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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