What do gardens say? by Robin White

May 18, 2016

in Articles, From the USA, General Interest

By now thinkingardens readers are perhaps over familiar with the ‘are gardens art?’ debate. Well, here is an interesting new take on that whole issue by Robin White. Makes a sweet break from Chelsea.

Anne Wareham, editor

Anne portrait May 2016 Head and shoulders Copyright Charles Hawes 20160505_180751 (1) s






Robin White:

From time to time you read people in gardening magazines (and on garden blogs and in august garden organizations) making the claim that gardens should be taken seriously as art.

If you asked most people whether gardening is an art, I think you would find that most of them would agree that it is, just as cooking is an art, or carpentry, or needlework and so on. But if you ask whether a garden is art itself, in that rather overblown way that we use the word to refer to an elevated category of objects or experiences that are created by human hand or mind, the answer is less certain. The typical answer at forums held to discuss the issue seems to be “it all depends.”

There is an insecure tone to the question and that gives us a clue that something about it is flawed. If gardens really were art it would be self-evident and we in the gardening world wouldn’t need to try to persuade people that they are. Clearly gardens in general are not art, but I think we have difficulty accepting that. We want gardening to be more dignified than just dirt and plants and fertilizer.

Just in case you missed it, I’ll say it again. Gardens are not art.

Harsh words, you might think, but I write in the hope that we might stop barking up the wrong tree. The tree up which I think we should bark is bigger, more egalitarian, and more interesting than art. If gardens have to be something other than a patch of land with some plants put on them, I believe it is more fruitful to think of them as language.

The problem with the “gardens are art” idea for me is that when I look around at ordinary people’s gardens, what I see is often far from something that can be considered art. Obviously there are a few elite gardens that might qualify. But what of the rest? Millions on millions of gardens around the world, each unique, created by perhaps billions of people, many of whom have laboured, a few of whom have hired and some of whom have just thrown things together on a whim. Some have been abandoned. Nature has got involved and the gardens have grown and morphed over time.

One of the reasons that they cannot be completely considered art is that gardens are living entities with wills of their own. While we might assemble them, transform them and bend them to our purposes, as soon as they are planted, gardens immediately begin to try to get away from us. They are forever trying to revert to natural landscape. You could go as far as to say that a garden is a battleground – the site of a heroic struggle between humans and nature. All the weeding, pruning back, pest management, the chopping, hacking, clipping, sawing, shoveling, shaping, in fact all the work of gardening from the first time the soil is dug is an attempt to stop gardens sliding back into a more natural state.

In a recent blog post, The Rise and Rise of the Feel Good Garden, the garden writer Noel Kingsbury pointed out that modern garden books tend to not mention pests, weeds and diseases at all. Kingsbury thinks that economic interests have attempted to turn gardening into a feel-good activity “that stresses consumption, relaxation and self-satisfaction”. I wonder if the denial of weeding and hard garden work isn’t also part of a push to “artify” gardens – to inflate them into something more than they are. The Mona Lisa, after all, doesn’t need to be weeded, fertilized or occasionally hacked back and it doesn’t change colour with the seasons.

Gardens are not art. But they are not nothing either.

Instead of trying to see gardens as art, if you think of them as language then there is room for everyone’s gardens, not just “good” gardens. You can look at a garden that would never be included in a high end garden design magazine and you can see that it too says something. Implicit is the idea that gardens can be read. The alphabet, the component parts of a garden – the plants, the rocks, the walls, the spaces, the walkways and how it is all placed – can actually be seen as having a kind of meaning. Certain plants say certain things, almost as words might. A flowering cherry tree expresses a different kind of mood from an Italian cypress. A lavender is different from a rose. A gravel garden full of succulents doesn’t say the same thing as a moist green lawn (especially here in drought stricken California). They mean different things.

When you start to add up these component pieces – what this plant means and why that one is there – you begin to turn the raw elements of gardens into statements or stories.

Robin White with gloxinia

The author with his grandmother’s gloxinia plant 1969

In some cases you need an interpreter to help you understand. When as a child I visited my grandmother in Bristol, England, she always told me about her garden as she showed me round. The garden had a story. In the summer she struggled with the white fly on the tomatoes in the green house. Oh and there was the flavour of the tomatoes. We always talked about the flavour and compared them with the “dreadful things” that passed for tomatoes in the shops. I can still hear the way she said those words, “Dreadful things!” with a dramatic intake of breath and her eyes closed as if her home grown tomatoes had brought her to some kind of heaven from whence she looked down on ordinary tomato shoppers who remained in purgatory.

In the autumn she struggled with chrysanthemums and the frost. She put paper bags with rubber bands over the flowers so that they didn’t get frozen before she could take them up to the Gospel Hall to put them on the altar.

She told me about the gigantic exotic artichoke plant that she didn’t know how to eat but she let grow and flower anyway. And she showed me the proud display in the front garden with its central circle of primulas, begonias or wallflowers, depending on the season. Corporation planting on a small scale.

The author’s uncle (1940s) and parents (1980s) in his grandmother’s front garden

The author’s uncle (1940s) and parents (1980s) in his grandmother’s front garden


The garden was the backdrop to interminable family photos. Hilariously when I was writing this essay I asked my family members if they had pictures of my grandmother’s garden and everyone said no. I was incredulous. I’d been there when they had been taken. It wasn’t till I started looking through the photo albums myself that I realized that what we have is not pictures of the garden, but pictures of people in the garden. Scads of them. The two above span from the 1940s to the 1980s, a period of vast social upheaval including a world war, a counter-cultural revolution and transformations of technology demonstrated here by photography going from black and white to colour. All the while my grandmother’s garden stayed the same.

Here’s another picture of the back garden taken right after the second World War.

The Post War Vegetable Garden

The post-war vegetable garden

It shows a vegetable garden in winter: a “victory garden”, the place where the family grew vegetables as part of the war effort to feed the island-bound British population (although my mother points out that ordinary people’s back gardens in England had always been vegetable gardens). Behind my mother, seen here holding Gummidge the cat, the mound of bushes at the far end of the garden on the left hides a World War II air raid shelter. There are family stories of air raid sirens and running out to sleep in the shelter – arguments about who got the top bunk from where you could see searchlights in the sky. My mother tells of coming out of the shelter in the middle of the night and standing in the garden and watching Bristol burning.

By the time I came along and was exploring the garden, the vegetables were gone and the bomb shelter had been converted into a storage place for flower pots. After Granny died the people who bought her house found an unexploded WWII incendiary bomb right next to the shelter under the dahlias she had been growing all those years. A bomb disposal team came and closed the road while they disarmed it.

Does any of this add up to art? Not really. Narrative yes. A social history. The whole story of one woman’s life told through a garden.

5280 miles away and decades later here is another example:

collagesloat s

A post WWII housing development in San Francisco still features Japanese style cloud-pruned junipers

These gardens are on Sloat Boulevard in San Francisco, across the bay from where I now live in Oakland, California. As an Englishman I have always got a chuckle out of seeing all of these cloud-pruned junipers in house after house as you drive along this street. I have to admit that in the past I have thought of this kind of pruning as so artificial as to be a kind of joke. Thanks to Jake Hobson’s book, Niwaki I have come to understand more about what gardeners in Japan are doing with these bushes and how they refer to the Japanese native landscape – although taken out of their context in Japan and placed in North America they function less as referents to the natural local landscape (of Japan) and more as icons of Japaneseness.

sloatclouds s

Here they are in a kind of open source pruning competition along a street in California. Are they art? Barely. But they do have a story to tell and in a way it’s the counterpart to my grandmother’s story. Before World War II, Japanese Americans dominated landscape gardening in California. Coming to America as immigrants with few bankable skills one thing that they had was the tradition of gardening that they came from. As new arrivals in America they started nurseries and worked in the gardening and market gardening businesses, all connected to thriving Japantowns in California cities.

That was until the Japanese homeland attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor and entered World War II on the side of Nazi Germany. Then, regardless of their loyalty to American values, regardless of whether they were new immigrants or American born, families of Japanese Americans were rounded up and put into internment camps for the duration of the war. At the end of the war when they were released they were shamed, second class citizens. For many their former lives were in ruins and their businesses were gone. In San Francisco Japantown was largely bulldozed to make way for modern housing.

What did it mean then, after their release from the internment camps, for Japanese Americans to return to San Francisco and plant a juniper in front of a house and begin to cloud-prune it in the Japanese style? What kind of statement was that about the resilience of the human spirit and about the possibility of redemption? What did it say about dignity? And what more appropriate object to use than a plant to make that statement of regeneration?

A post WWII housing development in San Francisco still features Japanese style cloud-pruned junipers

Near Sloat Blvd in San Francisco, this house built in 1939 may still have original junipers.

These cloud-pruned gardens speak loud and clear – as language. 70 years later they still tell stories about Japan and America, about rejection and community, loud and clear on a six lane boulevard in San Francisco.

You wouldn’t find these gardens – nor my grandmother’s if it still existed – on any US Garden Conservancy garden tour, nor in the UK yellow book. But to the people who create them they say “I exist” or “this is what I like” and perhaps the most fundamental statement of gardens, which is “this is who I am.”

Our job as viewers is to learn how to understand what gardens say. When you start looking you will see gardens in conversation with one another – across the street, across nations or across time. You will begin to notice grammars. There are informal rules. These can be followed or subverted, just as they are in language. There are dialects that are governed by location, sun, water, soil, aesthetics, culture and history. There will be gardens with good grammar and gardens with bad grammar, just as there are people.

It doesn’t rule out art. Some gardens are put together like poems or songs and some are like pictures.

Most are not – but all gardens speak.

Robin White




Robin White designs and builds gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area.



And more gardens as art discussion? Here:

See Are gardens art? review by Helen Gazeley

If gardens are art by Gary Webb

Is gardening an art form? by Roger Phillips

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Victoria Summerley July 7, 2016 at 3:46 pm

I loved this article, and I completely agree about the language of gardens and the stories they tell. However, I don’t totally go along with the thesis that gardens cannot be art. There are lots of amateur artists – painters, potters, photographers, and so on – who don’t produce “great art” but that doesn’t mean they don’t produce art at all. Just because a painting isn’t worthy of inclusion in a museum doesn’t mean it isn’t art. I would define art as the creative expression of one (or maybe more) individual(s). In the same way, I think that most gardeners, simply by virtue of the choices they make in terms of plants and colours and layout, are making an artistic statement, whether they (or we!) like it or not. Those choices are informed by exactly the same inspirations, memories and experiences that inform any artist and are no less valid. I don’t know why the word “art” always sends people screaming from the room. We should be proud of the fact that as a species, we are able to create.

Cherie Southgate July 8, 2016 at 6:14 pm

Well said Victoria.

Penny L R May 27, 2016 at 9:37 am

I agree with Robin that gardens are not art, more a battlefield. Enjoyed the thought provoking article.

John Lord May 20, 2016 at 10:35 am

A lovely long winding article. I loved the old photos, particularly the one with the flower bed unashamedly packed to the gunnels with colour, what would his grandma think of our modern hippy dippy grunge planting style?
I’m not a great fan of articles about art and gardening as they can easily disappear up themselves and are usually boring, but not this one.
By the way, I know how to turn any garden into art: just pickle it and put it in a tank like that chap did with the shark.

Tristan Gregory May 19, 2016 at 10:37 pm

Any work of art is an expression of an artistic impulse or instinct. It matters not whether that is expressed in paint, stone, mud (fired or cultivated) it is the humanity within these acts which is interesting. Sometimes we are comforted to see a little of ourselves and sometimes we are shocked by how differently another human sees a shared environment, communication certainly but nothing so literal as language.

For those who don’t see that in a garden I hope they see it elsewhere and for those who have no way of expressing it I fear that they are, in one essential area, mute.

Sarah Wint May 19, 2016 at 8:57 pm

Quite nervous about leaving a comment here as I aint so learned as the rest of you….but I just had to say I loved this article. Sarah

Donna Wolff May 19, 2016 at 6:03 pm

I consider this article as art for it evoked an emotional response and caused me to thoughtfully consider the writer’s thesis, having in my past scorned the Poodle Trees popular in Midwestern suburbs. History and context have opened my eyes and heart. Thank you.

Diana Studer May 19, 2016 at 4:09 pm

Interned, homesick.
The language many of the gardens around me speak are foreign, and ‘colonial’.
My garden stands with one foot in European roots, and a larger foot speaks to my own roots in South Africa.

And so much is lost in translation.
Any pictures of Granma’s Garden? No. But!

Joanne Toft May 19, 2016 at 3:58 pm

Gardens as language and story is such a wonderful idea. The thought of walking down the street and viewing small stories in each yard and garden is lovely.

I then thing about the question is a flower art? The photograph of an Iris on my computer desk top is artfully taken – it could go in a gallery of photography. If I take it a step further the color, design and shape of this plant is artful as well. Does it make it art? Does nature create art?

To be honest I don’t care – what I love is the creation of gardens, the hard work, the constant work to make sure it grows, the letting the garden take over at some point and be creative and the story that all that tells.

Thanks for a great article.

Charles Hawes May 19, 2016 at 3:32 pm

Yes, I like this piece and the thesis of gardens as language and narrative. In a way this seems to me to be flagging up something about what makes gardens such a particular art- form. Which I know runs counter to the argument here, but it gives me an additional perspective in that debate.

Martin Owen May 19, 2016 at 11:49 am

In days of yore, in Europe, daubing paint on a canvass to create a likeness or a scene was not considered “art”. There is no Muse for painting. Duchamp, on the other hand, demonstrated that art is whatever an artist decides it is. Me thinks Lewis Carroll through the mouth of Humpty Dumpty got it right:
“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”

Edward Flaherty May 19, 2016 at 11:17 am

Gardens as language…gardens as stories…I like that perspective. Along with the above comments, I have to put it all into a larger historical context.

…just back to the Middle Ages, the period up to the acceptance of the scientific and technological revolutions that gave humans more distance, more safety…more of a sense of independence from the vagaries of climate and its influence on plants and the food chains.

Before we began our dalliance with ‘modern’, we were closer to plants in every imaginable alchemical way. We were not detached. We were dependent. Then science and technology ‘threw the baby out with the bath water’.

Today, we have lost touch and are trying to bring the plants back in. It is not ‘either or’ with plants, gardens, landscapes and art. It is ‘both and’. That is why I like Robin’s piece wherein he sets a framework, beyond time and space, for expanding on every imaginable level and layer from the coarse senses to the subtle senses…and from imagination to spirit to the metaphysical. My two cents. Thanks for posting it, Anne.

Norma May 19, 2016 at 11:11 am

without saying anything about Japan / America history, the cloud pruned trees look good now. Which is perhaps why they remain. I like the shaped tree that is still in a naturalistic style and it looks good against the rather harsh shape of the building, which it softens whilst still being architectural itself.

I suppose that they are as ubiquitous as begonias in front of English bungalows, though I prefer the former. It’s a thing.

I do agree that gardens are not art, though perhaps that depends on the identity of the gardener. But I don’t think that interior design is art, though both it and gardening are creative endeavours.

Katherine Crouch May 19, 2016 at 8:45 am

YES! I have always felt uneasy about the insistence that gardens are art, but content that gardens and gardening can be an art, but more often a craft and very often, sheer grubby hard work.

But gardening as an expression of who you are in the world and how you were as a family – yes indeed.

It has often seemed to me a tad arrogant to produce articles of interiors and gardens, pristine and exquisitely lit but devoid of occupants, as if the creation was all important and the subsequent use taken for granted. Fair enough, many people may prefer not to show off to the world that they spent a lot of money on their property which is now worth burgling, so faces and locations are often not identified.

Still, how joyful it would be to see more families photographed enjoying their newly designed gardens in the glossy magazines. That is what gardens are for.

Cherie Southgate May 20, 2016 at 8:03 pm

Yes yes yes I agree gardens and gardening are craft – mostly. Some are distinctly made as art eg Charles Jenks garden of Cosmic whatever it is and Little Sparta.
Gardening is a thing of the hands as well as the mind. The historical context is essential. Oh and ‘taste’ is another construct, completely!

Cindy at enclos*ure May 19, 2016 at 7:36 am

Wonderful. I’m going to be mulling over this for a good long while. It expresses many of the reasons why I’m so interested in old photos of people doing things, or just being, in gardens. Something is still being spoken. Do you know this quote by the garden writer, Henry Mitchell?

“Gardening is . . . a growing work of creation, endless in its changing elements. It is not a monument or achievement, but a sort of traveling, a kind of pilgrimage you might say, often a bit grubby and sweaty, though true pilgrims do not mind that. A garden is not a picture, but a language, which is of course the major art of life.”
— from The Essential Earthman

skr May 19, 2016 at 12:44 am

This reads like another tired rehash of the high art versus low art debate we dispensed with decades ago in the art world. “Oh it’s not fine enough to be ‘real’ art. My kids could make this. Real art looks like the Mona Lisa.” The garden world has a lot of catching up to do and the first step is giving up the preciousness of art. Not all art is great art, but that doesn’t make it ‘not art’ simply because it’s not ‘great’.

Helen Gazeley May 19, 2016 at 10:50 am

If it was dispensed with in the art world decades ago, then I’d suggest it’s ready for a revisit. If you present something for show to the public, it should have some merit or it’s an insult to your viewers, which is what the “is it art” debate really addresses.

I love the idea of the Mona Lisa very slowly fighting back, but obviously the difference is that gardens are living and growing, with the hope of a controlled end result which takes this into account, and paintings are decaying, having reached their most perfect moment at completion, from which point it’s downhill.

Robin White May 19, 2016 at 8:37 pm

I think you missed my point. I’d be more comfortable if you headed in the opposite direction and said that none of it is art. In that scenario the Mona Lisa is merely a picture made by a very clever craftsman showing off his talent for a client who was showing off how rich he was. It is now held by a state showing off how cultured it is for an audience expected to applaud and be impressed. That makes more sense than saying that everything is art.

In that scenario gardens don’t have to be art. Phew!

Cherie Southgate May 20, 2016 at 8:06 pm

When I read your article I realised that I’ve been having very similar thoughts about the language of gardens, I wonder though wether the garden maker has that perspective when they are making their garden, ie trying to tell the viewer something or whether it’s more a a case of us reading from our own perspectives.

skr May 19, 2016 at 12:34 am

“The Mona Lisa, after all, doesn’t need to be weeded, fertilized or occasionally hacked back and it doesn’t change colour with the seasons”

Sure they do. It just happens more slowly. That’s why museums have conservation labs.

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