• What Garden Writers Can Learn from a Kayak

    Tonight, like many nights, I ambled out in the minutes before dusk for a stroll at my favorite park–a reconstructed prairie at the site of a former quarry.  My often solo traipses around the meandering trails of Ada Hayden Park turn up an awful lot of ideas–most quirky or dorky.  But tonight in those waning seconds of flickering sunlight, I took note of a listless lake front, perturbed only by the soft symmetry of the wake of a kayak that seemed to extend from one corner of the lake to another.  That kayak recalled an idea from the benthic depths of my mind, something I’ve itched to write about but haven’t found the time for.

    Head first into that otherwise listless wake I go…

    We’ve got to change the conversation about gardening in this country, because frankly at this point it’s shallow.  I’ve written before and I’m sure I will again, about how gardening needs to take cues from the “American food revolution” that took place in the 20th century, and which continues to mature in the 21st.  My personal perception–American horticulture is stuck somewhere between the era of 1950s-style TV dinners and boxed meals and the gourmand-boasting bistros and Bohemian coffeehouses of today.  One of my mentors, celebrated garden author and editor Elvin McDonald once remarked to me “I’ve always thought of my reader as a person who wants an attractive spouse, smart kids, roses in the garden and orchids in the house.”  I find something about that very inspirational.

    For one, it’s a cogent idea of what, maybe, our American horticultural audience actually “looks” like.  Sometimes, I don’t think we know any more about them than a hermit does his neighbors.  Second, it conveys an essence of what gardening means to a lot of people.  It espouses the passion for gardening–people want gardening to be a meaningful part of their lives.  Some want roses and boxwood in tidy, formal enclosures with affordable sculpture.  Some want Fritillaria camschatcensis (Kamchatka fritillary) nestled at the edge of a bog featuring Sarracenia (pitcher plant) and Calopogon tuberosus (grasspink)!  And who doesn’t want orchids in the house?  Don’t think for a minute I’m promoting some elitist, plant snob’s view of gardening.  I just want people to have a rich opportunity to choose plants that genuinely express their love for gardening.  I’m not kicking the McDonald’s of gardening out of business.  I just want more of this (The Cafe- Ames, IA), or at least the horticultural equivalent thereof.

    (That choice to me is evident, given my tastes.  But even when it exists, it isn’t for many.  They don’t get it, because we don’t get them.)

    The tides of revolutionary change ride undercurrents of authenticity, not winds of fabrication–put less poetically, we need content with substance and style.  We’ve got plenty of stylized content these days, masquerading in the place of sound horticultural know-how and green-spirited passion.  The real stuff starts in the garden, with knowledge rooted under the plants we love, in the experience of building and creating, and within the passionate moments spent sharing that love with ourselves, our friends, our family, or anyone lingers long enough at the garden gate.

    The analogy of the kayak beats strong here.  You’re the vessel, your audience the water.  Who is your audience?  What do they want?  How big are they?  A yacht on a 130-acre lake doesn’t make much sense, but a kayak does.  Ultimately, what kind of wake does your work leave?  Is it a steady, surface-rustling wake or a big splash that’s over and done with just as soon as it started?

3 Responsesso far.

  1. This may be the first time I’ve read the word “benthic” in a blog post… 🙂
    Good thoughts here… I love the very specific image of who we are talking to. In some parts of the industry, they talk a lot about their customers as if they were some other species, people who couldn’t possibly appreciate that plants the pros may grow in their own gardens. We need to stop talking (and breeding, and growing) down to gardeners. Write about, talk about, grow, breed, sell, plants that YOU genuinely love, not what you think will appeal to the least common denominator.
    Julia Child didn’t revolutionize food by teaching people to make cheese burgers.

  2. Lisa Orgler says:

    In the end good garden design should be the evolution of good communication between the designer and client (and sometimes those people are the same person). If we want depth, connections, and meaning…then the designer needs to ask the right questions and put a fresh spin how a garden reflects that of the person living there. Unfortunately, most people don’t know plants beyond those found at Lowes…how do we as designers and gardeners use our knowledge, paired with the personality of a homeowner to make something liveable, dynamic and new?

  3. kdnblog says:

    Lisa–great comment. I appreciate the different stances people perceive this post from!

    I don’t know if you were being more rhetorical or if you wanted my thoughts. I guess I would just take away the question mark on the end of your last sentence. We as horticulturists take that knowledge, passion and find ways to help gardeners (of all stripes) create livable, dynamic, thriving spaces for plants and life. I don’t find that most gardeners are apprehensive about new plants. I think they’re waiting for a reason to care about new plants, or more importantly, about something that will stimulate their curiosity or inspire them to do something different.

    Modern horticulture doesn’t do that very well unfortunately. We just want to sell them a landscape, or a container garden, etc.

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