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.
Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman, p. 72
This winter I will be planning at least one - and possibly two - new garden areas. So, as I read The Essential Earthman, by Henry Mitchell, for the Garden Blogger's Book Club this month, I sought out Mitchell's advice on garden design.
Although the entire book is full of juicy tidbits and witty bon mots about designing a garden, most of the design-related advice is contained in two chapters: "Up and Down the Garden Path - Or, Designs for Gardening" and "Reflections on Gardening." As per usual, Mitchell has a lot of specific advice - some of which he admits to breaking himself - about designing the garden. Some of this advice I took to heart, some not so much - which would be just the way that Mitchell would want it.
One of Mitchell's primary themes is that the garden must first please the gardener: " . . . it is more important for the gardener to be enchanted than for critics to be pleased" (p. 69). Of course, this being Mitchell, he then goes on for several pages giving his opinion about what should or shouldn't be done in the garden (make it rectangular; don't copy any particular style, especially Japanese; walks should be straight; walks should be paved; the center should be open; avoid any show of wealth; don't use sculpture)
I sometimes think Mitchell states his opinion very strongly so that we - his readers - will have a strong reaction. My impression is that Mitchell would probably write his columns with a little gleam in his eye and a smile twitching at the corners of his lips, hoping to incite a bit of argument, not because he cared if the reader agreed with him, but because he hoped that the reader would put up a bit of a fight in the process of discovering his or her own opinions on the matter.
Now, as a stubborn gardener, I have no intention of following all of Mitchell's specific advice. However, he has some important things to say about the big picture. One thing I found very helpful was his discussion of scale. He writes, "The scale of the garden should generally be much larger than seems right on paper. There should be fewer 'elements' of design than usual, and those few should be larger" (p. 70). Later in the same chapter he writes about planting an apple tree (or really, any tree), and reminds us that it is "roughly the size of a garage" (p. 80). This, for me, was an eye-opener. Somehow, it is easier for me to picture a garage - and it's bulk - in my mind's eye than an apple tree.
Mitchell advises that gardeners choose smaller plants than we think we want, because over time they will become bigger than we imagine. He says, "As a general rule, it works best to plant [a small tree] wherever you want a 'big' tree . . . . That is because 'small' trees like the crabs and dogwoods will reach the roof of a two-story house and are as big as you probably have in mind for an oak" (p. 76).
Along with determining the correct scale for your lot, Mitchell also recommends that any planning be done with the land itself in mind. "Garden plans on paper are all very well, but the lay of the land dictates almost everything. Therefore, no precise decisions should be made about the placement of important plants without an intimate knowledge of the land itself" (p. 78). It is Mitchell's argument that some of the best gardens are not those that are intricately planned, but those that evolve over the years as a gardener responds to the needs of his or her plants in relation to the gardener's specific little plot of land. The garden constantly evolves through trial and error.
That is not to say that Mitchell doesn't have ideas about what looks best in a garden. Throughout the book he advocates for symmetry, lines and borders. I get the feeling he wouldn't be too enchanted with a naturalistic garden. The symmetry, however, is there to contain the informal nature of plants: "Plan with severe formality, then plant informally within these formal bounds, and nature will tend to the rest, provided you correct your errors as you notice them" (p. 71).
In the end, though, each garden is a reflection of the person who makes it, and I think that's what Mitchell enjoys best about gardening. Although he delights in regaling readers with his opinions, I believe that he not-so-secretly reveled in the wide diversity and infinite variety of amateur gardens. As he says, "Your garden will reveal your self. Do not be terrified of that" (p. 71).
All quotations from The Essential Earthman by Henry Mitchell, First Indiana University Press paperback edition, 2003.