In a scene that recalled Jed Clampett’s loaded-up jalopy on its way to Bever-lee, last week when I loaded up my Budget truck and moved from New York to our nation’s capital, the last thing on, and the first thing off, was my plants.
I collect speckled, dappled, freckled, variegated ones and I couldn’t imagine living without them. I think they’ll enjoy this foggy bottom of heat and humidity. I tied them aboard with a macramé-like web of ropes to keep them upright and steady while we jostled down the Jersey Turnpike. They survived nicely, and like me seem to thrive here already.
It is often obvious that gardens, which come in all shapes and sizes like pets and children, resemble their masters in both appearance and temperament. I’ve never met any of this summer’s crop of designers who submitted portraits of themselves and their gardens to Design Observer. But when I study their plants I feel we’ve already been introduced.
You’d have no trouble imagining that the bearded, bear-like Keith Blankenship rules in his wildish sprawl in Idaho. I immediately link the crisp and lean Yale-ish typography in Amanda Bower’s posters and exhibition designs to her demure self-portrait, with her museum-quality and minimalist arrangement of bonsai and succulents in white containers.
Why do designers love to garden? One perhaps self-revelatory guess: if designers are control freaks by nature, here’s a place of one’s own to prune and pick and pluck and finesse and generally play God the whole season long. Then again maybe the appeal is there’s no client to get in the way of all that cultivation and creation.
Among the friends I left behind in the boondocks north of Manhattan was Gisela Stromeyer
, the designer and architect of tensile structures who, though famously shy and hardly the type to submit photos to a blog, practically blooms with joy when she’s mucking around on her country compound. Last spring she built her garden in the round, and planted it with a hilarious three-ring circus of vegetables mixed up with perennials in paisley-shaped beds, surrounded by a ring of 12-foot tent poles that she laced with deer netting while teetering atop her ladder.
If designers enjoy "process," there’s also an opportunity in gardening for plenty of surprise, what my first graphic designer pal Rob Szabo called the “happy accidents.” Plan and plot as much as you like: there’s still no accounting for why some plants thrive and others wither. Learning which is half the fun, and it is endlessly entertaining to the senses.
And for many of us who’ve been financially pounded in the past year, maybe gardening is partly about cheap thrills. Where else can you get so much visual action for so little cash? You put some cuttings or seeds or seedlings in, and a few months later you’ve got layers of color and texture, perfume and something to whoosh in the breeze. And next year, they’ll divide and multiply, voila!
Last spring I thought: in recessionary times what better way to cheer myself up than to consolidate my perennials into a new bed configuration in the backyard, where I could view it all from my kitchen window. My daughter Abbie helped me dig it, and it cost nothing to create. By summer’s end, the cartoon-like bed, an upturned arc shape, plus a pair of perfect circular beds north of it, were bursting with an array of my favorite Echinacea ‘Virgin’, chocolate hollyhocks and dahlias, spotted heuchera and variegated hydrangeas.
Probably not till Google Earth’s next round of updates will it occur to anyone, particularly my ex-landlords, that I carved a huge Smiley Face in my backyard and planted flowers in it. All summer I had my own private horticultural happy face grinning at me.
These images for Design Obsesrver make me happy, too. I’ve loved the shot of Felix Sockwell who’s so into his rich compost and the alternativeness of his neighborhood in Maplewood, NJ that he hauls his family around in that rickshaw contraption. And I don’t know what all Jenny Wright’s got going in her little plot, but she’s certainly at one with the Berkshires isn’t she? Did Emily Lessard’s potted-up and very urban tomatoes survive this summer’s brown spot blight? No matter. Her calico sundress and dirty bare feet are as charming as her rooftop veggies.