A meeting of minds prompts some garden-variety philosophising.
Douglas Lloyd Jenkins finds a fruity muse
Recently, I met up with a group of my one-time design students, some of whom I haven’t seen for more than a decade. One of them, a young woman now possessed of a slightly intimidating style, albeit evolved from her younger self, gave me initial cause to worry as she sat next to me at the end of a long table. What might we talk about after the initial enquiries into health, current occupation and location? Of course, we could have revelled in ‘remember when’ but since we weren’t in the same class – instead I was her teacher – that dynamic was a slightly challenging one for a Sunday afternoon at the pub. I needn’t have worried. Our conversation quickly and naturally segued into what was really top of both of our minds on a summer day: our gardens. We got talking about fig trees – of which we are both fans – and then the wider topic of gardens. I settled into a relaxed afternoon.
If all those years ago I’d tried to have that same conversation with that then-sassy student, I doubt she’d have given me a second. She would have rolled her eyes, all the time thinking that whatever happened in her life she would never be that old. In my experience, most young people are not much interested in gardening. Children might do something successful with radish seeds in school or a sunflower in the back garden, but there are only very few who get the whole gardening thing from the beginning.
HOME is a rare beast among architecture and nesting magazines in that, in the six or seven title changes since 1936, the term garden has stayed off the masthead. I don’t think the magazine has ever had a dedicated garden section. Although, from the very beginning, the garden has been part of the magazine’s content. From formal gardens of the 1930s to the craze for rock gardens a decade later, and then the 1950s modernism of Odo Strewe, the magazine covered the development of the modern garden. It was there for the English garden revival of the 1980s, which was – if you like – the garden’s postmodern moment, and also for the minimalist craze and more recent vogue for native gardens. There were even momentary obsessions with bonsai and ikebana – all in the pursuit of the ultimate connection between home and garden style. They’re all there because the tie between home and garden is almost unbreakable – a pairing like that of body and soul – so obvious it often goes unmentioned. As I write I wonder if the presence of a garden might be the difference between a house and an apartment, but I know a Wellington friend is working away in the garden that surrounds her small block and I fondly recall a Sydney friend whose tiny apartment was characterised by a garden of indoor orchids. What applies to houses applies to apartments: in the transition of either from a shell into a home, a garden of some type plays a big part. As we come to better understand the role of design in our lives, we also recognise that a well-designed or well-considered house is good for us. It nurtures our visual senses and provides a place of rest from the increasingly complex and confronting world. Like a good home, a good garden offers a real alternative to the work environment in which we spend so much of our time.
Why then, if this is an alternative to the work environment, am I prepared to work so hard in the garden? High summer, beautiful weather – I should be relaxing, but I’m in the garden. I come in from a day’s gardening only because it’s dark. I’ve worked harder and longer than I have in any day at ‘the office’. I take one last walk around the garden. Although I can barely see in the near-dark, there’s a sense of satisfaction that tomorrow morning it will be looking pretty good. When I retire from work – I hope my house will be finished – it will only be so that I might spend my days in the garden.
It’s then that I realise why young people go through a phase between radish seeds and homeownership in which they have little interest in gardens. They see them for what they are – hard work – and the thought of having to work for a living is hard enough without also knowing you’re going to have to work for momentary pleasures such as a garden. Thinking again about my Sunday afternoon conversation at the pub, I realise it wasn’t my ex-student’s designer clothes, her smart, contemporary jewellery, or the mention of kids left at home that made her seem grown up – but her devotion to fig trees. She now understood that design was in part a process of thinking, a consideration that might to be applied to any task, and one that, with a little hard work, brings rewarding results.