Order and Chaos in the Garden
The best gardens are a perfect balance of order and chaos. The tension created by this constantly threatened balance is the pulse of the garden itself. (Helen Humphreys, The Lost Garden, p. 19)
Recently, when I was trying to decide what to read next and looking for some garden inspiration, I picked up a gift from a friend, The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys (W.W. Norton, 2002). I thought this was a garden memoir, but it turned out to be a novel, set during World War II in England. The protagonist of the novel, Gwen, is a horticulturist who joins the Women’s Land Army, is posted to an estate in Devon, and ends up falling in love with a garden.
The novel was mesmerizing, and it certainly provided the garden inspiration I was looking for. I was particularly struck by the quote at the top of this post, a theme that runs throughout the book and which led me to think in new ways about my gardening experience.
I am a person who loves order (describing me as borderline OCD probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration). Not surprisingly, my early gardening attempts were characterized by too much orderliness (e.g., lining up plants in straight rows like soldiers in formation!). Even after I learned to think in curves and circles rather than rectangles and rows, my garden design process remained a very orderly one. I make lists of plants with their characteristics, do systematic sun studies of new garden areas, and plan everything out on graph paper before I plant.
Once I have planted an orderly new flower bed, it is time for Mother Nature to move in and disrupt all that order by introducing elements of chaos. Plants don’t always behave as expected. Some don’t get along with their neighbors and need to be relocated. Some plants don’t make it, and I may choose their replacements in a more impulsive way, without all that orderly planning. Plants that are happy in their new homes grow in unexpected ways and make unplanned (and often very pleasing) combinations. Not only do the plants grow together as they mature, but I find myself squeezing in new plants that are impulse purchases or gifts from friends or divisions of much-loved plants that grow elsewhere in my garden. I can’t say that any part of my garden has ever achieved Humphreys’ “perfect balance of order and chaos,” but the plantings improve as they mature.
I am never going to become a gardener who brings plants home and puts them in the ground, expanding old flower beds and creating new ones as I go; that would require a personality transplant! But my education as a gardener is very much about learning from Mother Nature and being more open to the chaos of living things. As I become a more experienced gardener, I have more confidence in my ability to decide when to let the chaos introduced by natural processes go and when to intervene. (Is that a charming self-sown wildflower that should be allowed to stay or a weed that will turn into a thug if I let it get a foothold?)
Some have described gardens as a delicate balance of natural processes and human intervention. I am still pondering how that is related to Humphreys’ balance of order and chaos. Your thoughts?