Cultivating Our Garden

Gardens, no matter their size or consequence, create a sense of place. Just the act of establishing a garden is one of place-making, stake-claiming and root-setting. And although most gardens are made up of pretty much the same elements, the arrangement of those elements is what makes each one unique. Then, going beyond unique, there are gardens with an eye for something special – making placeness out of a place.

For us urbanites, finding enough land and available sunlight in a concrete-covered environment is not easy. Thankfully, community gardens – like the one we’re members of, just up the block – have appeared, rising from the dead on weed-filled, unwanted, unusable or simply unused and abandoned dumping grounds. A remarkable thing is how forgiving abused land and nature can be, given half a chance. A community garden already has a sense of place as reclamation, it having been rescued from a state of neglect and nurtured into one of care and reuse. Usually fenced, giving it the status of a place apart, the community garden has an arrangement of spaces – rectangles for planting beds and aisles for moving through and around. (Not unlike a cemetery, really, but for quite the opposite purpose.) Skillfully designed and laid out examples of community gardens have a more meaningful use of space and flow; others can be a bit helter-skelter with no plan to guide them. The same could be said about the individual plots.

A community garden is representative of its community: a diverse group of backgrounds and approaches all coming together in like-mindedness for interaction with nature’s forces and for mutual support. Each gardener in our community effort has her/his own method: some plant like a traditional farm, in long rows within the parameters of the plot; others apply a grid for a square-foot approach – divvying up the precious small area into even smaller portions; while still others have an innate sense of color and texture and ways of arranging and pairing the plants in a decorative way. Some people feel a need to populate their patch with elfin figures, frog statues and ceramic mushrooms, creating a bizarre scene among the shin-high foliage. And, as in “The Three Little Pigs,” a few build more permanent structures for their climbing foodstuffs, while others take their chances with prefab, mass-produced, easily replaceable temporary cages that could be susceptible to some huffing and puffing.

It is the human interaction with nature that creates the initial sense of place. Taking a rigidly defined parcel – a functional allotment of relatively flat ground with no distinguishing features, a subdivision of preceding subdivisions (similar to tract housing parcels on a smaller scale) – and making it have a real presence is a willful act by a human hand to work with and enhance the setting beyond its functional requirements: creating a place of sustenance for the body and soul. But, within the greater garden, certain rare gardens can project a sense of place all their own, an added dimension of place within place – the surprise inside the Cracker Jack box, unnecessary but totally welcome – a bonus. We have found a few that qualify.

One effort of note in our community garden is simple, straightforward and effective. The mini farm: A larger than average plot that lends itself well to its design motif, it has a focal point of an antique manual tiller (the before), long furrows of planted fields (the after), cold frames, simple bamboo tripod supports – it is a microcosm of a real farm, a place of food production, and a bit of theater. That someone would build a world inside another world, like nesting eggs, emphasizing the placeness of an already unique site, is laudatory. It is the exception for individual food gardens, albeit personalized or decorated, to rise above form as function and create place. A second example: Another simple garden within the larger one has an Asian theme, four squares of orderly, gridded, raised beds divided by bamboo poles, its paths made of gravel with nods to mountainous landscape. Again, a world, a place defined beyond practical need.

Although all gardens stimulate the senses, the food garden is the most sensible of gardens – especially now with industrialized food production trying to remove us from our essential connection with our most basic need. One of the most integrated food gardens we have ever seen is at Chanticleer, a former estate, now public gardens just outside Philadelphia, in Wayne, Pa. Touted as a pleasure garden, it is a textural and visually stimulating array of gardens, mostly decorative and consciously artistic and largely successful. But its greatest success is the “veg-edible garden,” its function and form intrinsically merged: the clever uses of food plants like asparagus for a long perimeter wall, trellised tomatoes climbing on and becoming the surrounding fences, espaliered pears creating a geometric screen, plant supports fabricated of simple bamboo, transitional arches graceful and ceremonial. The materials are mostly natural and are used in ways that remove the garden from the merely functional into the artful, making you want to spend time there. The care and design do not make the food grown there taste any better; however, you do devour it with your eyes. It is its own expression and shared interaction with nature – the stuff of true nourishment.

Both the literal and figurative definition of garden is one of life and source, a place of creation or cultivation and sustenance. It is even suggested as the answer to all of society’s ills in Voltaire’s Candide, as a respite from world upheavals and the only place where one can find contentment and, if not control, at least a semblance of being on an equal footing with destiny. Two hundred sixty years later, it still makes sense out of nonsense. Our search here is for inventive food gardens that set up a dialogue with nature, a thank you for the bounty, an offering to the partnership, a kind of shrine to garden-ness, a place to be and grow. Arslocii.

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