What is the definition of a 'garden'?

catkim(San Diego 10/24)March 17, 2012

More broadly I will ask, "What is YOUR definition of a garden?" (Then we don't have to argue about who is correct.) I would expect multiple slants in definition, various shades of grey.

I am inspired to ask the question thanks to Woody's post about her readings, but I didn't want to muddy her post, and I'm hoping for participation from regulars and lurkers alike.

So how do you immediately know something is intended to be a garden when you see it? What defines it? If you want, you can expand on the concept and add what you think makes for a successful garden.

Hey, it's been raining all day here, I'm looking for a distraction from all the indoor chores I should be doing, so I hope you'll give it some thought and play along.

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Good question. To me, a garden is a purposeful manipulation of topography and plant material for personal purposes,
whether they be aesthetic, spiritual or practical.

It has to enhance the gardener's life in some way. A joyless suburban expanse of grass with a solitary tree in the middle is not a garden -
it is convention. But add a stone wall with a spill of trailing perennials, a trellis of climbing roses, a deliberate knot of showy bushes and voila, you have the first steps of a garden journey. It starts to sustain the eyes, the soul, the body.

I remember a lifetime ago, I worked for three years in a large provincial psychiatric hospital. Many of the residents had been there for decades, long before the advent of anti-psychotic drugs. The most valuable therapy that had been available then was the farm program. Cows, chickens and goats were kept but more importantly, there were huge vegetable gardens and orchards. It was a reward for good behaviour to work and tend the fields, the subsequent contributions to the hospital food tables gave the residents a lot of pride. The grounds of the complex too were meticulously maintained and stunningly beautiful, thanks to their efforts. It was priceless therapy in a time when there just wasn't much to offer. Definitely, a win - win response all the way around. Unfortunately, the program was ultimately terminated, largely due to its political "incorrectness". Oh my, it was slave labour as viewed by the uninitiated, forcing a mentally ill person to work for their very food! But the loss for the patients who actually worked in the program was still very palpable and grieved many years later when I arrived to work there.

    Bookmark   March 17, 2012 at 8:50PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

catkim - I think the more interesting questions are 'Why do you garden?' and 'Why is it important to you?' (if, in fact, it is important to you...) Those seems to be significant questions Hunt raised - but didn't really seem to answer - he said: 'The paradox is that gardens are hugely important, as places and as an idea, to thousands of people; yet we know next to nothing about why and how that is so.'

In my own case, the garden is indeed hugely important to me. A good part of the reason is that I garden to try to recapture the feel of the landscape I grew up in; that landscape (and the people in it...) was very important in shaping who I am. I think that falls under Hunt's comments about gardens re-presenting other places and events. This garden, with it's neutral-to-alkaline clay soil is very different than the thin, rocky, acid soil of the place that inspired it, so I try to recapture the 'feel' of the original, not try to replicate the plantings there. Interestingly, this past September, and old friend who grew up down the road from me came to visit here for the first time. She spent a lot of her time on the back porch just looking at the garden. She commented that it 'felt like home'! ('Home' being the landscape of our youth rather than where she lives now.) So I conclude that I have been reasonably successful at the representation of that long-lost landscape!

Then there are the more mundane reasons I garden, such as: it's good physical, mental and creative activity; there's an assumption that houses need landscaping of some sort - a peer pressure sort of reason... :-)

    Bookmark   March 17, 2012 at 9:03PM
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To me, a garden is an abstract idea. I have a book of poems, thoughts, quotes, ideas, etc that I have collected and written throughout my life. That is the "garden" of my life, things I have collected and cultivated over the last 70 years.

I have a garden of art, paintings, carvings, works and ideas that I have collected and created over a lifetime.

Then there are the gardens of my dreams--gardens I have seen, loved, and live in only in my mind.

There are the wild gardens of the gods, or of Mother nature that stir my soul with natural beauty.

As for my "real" garden, the one of plants, it is a collection of memories, friends, beautiful flowers, imagination, and sense of place, all represented by living vegetation--the dogwood a friend gave to me as a seedling that is now 15' tall; a rose my husband gave me for our anniversary; white lilacs that were planted 50 years ago by the first gardener on this placs and never fail to stir me with their scent; precious wildflowers that appeared unbidden in my woods: gifts from the birds; a carving of an owl made by my father, now deceased; a patch of lilies from my youngest daughter whom we lost last summer; other plant gifts which remind me of the giver every time I pass them. These together with many other plants that I have added because I love them; this is my garden. It is my sanctuary, my peace, my art, my soul.


    Bookmark   March 17, 2012 at 11:07PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

My own garden as well as those I design for others are my connection with the site, and how I design it or which plants become a part of it are some sort of primal responce that often comes to me over time spent absorbing the different impressions it makes upon me. My sense of what seems most right for each setting always gets stronger the more time I can spend taint in the particular setting. The garden is not just the plants or the built additions that get added by design; it is also the sky, the wind, the birds and animals that utilize it, and especially the sunlight and views from the garden. A garden is also my personal canvas for expressing my creative urges that hopefully also create comfort and beauty for all who pass through them.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2012 at 3:46AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

bahia - interesting comment re stronger sense of what is right the longer the time you spend on the site. That was one of Hunt's points in the book - he was concerned that landscape architects are often expected to go anywhere in the world and produce a good design without having the time to fully absorb the 'genius loci', topography of the general area and local culture. You have mentioned your international jobs... did you have any concerns/difficulties with that aspect on those sorts of jobs?

    Bookmark   March 18, 2012 at 10:58AM
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Another book Woody: "The Education of a Gardener" by Russell Page. Page would often live on the site so as to get to know not only the site but the people as well. Not every designer moves in those circles but the advantage is with an open minded owner prepared to put in the time then all they need is the talent to pull it all together.

A garden is a personal enclosure.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2012 at 11:29AM
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So far, everyone has talked about their garden lovingly. A garden is tended and nurtured. For me, it's my place I want to spend time in and that I have a connection to.

This is in contrast to landscaping which is maintained. My in laws have a lovely yard and they enjoy spending time on their deck but I don't think they view it as a garden. Their weather is conducive to being outside so they hired a designer to plant their space. They don't view the time spent among the plants as anything other than maintenance and it wouldn't surprise me if they hire it out.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2012 at 12:01PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Good point tano. But, using Ink's definition, they may well consider it their garden. Mind you, I think they are missing out on the greater part of the experience of a garden - but then I'm definitely a hands-in-the-dirt gardener!

Ink - I think I should buy shares in Amazon :-) I just placed an order for that one...(used book...)

    Bookmark   March 18, 2012 at 5:03PM
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Rather than offering a personal definition of what a garden is, I'll offer an attempt at a technical one. I think that to qualify as a garden, it must have these components:

1. It's a planned and executed environment.

2. It is outdoors or a natural environment or a simulation of either.

3. It uses plants, plant products or natural materials (or simulated) as a central feature of its structure or finish.

4. It intentionally provides sensory benefits directly to its users.

This definition is broad enough that I think it would even include the courtship creation of the male bower bird... and, also, all spaces thought of as "landscapes." I don't think the definition of a garden, per se, speaks to the issue of success or quality. As I see it, a poor quality or "unsuccessful" garden is still a garden. I think, actually, "A joyless suburban expanse of grass with a solitary tree in the middle" qualifies. It just might not be considered as very successful by most observers. Agricultural field crops or a mulch manufacturing facility or sales yard cannot qualify as a garden because they satisfy only 2 of three requirements. I don't think that the time that it takes to conceive, plan or execute a garden enters into the equation of a garden's definition (while it might make a significant difference regarding its quality.) Nor does what thoughts a person thinks while they care for it define what a garden is. Someone who is maintaining a garden only for cold, hard cash can be as effective as someone who does it only for the joy of seeing his efforts transform natural materials.

I think that "landscapes" are a distinct subset of gardens in that all landscapes are gardens, but not all gardens are landscapes. A landscape is a particular kind of garden that...

1. serves practical, utilitarian functions (which may include non-horticultural themes imposed by its developers.)

2. is subordinate to architecture and other structures.

Gardens that are not landscapes can exist without fulfilling either of these requirements. Gardens can overwhelm or ignore buildings. Gardens need serve no practical function.

It could not be more true that the crossover between garden and landscape is a vast and grey. Many landscapes have portions within them--garden areas--that don't qualify as landscapes on their own. Many gardens have areas that are devoted to landscape functions. Usually, it's a cooperative affair.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2012 at 7:02PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

I'm enjoying reading all your responses, not at all surprised by the variety. I've already considered my own, but let's keep going. I'll allow another full day for responses before I add mine. Lots of good food for thought here, and if you have more to add to your original reply, go for it.

    Bookmark   March 18, 2012 at 9:00PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I've been thinking more about tano's comment. I think it's important to separate 'garden' from 'gardening'. It's probalby a sign of most of our bourgeois roots :-) to assume that the garden owner is/should be the one to do the physical gardening! When you consider most famous gardens, the owners are/were rarely the ones who got their hands dirty in the construction and maintenance of the garden. The owner's role was largely to provide the $$ (and garden staff) and, in varying degrees, provide the design direction to a landscape architect or designer. The fact that the owner didn't get his hands dirty did/does not mean the place is any less a garden or any less THEIR garden. So, tano, I think your in-laws probably do have a garden - one that suits them.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 10:27AM
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It is true that 'garden' works both as a noun and a verb although Kim worded her question as 'a garden' so we must assume she means the former.

Yaardvark raises the garden/landscape question again which I think is a separate issue if it is an issue at all. Remember that the concept of 'landscape' existed long before you could use either 1) or 2) to describe it.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 10:46AM
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Woody - good points. Coming from a long line of the servantless, I hadn't thought of it.

I do wonder though, if I had a huge garden that required a staff, if the staff would then be tending the garden and caring for it in a deeper way than the blow and go guys.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 12:44PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

I tried to make the question simple:

What is your definition of a garden?

Good thing I am not a professor, Woody would get an 'F' for not answering the question and instead re-writing the exam to suit herself. :D

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 1:31PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

catkim - since you referenced my 'frou-frou' thread, I took the liberty of invoking the issues raised there. Sorry about the hijack.... (I regularly drove my professors crazy! - but never got anywhere near an F!)

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 4:59PM
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Since the question is vague I imagine any way a respondent interprets it deserves a B for effort if an F for mind reading. Kim give us your definition and let us see how close we came to the right answer.

    Bookmark   March 19, 2012 at 5:31PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

There is no "right answer". The definitions given are mostly personal and range from the broad to the most rigidly defined.

I would say a garden is a plot of land, mostly open to the sky, claimed and altered by man, often to grow plants for purposes other than agriculture.

Some gardens are more successful than others in achieving their full intended potential, and I do think there is intent involved; plans, or maybe dreams or visions. Gardens are an expression of desires, and a connection between man and nature, although there is nothing natural about a garden.

I suppose my definition is similar to adrienneb's more articulate version. There is a lot of truth to Sandy's comment that a garden is an abstract idea. Each garden comes out of the mind of its creator, whether mundane or unique.

Those who create gardens for a living have more complex definitions and integrate themselves into that definition, the garden being essential to their very existence.

While I appreciate the effort to be succinct, "a garden is a personal enclosure" could be mistaken for an office or a toilet stall or a coffin. Sorry, just a tiny bit more differentiation is required. Same for tanowicki's "my place I want to spend time in and that I have a connection to." Perhaps the outdoors and use of plants are implied?

Most of us reference plants, but I believe gardens exist that have few or no plants, yes? There is a garden I drive past now and then that is entirely constructed of rocks and seashells stacked and cemented into plant forms. I suppose it to be a garden, but there is no living thing in it.

What is the most unusual garden you have seen? What makes a garden successful? Have you experienced an outdoor planted space that was definitely not a garden, by your own measure? Tanowicki suggests that gardens maintained by others are not really gardens, but landscapes. Yard says landscapes are a subset of gardens, and subordinate to architecture. Some of the most successful and personal gardens I've seen greatly enhance the adjacent architecture; are they gardens or landscapes? I admit to difficulty in understanding the difference, unless gardens are private and landscapes are public? No, that doesn't work -- there are many public gardens. Hmmmm...

Let's have a cup of tea and talk about it.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 11:05AM
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deviant-deziner(Oh zone)

What is my description of a garden ? - Exhausting.
just joking ... well just a little. I just finished installing a 'Small Space Garden' at the S.F. Garden show which will open to the public tomorrow.
My perspective is always evolving in regards to Kim's question , but at this point in time the meaning of a garden to me is a place to go to and enjoy puttering with planterly combinations and varieties. It's my center.

A couple of years ago I had a harrowing time with my health. My garden was my solace. I could go outside and enjoy the colors, textures and forms . It
was a place to take a comforting nap and provide me with some light duty theraputic movement. It was my place of zen.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 3:28PM
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"although there is nothing natural about a garden."" It seems to me that gardens are about nature in that they are based on it. They are our ideas of nature refined.

"I believe gardens exist that have few or no plants, yes? I absolutely agree. In trying to recreate our refined version of nature, there are instances where plants are not part of it. One example I'm thinking of is the extreme zen garden. And I've heard of stalagmite formations in a cave being referred to as "stalagmite gardens." It seems to me that this is appropriate. I'd also like to make the point that there are times when nature produces eye-candy spaces that can readily be referred to as natural gardens. Those gardens existed before man.

"are they gardens or landscapes? I admit to difficulty in understanding the difference..." The difference is not of substance, but of degree. A landscape is a garden. A garden can be as haphazard as its owner wishes and still rightly be called a garden. At one extreme it can come from the casting of mixed seeds on freshly plowed ground or the whimsical assemblage of found objects. But in fact, it would be the extreme rare instance where someone created a garden and did not wish to impose some semblance of organization or function into it. That imposition of additional rules and constraints is the imposition of rules of LANDSCAPE. Today, we would never see a garden that does not use SOME rules of landscape. "Landscape" only describes additional constraints, not a different style or structure. But in our never ending efforts to categorize and define, we need a way to describe a garden that is fine tuned based on functional and organization aspects. The best word we have at this time is LANDSCAPING. But the truth is that no garden today exists without some rules of landscaping interposed. Therefore, it'd be impossible to say that the vast majority of gardens were not to some extent, landscapes. And from the start, it'd be impossible to say that all landscapes were not also, gardens. Rarely is a built plot of ground so extreme that it falls neatly into one camp. The divvying up comes in determining how much the functional/organizational needs are tended to vs. how much they are not.

"What makes a garden successful?" I submit that it is not how much the design criteria is met, but that it is how much joy it brings to the users. Which means that if the design criteria is haywire (which it sometimes is) the design can be successful when not meeting the criteria. But the joy a garden brings--which can happen purely by accident or as a creation of the unschooled--determines how much it is loved. And that determines its success.

    Bookmark   March 20, 2012 at 6:45PM
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