Gardens as pills…or not

November 6, 2007

in Articles, General Interest

“Every garden designer knows there are absolutely no deep-seated neuroses lurking in the brains of the garden owners. Don’t they?”

by Tim Richardson

I was amused to read — in light of my column last month exhorting garden designers to ‘think big’ like landscape architects — that the subject of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) autumn conference is ‘thinking small’, ie how to design really small spaces. My finger is clearly on the pulse, as ever… not! (As we used to say.) The conference lineup is extremely promising, however, with Bet Figueras (designer of Barcelona’s botanic garden) and Vladimir Sitta (Melbourne-based conceptualist designer) speaking.

Some blurb from the SGD ran: ‘The common thread linking these small gardens is their ability to temper the effects of high-density urban living; to bring the flux of green, living things and a sense of open space and a “beyond” into the built environment.’ Reqular readers will know that quotes tend to be introduced into this column only so that they can be ridiculed in a most unsporting manner. Not this time! The approach here is less concerted strangulation, more gentle peregrination.

It was interesting to see the idea mooted again that a garden will ‘temper the effects of high-density urban living’ — the notion of a garden as a healing environment, an escape from the stresses of modern (particularly urban) life, an ecologically sound pastime which will incidentally make us physically — and implicitly morally— healthier. Such touchy-feely notions are commonplace in the gardens media and surely help enhance the popularity of gardening among the public — as opposed to garden design, which probably suffers in terms of image when compared with the supposed moral superiority of ‘pure’ practical gardening. In such a view, gardening is innocent, guileless and healthy, while garden design is cynical, unncessary and corrupted by too much knowledge and thought. (Perhaps we can now begin to understand why practical gardening is apparently intrinsic to British culture…)

These ideas have also resurfaced to useful effect in the realm  of public-space design, where ‘designing out crime’ has become a buzz concept among urbanists and an expedient debating point for politicians. It is really a resuscitated version of the old Victorian paternalistic belief that well-maintained and orderly public parks will engender a well-maintained and orderly populace. One does not need to resort to the discredited 1980s academic discipline of environmental psychology to know that there is a good deal  of truth in this — and the fact is, more money has flowed into public parks as a result.

But the idea of the garden as brain-balm — an image which gardeners themselves conspire to convey — is only part of the story. After all, every garden designer knows there are absolutely no dark obsessions or deep-seated neuroses lurking in the brains of garden owners. Don’t they?

While it is true that gardening can act as some kind of pill you can take to de-stress, it is not necessarily true that these soothing side-effects are the best thing a garden has to offer. Most people have a far more dynamic and emotionally engaged relationship with their garden than that would imply. It brings out both the good and the bad in them; it enriches their lives, in other words. We all know people for whom a garden or an allotment is to some extent an escape from family life, or perhaps even a replacement for human affection. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course — we all need time on our own, sometimes, and a garden can provide that. However, it goes to show how having a garden is a two-way thing, a symbiotic situation. A garden is not a pill that you swallow to make things better. It is a relationship — for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health and, in some cases, ’til death do us part.

Tim Richardson – independent garden and landscape critic.

Tim Richardson’s recent books are “Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden” and “Avant Gardeners: 50 Visionaries of the Contemporary Landscape

This piece was originally published in the Garden Design Journal October 2007 and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor.

Society of Garden Designers, Katepwa House, Ashfield Park Avenue, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR9 5AX
T: 01 989 566695
F: 01989 567676
E: sgd@assocmanagement.co.uk
Website: www.sgd.org.uk

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