Bring Me Stories, Bring Me Songs, by Caleb Melchior

August 23, 2017

in Articles, From the USA, General Interest

This is effectively the third post about Conceptual gardens. Or at least, about concepts and gardens. Does it take us forward?

Anne Wareham, editor
Anne Wareham copyright Charles Hawes





 Bring Me Stories, Bring Me Songs: Growing a Richer Garden Ethic by Caleb Melchior.

I come from a family comfortable with teetering back and forth on the ledge of cognitive dissonance between faith and the scientific method. My father likes the consistent laws of physics. An egg couldn’t fall off the counter without becoming subject of an object lesson on calculating trajectories, velocity, and force upon impact. Same with chemistry. Us Melchior children would cry over spilt milk, not because it was wasted, but because we’d get drawn into endless practical calculations of temperature effects on evaporation and absorption rates of different household surfaces.

After which we’d go into unironic discussions of Noah’s flood and apocalyptic Revelations.

Like making scrambled eggs in the household where I grew up, making a garden involves navigating systems of values that merge clearly-ordered physical systems with subjective aesthetic and psychological considerations. It’s messy. Since each of us is a human interacting with other human and non-human beings (plus ecological systems), the making and experience of a garden is a complex field of intention and interactions.

In today’s design discussions, all of these complex considerations are often distilled down to the basic idea of a “concept”. It wasn’t until I attended an entire semester seminar dedicated to Theory of Landscape Architecture that I realized that a “concept” is just the primary premise of a garden. Why are you doing this? What is the point of this place?

Perguia Horto Botanico, thinkingardens

Poorly executed conceptual gardens aren’t solely contemporary mistakes – this is the Zodiac Garden at University of Perugia’s Medieval Garden


The gardens we most often hear described as “conceptual” are those with an explicit narrative. You’ve seen the photos, read the aggravated blog comments. Consider “Green without Greed”, Jessica Canfield and Katie Leise’s installation of a garden completely formed of synthetic lawn at the 2014 International Festival of Gardens at Chaumont-Sur-Loire. Or the “Border Control” Garden made of razor wire and dying trees at Hampton Court in 2016. These gardens require the same sort of attention as installation art: they question garden norms, display new materials, generate questions and provoke conversation.

Olympic Park

A geographical concept informed plant choices for the 2012 Olympic Gardens at Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford, UK – here’s the Europe border in June 2017


It’s easy to get caught up in the literal execution of narratives in some of these gardens and dismiss “concepts” as another pile of designer horse hockey. But all gardens have some idea underlying them. Even a whiskey barrel stuffed with seed-grown 6-pack petunias has the basic concept of providing bright flower color in a bleak environment.

Often the concept is presented as one of three primary functions: edible, ecological, or ornamental. Edible gardens prioritize providing for human physical needs. Ecological gardens focus on needs of other species, replicating wild plant combinations and providing habitat. Ornamental gardens provide for human aesthetic enjoyment. They’re often focused on a regional plant palette or color scheme. Jay Sifford focused the concept of his garden a bit more, enhancing light effects in his beech wood by blocking in masses of light- and dark-foliaged plants. Charlie Bloom took the techniques and basic form of a show garden, removed the narrative element, and focused on aesthetic pleasure in her Colourbox No-Concept Garden.

Gardeners often catch designers out because, with hands-on experience of making gardens, we know that there’s a lot more to making gardens than just catchy big ideas. A concept is a great starting point for describing, selling, and guiding design decisions. But there’s going to be a whole body of choices that aren’t determined by the concept. For that, you need a landscape ethic.

Merriam-Webster defines the term “ethic” as “a set of moral principles; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group professional ethics; a guiding philosophy.” So, a landscape ethic involves a set of principles or values that determine how we make decisions in garden-making.

Each of us already has a landscape ethic. It’s rarely a clearly articulated body of rules. Instead, it’s likely to be a grubby mental treasure map compiled from received wisdom and personal experience. Will I use glysophate? Will I order a prefabricated trellising system or cobble one together myself out of leftover hazel prunings? Our decisions on such choices demonstrate a landscape ethic. Many of us just don’t know how to articulate or clearly lay out these values that make up a landscape ethic and the ways that they influence our decision-making process in gardening and garden design.

Native American oral tradition is particularly rich in stories about sunflowers, all of the abundant and various species of Helianthus and Heliopsis found throughout North Americ


How might we get better at articulating and discussing landscape ethics?

– Build a more diverse dialogue that better reflects the complexities and contradictions of dealing with the world, particularly in that concentrated encounter that we call the garden. Consider how people have shared beliefs and knowledge about landscape throughout history.

Aboriginal peoples in Australia have a magical tradition of song lines that cross the landscape, forming oral maps peopled with humans and non-human beings.

People of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific created incredible physical maps built from twigs and shells as a way of interpreting the physical world.

First Nations peoples in the United States evolved an incredible body of songs, parables, and stories which express truths about the landscape and humans’ relationship to it (for an introduction, read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass).

Even within the Abrahamic tradition, in the Bible and the Qur’an, knowledge and belief are embodied in many forms: stories, proverbs, poetry, and songs.

The Lurie Garden’s adjacency to the Chicago Art Institute provides a physical extension of the galleries, hopefully prompting a richer dialogue about landscape and art


The richness of these cultural traditions surrounding landscape reveals insufficiency in today’s garden media. Coverage of gardens – and wider landscapes – is almost purely through short informative talks, how-to essays, photographs and sentence-length signage. Perhaps it’s no wonder that our contemporary dialogue around gardens has worn thin.

So, what’s the way forward? Don’t abandon the essays, papers and research reports. They’re important. But let’s do more. Let’s look to the traditions of the past and build a richer body of work that explores both the objective and subjective aspects of landscapes. Dance me an Appalachian Spring. Rhyme me your memories of the lilacs blooming in the dooryard. Tickle me with your memory of gardens in the rain.  Bring me poetry, allegories, stories and songs – and then I’ll listen to the details of your garden’s concept.

Caleb Melchior

Caleb Melchior is a landscape designer, based in Arkansas and working throughout the southeastern United States. You can follow his escapades on Instagram ( and his grumblings on the blog ( This piece has been modified from the original, which ran on his blog as “Bring Me Poetry, Bring Me Songs” on 4 August 2017

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