivalents of these basic practices have the same problems: A skyscraper packs the ground around it incredibly; a six-lane highway has medians and roadsides that take enormous effort to control; an agribusiness field produces weeds and erosion at an unbelievable level; and the ground in a fenced 100,000 acre ranch is changed forever by the cattle there.

Under all of these conditions, plants return to take over spaces, no matter how barren. The damaged place becomes home to the hardiest, fastest growing, most opportunistic plants. If you let the space around your log cabin go, you’ll soon be covered over with Vitis –  wild grape –  and Toxicodendron – poison ivy – vines. If they’re slow to do so, the bare earth will wash away, and your house on the hill will end up missing major pieces that it needs to shelter you.

Once the soil disruption has happened, we’re presented with the necessity and the responsibility to deal with it. This is called gardening.

So: “Gardening is the necessary, fundamental, ongoing interaction with the disturbed ground that surrounds human habitation.”

If this definition is any good, it should be inclusive, and it seems to be. I can’t think of an ornamental garden that doesn’t fall into this category, including everything from huge estates to small backyard gardens to crudely chopped roadsides. They all are the treatment of disturbed earth.

Our definition also has to be specific enough to not define anything else. Beyond just paving everything over to keep it capped off, as in a toxic waste site, mowing or planting beds or parks or lines of street trees all qualify as gardens, where museums or flower shops are not. We’ve captured something that’s both broad enough and narrow enough to be coherent.

If this idea is to be more than just an odd thought, it has to lead to more layers, more ideas that follow from the first and can be argued in the light of theory and practice. The basic idea has to lay the foundation for a set of values, a way to talk with others about the nature and quality of various ways of dealing with torn-up ground. I propose six basic values that I think follow immediately:

• Gardening must be practical. If we’re taking on barren ground, we need to be able to judge how effective we are at it. It’s not much of a garden if it takes over the house we’ve built and tears the mortar out from between the bricks. It’s safe to say that gardening that makes space less livable rather than more is lousy gardening.

• Gardening, then, is a practical effort is designed to make a space safe from erosion and weeds. Linked to this need must be the sense that the space actually is safe. This is what we’ll call a psychological value in gardening: a place that feels ill-defined, out of control, and unlivable, has to be judged harshly as a garden.

• The psychological aspect of gardening cannot be the final end, as our sense of being part of something that extends beyond basic needs must be described further in terms of aesthetic values. To see why being with a garden extends beyond merely creating a controlled space, we have to talk about the variety of sensual experiences showy plants provide; about the hard work of acknowledging gardens and plants for what they are; and about the intersection of garden, gardener, and audience, which is horticulture’s locus.

• Gardening’s social significance and shared meaning build the individual work of the gardener into an appropriately bigger narrative. Historical and cultural issues are crucial to any inquiry into any field, and this is a particular hole in the study of horticulture. There are a number of perspectives from which to approach these questions, from anthropology and sociology to history and iconography.

• Gardening is also an ethical and a moral business. We owe it to our gardening partners and to the gardeners who will follow to plant and prune and eradicate in a way that creates a long-lasting garden. We also owe it to the larger world to cross the cultivated boundary with relevant ideas, but to avoid inflicting harm.

• Making sense of all of this is the function of synthesis, and it is the missing piece in almost all of current horticultural thought. Putting something to the test of critical examination is what differentiates a strong practice from a weak one, a fundamental idea from a secondary or tertiary one, a richly meaningful activity from a hobby.

But gardening is not inherently suited to analytical examination. Instead, the horticulturologist works constantly to pull things together – to draw conclusions based on identifying the multiple aspects of a particular plant or garden bed or space and thinking about them at once. Judgments about gardens are based on critical synthesis: putting all of the elements into a model, then evaluating the model as a whole. The critic who tries to break pieces out to consider individually, or the critic who tries to work backwards from a present appearance to a meaning, fails to comprehend that a garden exists as it is in the moment. The truth of a garden lies in all of its current qualities in relationship with all of its others.

Gardening stands up to critical thought. Writers and lecturers tend to rely on pictures of plants, on how-to manuals, or at best on gardening as a metaphor. With the tools we’ve assembled to talk gardening, I argue that we can get beyond this. We can, and should, understand gardening as one of our most fundamental practices. And we should stop being ashamed to be horticulturists.

Book available for purchase at Garden Thought: Toward a Theory of Ornamental Horticulture