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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Vanessa Gardner Nagel August 29, 2017 at 7:12 pm

What a delightful article! For me I feel as though we are tripping over vocabulary.. ‘Design concept’, conceptual’, and ‘landscape ethic’ are excellent descriptors, but what’s missing for me are words like ‘theme’ and ‘cohesion’. I find it important to discover a theme for gardens that I design because it creates meaning and a basis on which to edit. Landscape ethics are part of that theme, but seem to have a broader meaning than that. ‘Concept’ seems to apply to a big idea, much like ‘theme’. I’m not sure the term ‘conceptual garden’ means anything other than one that has not yet been constructed. At least that seems to be how we apply the term on the ‘Left Coast’.

Tim Ingram August 27, 2017 at 10:53 am

This is a very specific example that catches the thrust of your very good article. “It was the chance of proposing a dream” (de Ávila) – It comes from a talk we had from the kew Diploma student Ruth Calder about Oaxaca and these much deeper relationships between people, place, science and Art I come from that scientific/ecological viewpoint of plants but more and more I begin to appreciate that artistic and social vision of gardening too.

Patrick Regnault August 27, 2017 at 2:30 am

Very interesting indeed. There is, for the most part, a concept behind all gardens, but perhaps it is the conscious articulation of this concept and the desire to question it that is missing in many gardener. As creators, we get our ideas from many sources, our concepts are not coming out of thin air but as a mixture of our conscious decisions and unconscious bias. This is definitely a discussion worth having

D Warwick August 24, 2017 at 2:27 pm

Thank you – a breath of fresh air, with clearly made points.
Of course, any ‘built’ creation (from any discipline, be it offices, gardens or even IT systems) starts with a concept, and the construction and maintenance of it inevitably reflects the designer/builder/client’s ethics. Often, so-called “conceptual gardens” are physical installations merely intent on hammering home a single point, and somewhat ephemeral as a consequence – as per David’s comment.
More from Caleb please editor! Have just looked his website and very taken with his perceptions, especially the article on Humility in Garden Design.

Caleb D Melchior August 25, 2017 at 3:36 am

Thank you, D! I appreciate your kind words.Do you think that there’s room for conceptual gardens to have more weight? What might make their execution of concepts richer?

James Golden August 24, 2017 at 2:18 pm

For me, Caleb’s main point is that gardens can and should have meaning, and I use the word “meaning” very broadly. It takes form in innumerable ways, in vastly disparate forms, in any number of cultural and historical manifestations. His essay, for me, “rescues” the vapid, narrow concept garden and brings it back into the deeper and much more complex world of garden experience. I look forward to reading more from him.

Caleb D Melchior August 25, 2017 at 3:42 am

Thanks, James! Have you read the essays in Marc Treib’s “Meaning in Landscape Architecture and Gardens”? It has four pieces on the semantics of landscape by Olin, Treib, Gillette and Herrington. Their contrasting perspectives cast some interesting light on this whole field of meaning in landscape design. The real value that those concept gardens have, for me, is as opportunities to explore materials and ideas that are harder experiment with in more permanent design installations.

James Golden August 25, 2017 at 3:01 pm

I haven’t, Caleb. But I’ll get it.

Norma August 24, 2017 at 12:54 pm

For me, the reason that the Zodiac Garden doesn’t work is because it just looks like random and scrappy plants. A concept is fine as an idea with which to filter plant choices and plans, but the bottom line is that the plants have to work together and the result has to please the eye.

Caleb Melchior August 24, 2017 at 3:02 pm

The idea of “coherence”, which I think you’re getting at, is really interesting. Coherence is such a difficult thing to achieve in garden design – and, from my experience, seems to be something that designers and gardeners can only achieve over time. A challenging component of “worth together” and “please the eye” is that everyone’s idea of WHAT those attributes look like is different.

Diana Studer September 6, 2017 at 7:58 pm

I wonder what the medieval, Zodiac garden looked like in its heyday when it was freshly planted and cared for? It looks more like an architectural ruin lacking in many active layers.

I am fascinated to see any image of the garden at Perugia. I was taught that it was the first botanical garden.

David Bowen August 24, 2017 at 10:24 am

Thank you for this; very thought-provoking.
I wonder whether the discussion of “Concept” in gardens would be clearer and more helpful if it recognised the varieties of garden: ephemeral, show gardens may be advertising, supporting a sponsor, or just expressing an ephemeral concept; public gardens need to accommodate the public landscape ethics with the designer’s ethics and the ethics of the site; gardens open to the public may be historical (reflecting the ethics of a famous past gardener) or current (ethics of a live, active owner); private gardens may be more or less private. Perhaps these varied types of garden have different exposures to the conceptual discourse, and different conceptual functions?

Caleb Melchior August 24, 2017 at 3:04 pm

That’s definitely an important distinction, David – the function of the garden isn’t separate to the concept. Instead, they’re interdependent.

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