People sometimes begin their gardening lives as one of the several shared passions of new romance. We met a woman once at a dinner party – a very good gardener – who explained that she and her husband had begun their ambitious garden – now hers from a recent and quite acrimonious divorce settlement – in the first spring of their marriage. It started one fine dewy Saturday morning, over breakfast, as they were discussing their summer vacation plans.
"Rome?" she suggested? "To hot," he replied. "Paris?" "It’s closed in August." "A house in the Hamptons?" "Too expensive. And too snooty." "My parents’ cottage on Long Beach Island?" Silence.
"Well…We could just stay home…." His eyes lit up as he lowered his cup a little too loudly in its saucer. "What…would we…do….with all that time?" (He was a currency trader, and needed to anticipate results.) "Oh" she remembers saying shyly, "We could read…nap…We could start a garden…watch the little things grow…Get bigger…Blossom."
"Needless to say," she tartly concluded, "We did not start double digging just at that moment, but we did get around to it soon enough, and the whole scheme cost me a husband and gave me a very fine garden. Some things…." She trailed off vaguely…."are just meant to be, I guess."
"You mean NOT meant to be?" one of us asked.
"No…meant. I was thinking of the garden!"
A good many marriages actually begin in gardens, bride a and groom and wedding party photographed in absurd finery before some cheesy park fountain or gaudy flower bed, while a casual passer-by murmurs "Mistake!"
So constant is this impulse that it must imply some deep symbology. But other sorts of relationships begin in gardens too, perhaps in the nether reaches, where the shrubbery is thick, or even in garden centers. ("is eyes met mine over the seed rack, and he held out the last pack of Emmenanthe penduliflora…I was sunk!")
The question, however, is not whether relationships begin in gardens - for sacred texts attest to that – but whether they can continue in gardens, and that is the question under examination here. As with all questions worth asking about human passions, the answer is Yes…and No…and Maybe. It all depends.
A consideration of couples in the garden must begin with the master-slave relationship, the sort that routinely follows a pattern such as this: "Dig!"…"Yes, Dear!"…"Plant!"…."Yes, Dear"…."Weed!"…."Oh, Dear,….Must I Dear?" Ow!...Yes Dear."
Whatever psychotherapists might think of a horticultural relationship structured this way, it can be surprisingly efficient in making a garden. However, the results cannot be exactly described to visitors as "our garden" but more likely as "MY garden." And it is a shared venture that we have in mind as the ideal.
But before leaving this possibility, we should note that when two people choose the perilous path of gardening together, an occasional experiment with this mode is sometimes satisfying, for it is good to have one partner in firm command of the day when the other is rather prone to drag behind, or is, for whatever reason….rather prone.
We would, however, like to assume as an ideal two people who are equals in the garden, perfect peers in their knowledge of garden design and configuration, soil management, composting and fertilizing, color harmonies, planting, propagation, cold-framing, ripping our, replanting remaking…in short, all the myriad skills required to make up a successful garden.
We would like to imagine such a couple…but we just can't. For in every case that we know of where gardens have been created by two people, each party is better at something than the other, and the success of the garden will depend on the free and frank acknowledgement of this fact. (It follows, of course, the success of the relationship will too.)
It is still, we suppose, a help if there are clear and distinct identities, perhaps sexually-based, if only by derivation, and buttressed up by conventional societal assumptions. ("I build the walls and the Little Woman comes behind and plants all the pretty flowers. But don’t ask ME their Latin names, ask Herself.")
That sort of thing might seem a safe path, and sometimes it is, even if it is She who builds the walls and He who pokes in the flowers. Truth to tell, however, such rigid role identification hardly ever prevails in really good gardens made by two people, even though society and garden writers need to think so ("Of course, it was Harold who masterminded the structure, and Vita who selected and grew the plants…") For sooner or later, the wall-builder is apt to cross over into the plant person, and the plant person may try her hand at laying down a path. Then a cross fertilization may occur, creating a garden of true hybrid vigor Or acrimonious quarrels may result, bent on protecting turf(sometimes literally turf) which may signal a serious crack in the relationship, and possible either the death of the garden or its reversion to a single owner.
Couples or any other unit of people who choose to garden together, whatever their sexual or familial or social arrangements may be, should first acknowledge one truth. Quarrels about the garden are never about the garden, any more than quarrels about money are ever about money. They are about control. If the impulse to control occurs from a sleepless night, or indigestion, or a hang-over, or a bad day at the office or a messed-up manuscript, or any other purely occasional thing that makes one party aggressively argumentative and the other dig in her or his heels and shout "But I like it that way!" then gardening should stop for that day - by mutual agreement - and recontinue when things are smoother. For this is a fact: Good garden decisions are never made out of fractiousness, whether between two people or even with oneself. They are made out of peace. And that, in the garden, is the happy conjunction of inspired vision, eager and joyful labor, good materials, solid previous achievement and a clear and shared sense of what is next to be gleefully undertaken. When the impulse to control is chronic, such moments may be very scarce or even non-existent, and the garden will fail, as surely as will the relationship itself.
In such a case, the first recourse might be to a skilled and sensitive couples therapist, who, for obvious reasons, should probably NOT also be a gardener.
However, many professional garden designers often find themselves functioning as marriage counselors, stumbling into situations where one party announces "I have always felt that there should be a ______ there, but He thinks there should be a ______. What do YOU think?"
Happy day, when the garden designer comes up with a totally different solution so inspired that both parties beam with approval, and peace is restored. More often, however, the designer receives a check and a cursory note saying "Thank you for your efforts. I loved your ideas, but my husband(wife)and I cannot seem to agree, and so, for the moment, we are undecided as to how to proceed. "No garden there" the designer mutters, tearing up the note, endorsing the check, and feeling vaguely like an out-take in an early Bergmann movie.
For all people who propose to create a gar5den together we would offer the following seven basic rules:
One: realize, from the start, that the garden is not only a central part of your shared lives, but probably also one of the clearest lenses through which the interconnectedness of your lives and all its attendant problems will be viewed.
Two: Talk as enthusiastically about the garden together as you can in happy peaceful times, and never when you are feeling stressed by life or by any tension between you. If even the shadow of tensions originating outside garden issues becomes apparent, change the subject, and go to bed early.
Three: Always agree beforehand on the amount either person may spend on acquiring plants for the garden before consulting the other. Depending on your income, that might be $3.95 or $395.00 or $3,950.00. But purchases that stretch the budget in any way also alter the character of the garden, and so require a double negotiation.
In this connection, never expend a budget-breaking sum on any plant or garden alteration as a special birthday or anniversary surprise, and most especially, when it is something you really wanted for yourself. That is pure aggression. It follows from this rule also that you must never bring home a plant your companion despises. "How could you? You Know the smell of chrysanthemums always makes me puke!"
Four: Both parties must agree on all additions to the garden, on all removals and/or relocations, and also on any incidental expenses that might occur, even when unexpected. ("Sorry Lady. Moving that tree, we broke through the sewage line. Better call a septic engineer.")
Also, NEVER assume that a quietly murmured suggestion at breakfast, such as "Don't you think, Dear, that ash tree should come down?" followed by "Mmmm" constitutes a full discussion of the issue and justifies calling the tree man the minute your companion is out the driveway.
Five: When mutual agreement cannot be reached, nothing should be done at all, and both parties should allow that space to remain undeveloped, or that tree left standing, or that proposed flower bed remain as mowed turf.
However, the possibility of good will, or a birthday concession, or some other happy moment of concordance or gratitude, should always be hoped for…but never engineered. "I am all dressed up and looking pretty at this moment," a client once phoned us, "and I just know Harold is going to agree!"
Six: An impartial arbiter, a gardener absolutely respected by both parties(and of course the particular friend of neither) might be called in, with the understanding that his or her judgment will be final.
No prompting is allowed, for the question must be put with absolute neutrality, and the decision itself must be absolute as well. When this arbitration occurs, it is probably wise not to have the chain saw waiting in the shrubbery, lest its growl put salt in the would, or its silence, salt in another.
Seven: When all else fails, couples might consider(for the moment or forever) a sort of horticultural divorce, splitting up the garden by treaty into His and Hers, or Hers and Hers, or His and His. Whatever.
Such horticultural partitioning seems to work for many people we know who share the same space, but not the same garden, seeming thus to preserve a lasting relationship.
But, as among hostile nations, the truce may be an uneasy one, and the slightest failure in vigilance may be the occasion for unexpected colonization, and even renewed hostilities. "Can you tell me, Please, what YOUR forget-me-nots are doing in MY garden?"
The point, of course, is this. Gardening, like all the other serious undertakings in life, requires all the sanity one can muster. When one chooses to garden with another person, one must first tend to oneself, and then to the other, and then to both.
A field of cultivation exists far above the condition of the soil, or the individual plant or seedling, or color harmonies, or even the very structure of the garden, its architecture, access, rooms and such. The decisions made - hopefully in happy concordance between two - will certainly influence the texture or shape or beauty of the garden. But those decisions will actually influence a far higher texture, shape and beauty.
For, though we have seen magnificent gardens fashioned by one person in lonely solitude, we still believe that the best gardens are made by two people who have found it possible to work in harmony together.
That is only to say, naturally, that the best gardens reflect the best lives.
Best Wishes from North Hill,