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Order and Chaos in the Garden

January 25, 2015

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.

First fence border planting plan

fence border tallOnce 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.

fence border inner blooms

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?

23 Comments leave one →
  1. January 25, 2015 10:52 pm

    When we first start gardening, we think that human intervention is the order and natural process is the chaos. As we mature as gardeners, and probably as people too, we begin to relax and understand that natural processes do not necessarily lead to chaos and can often achieve a better result than order imposed by us.

    • January 28, 2015 9:19 pm

      Carolyn, my question at the end of this post came out of my sense that it was too simple to equate order with human intervention and chaos with nature but an inability to sort out the relationships. Others have gotten further than I was able to; see especially Jane’s and Stacy’s comments below.

  2. January 25, 2015 11:55 pm

    Morning Jean! To me the order vs chaos theory is the most central one in gardening, even more than colour and texture etc. Last night at dusk I sat looking across my squared off main lawn. The perennial beds in the foreground are blowsy but still in flower, but the layers of regular straight lines in the composition give enough order for the effect to be entirely charming, rather than in need of fixing.
    My overall design philosophy has always been ‘order and ideas against the wider setting of the valley and the undeveloped areas. ‘
    Pope spoke 300 years ago of gardens as ‘nature methodised’. In our more democratic age I’d describe gardening as the conversation between nature (chaos) and man (order). And that opens the huge debate about who represents what, as today we tend to think of nature representing much deeper order than destructive man. I see a post coming… 🙂

    • January 28, 2015 9:21 pm

      Jack, Like you, I have gardens surrounded by wildlands, and that clearly influences how I think about order and chaos. Your metaphor of the conversation really resonates for me, and that conversation takes place in my head as well as in the garden.
      I hope you will post more about this.

  3. January 26, 2015 6:01 am

    Order and chaos are in a perpetual dance together in nature. Similarly in people, where order often represents will and chaos a loss of will, or a loss of its imposition. The word conversation gets to the point in Jack’s comment above – the order~chaos continuum is not a line – it’s a series of whirling intersected circles, where order resolves into chaos and vice versa on different levels, in different dynamics. You cannot pin it down in a garden, you can move in and out, using your vision and your understanding.

    That all sounds a bit high flown, and your original quote said it better and more briefly. I always think the most effective thing you can do in a garden is tidy up the unnatural rubbish that tends to accumulate, then make some spaces.

    • January 28, 2015 9:34 pm

      Jane, I love your high flown ideas, especially the complex image of the whirling intersecting circles and the understanding that order and chaos exist in different levels and dynamics.
      I do think, however, that the best thing to do in a garden may depend on the gardener’s style and starting point. If, like me, you tend toward too much neatness and too much space between plants, the best thing to do may be to let those spaces fill in in unexpected ways.

  4. January 26, 2015 2:26 pm

    Like yours, my gardens start out orderly but, in my case, I think my own practices add as much to the chaos – perhaps more sometimes – than nature. I’m still experimenting with plants for this garden and the drought here has added complications, with water restrictions leading to more untimely demises than I want to count. The holes get filled but the original concept for the space often gets lost in the process, leaving some areas looking disjointed. I wish that nature would take charge and spread more of my plants about to fill the empty spaces but there’s been little of that to date. However, December’s rains have produced more seedlings this year so my wish for controlled chaos remains intact.

    • January 28, 2015 9:40 pm

      Kris, I had been thinking about how the gardener’s personality shapes this balance between order and chaos, but your comment also points to the importance of the environments in which we garden. Because I garden in a high-humidity environment, I think of natural processes as filling in any space as soon as I turn my back and of plants reproducing readily. In this climate, I can begin with too-orderly plantings and let nature fill in and create a more lush, layered look. I would need to think very differently about how to create a garden in a climate where that didn’t happen.

  5. January 26, 2015 5:28 pm

    I tend to choose and get, plants that grow with great enthusiasm. That gives me the needed dose of chaos. The order comes from the paths, and the colour themes. I’m also learning to appreciate a topiary punctuation among the chaos.

    • January 28, 2015 9:42 pm

      Diana, This is also one of the ways that I get a needed dose of chaos, letting the plants that grow enthusiastically in my garden reproduce and spread. I tend to use big foliage plants, like hostas, to create punctuation and rhythm in my plantings.

  6. January 27, 2015 12:33 pm

    I suppose I do like order in my own garden, doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the more unruly look in others.

    • January 28, 2015 9:45 pm

      Alistair, This raises another complication in thinking about the balance of order and chaos — that different gardeners have a different sense of where the “perfect balance” lies. I remember taking my mother to visit the garden of a friend who is a much more accomplished gardener than I and a gardening mentor to me. After we got home, my mother noted that she liked my neater, more orderly garden more than my friend’s more unruly looking one.

  7. January 28, 2015 7:36 am

    I don’t have a garden now, but the promise of “some space” in a terrace. That makes me anxious but at least I will play with order and chaos in that really small space. I feel you are just in the best position you can be, where you value order and chaos and enjoy it working with Mother Nature, any result will be a huge success because you are just embracing nature.

    • January 28, 2015 9:54 pm

      Lula, I’m probably saved from my overly controlling tendencies by having come to gardening from a love of wildflowers. I still love those wildflowers and I’m always looking for ways to welcome them into my garden.
      I hope you get your terrace space soon and can create your own balance of order and chaos there.

  8. January 28, 2015 3:16 pm

    The novel sounds wonderful, Jean!

    I’m thinking about a direct mapping of order/chaos onto human intervention/natural processes, and I’m not quite sure it works. Nature has its own order, after all — it just doesn’t happen in groups of three. That is, human aesthetic choices and healthy ecosystems are two different kinds of order. Aesthetic choices sometimes impose chaos on the natural order, which then endeavors to right itself. That’s part of the tension: two orders with sometimes conflicting aims. I don’t know whether I’m saying this clearly, and I don’t mean it in a moralistic way, just a practical one. My own garden is more softly orderly and much less chaotic to manage now that I’ve let more natural processes (self-seedings, pest management, etc.) run their course. Which is a teeny bit sad, as I dearly love formal gardens that radiate “HUMAN INTERVENTION!” and planning gardens is one of my favorite things to do. Your diagram above pushed just about all the happy buttons I have.

    • January 28, 2015 9:58 pm

      Stacy, Like you, I had a sense that it didn’t work to just map order/chaos onto human intervention/natural processes. I think we get much further with your idea that human intervention and natural processes are two different kinds of order and that what is a righting of order in one system can be chaos and disruption in the other.
      Conversations like this one that stimulate my thinking push all my happy buttons 🙂 .

  9. January 29, 2015 7:47 pm

    I have long wanted order in what seems to be my chaotic garden. That is until this past year. I think my observations last year solidified that no matter what plans and order I try and impart, nature has her way. And I really have enjoyed seeing how nature creates order out of what appears to be chaos. I will be trying to capture that in my garden this year. Of course I have no idea what that might look like right now… thing for sure is that my garden rarely looks the same year after year especially since I have been gardening for wildlife….letting nature get a stronger hold in the garden makes for interesting garden views.

    • January 30, 2015 12:55 pm

      Donna, Your observations seem consonant with Stacy’s suggestion that we are dealing with two different systems of order. Finding the right balance between order and chaos may really be about finding the right balance between these two different types of order.

  10. January 31, 2015 5:38 am

    Jean, your post had me thinking of how my gardening has changed over the years. I used to cram so much into one space to get that lush third year of the garden look — at first planting. Now, especially as a zone 10 gardener, I appreciate the space and letting the plants fill in in their own sweet time. Glad your filling your winter days with a good book — or two or three…

  11. February 1, 2015 7:10 am

    Hi Jean, you’re so much more organised than I am! While I do have ideas in my mind about how I want a particular part of the garden or border to look, I rarely get further than pencil scribbles on paper (see my “Master Plan” for the new garden on a dirty scrap of A5). Even then, they always end up deviating!

  12. February 7, 2015 3:42 pm

    I start with how I want the area to feel and look. I decide if I want color, serenity, a jumbly mix of pollinator plants, etc and then go from there. I see it in my head and then write it all down. I’m such a bad artist that drawing it is pointless. Then I tweak the bed for the next couple of years. I tend to be very organized, too, but sometimes I’ll see a plant online or at the garden center that I know is perfect for the spot, I just hadn’t thought about it. Then I go home and rearrange everything. 🙂

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