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The first time you meet a garden

Updated on November 8, 2009
Meeting of the minds
Meeting of the minds

Kids and gardens: Stage 1 of becoming a gardener :From my book, Gardening Is A State of Mind

Gardening is a very personal thing, like breathing. It’s normal to refer to gardening as though it was entirely objective, but it’s really a very subjective process. What you feel is important. It’s also complex. What a garden means to you isn’t necessarily something you can put into words.

Most people first encounter a garden in the vast impossible spaces of very early childhood. A world of new things, and a corresponding lack of information about what most of them are. Most of the things are bigger than you are, and don’t seem to be wearing nappies. There also seems to be a lot more wind, rain, sunlight and noise than indoors. You are told that some things are flowers, some are trees, some are dogs, cats, lizards, ants, butterflies…neighbors…all of which are forever associated with The Outside.

My reference dictionary, which has its optimistic moments, defines a garden as a place where plants are grown, usually with a lawn, next to a private residence. I don’t want to hurt its feelings, but a more comprehensive description would be a location comprised of living things, natural and/or planted. The garden is a combination of life, and is able to exist without lawns, private residences, or dictionaries. However, there is a terrible inference in that description. I think the reference book is heroically trying to shield its readers from the awful suspicion that there are such things as gardeners, by using the passive sense, “where plants are grown”.

This is an understandably cautious way of dealing with the fact that gardens are deliberately, in fact ruthlessly, grown by people. This is made clear to you by the apparently endless potterings of parents and other fixtures as they scuttle about digging, weeding, crooning, foaming at the mouth, and biting neighbors. The soft rattle of the seed packet is heard at all hours in all weathers. The stealthy slide of the seedling punnet, the quiet cough of the spade, and the thud of the planter form a soundtrack to this parental epic. Dramatic scenes unfold as snails arrive in tour buses to inspect the new plantings.

Now nearly taller than some of the geraniums, you wander through this carefully-edged landscape in search of something. The puppy, equally intrigued, comes along, as does the kitten, who has escaped from the basket again. As role models they are fun but confusing. The puppy sniffs about at everything, and the kitten stalks everything.

You, unwisely not being either a puppy or a kitten, (better luck next time) tend to fall over everything or bump into it, and learn a lot from direct contact. A garden can define itself well by allowing you to crash into bits of it. You are following in the footsteps of humanity since it began, bumping into reality until you understand it. It’s an informative process, if messy. The taste of a dandelion and the impact of a rose thorn soon persuade you that some risk assessment is required. The puppy and the kitten have had their adventures, too, and the party retires to dinner somewhat in need of a wash. Further learning, in the form of the kitten discovering it can’t fly after the bee, and the puppy getting stuck in the bamboo somehow, adds to the store of knowledge. Bit by bit the garden is clarifying itself.

The senses are all getting quite a workout. Smell is the oldest sense, and the memory of garden smells is indelible. You may have no idea what the smell is, or the plant that makes it, but you will remember it. Smell seems to be everywhere in the garden. You are informed that this is to attract bees, which of course explains everything.

Color is another major factor. Most flowers are made to dazzle, and human beings, even if color blind, are very receptive to tones and light. You, as a child, receive this blast of light without filtering. Adults say things like “lovely colors”, but you are receiving the entire unadorned view without the benefit of adjectives, or other qualifiers, and that’s closer to the truth. Beauty doesn’t need explanations.

This leads to another notable fact about gardens and the Outside. They don’t talk baby talk. The inscrutable rose seems friendly enough, despite the thorns, but it also doesn’t seem to feel any need to introduce itself like everyone else does. The gardenia will sit patiently, its flowers producing an immortal white, but this is also apparently normal, requiring no comments. At least it’s not dumbing everything down at you and talking your ears off with babble. You learn to appreciate that.

Confronted with the not-very explicable, the human being cowardly resorts to words. Description of a garden is a very mixed blessing, particularly if you’re looking for information. A word like “rose”, if abstracted, tends to divert attention from the actual rose to the description. “A nice rose bed” says very little if you’re not actually looking at it. More or less eloquence simply equates to a degree of abstraction and distraction.

You, the kid, don’t have any such vocabulary when you first meet a rose. The incredible deep velvety red is quite new to you, and you certainly weren’t thinking “rose” while you were first looking at it. Definitions of gardens are about as accurate as those of people. Less obvious is that the word “garden” by now has a personal meaning. This will be the excuse for your terrible excesses in later life. Led astray by the puppy and the kitten, who seem to know fun when they see it, you notice there’s more to gardens than just decoration.

This is the beginning of your evolution into a gardener. From an inquisitive infant to a muddy but cheerful nonagenarian is just a step. All you have to do is point yourself in that direction.

Symptoms of gardening tendencies are numerous:

  1. Refusal to be bored to death.
  2. Strange lack of interest in a life of spectator-hood.
  3. Deliberate, undisguised, shameless, enjoyment of one’s own home.
  4. Systematic avoidance of lifeless people and cultural crud.
  5. Chronic disbelief/derision in the presence of such mighty beings as interior decorators and real estate agents.
  6. Frequent necessity to use heavy lifting equipment to remove patient from Chinese gardens, Botanic gardens, Floriades, friends’ cherry tree, etc.
  7. Consorting with disreputable puppies and kittens.

There is no cure.


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