Down to earth – On artful, art-full gardens

Originally published on November 28, 2012 in East Bay/South Coast Life

My garden art is showing again. I must have forgotten how many ornaments I have stashed around because I was pleasantly surprised to see birdhouses reappear between the branches and my concrete goose poke its beak back out from behind some melted annuals.

I don’t mind that they, and a few other things, have suddenly resurfaced because they’ll add to the winter view in a way they never would have succeeded in doing over the summer when flowers and foliage were all the ornament I needed.

I also don’t mind that they were mostly hidden for the summer — all but our ironic pink flamingo named Floyd who hangs out by the mailbox — because I’m a little bit worried that one day tchotchkes will take over the garden the way they have the house. Then perfect strangers might see me for the loony collector of bits and bobs that I am. As it is, perfect strangers and fellow gardeners alike probably read my garden as an obsessive collection of plants, albeit strangely lacking in statuary.

This past summer I visited Bedrock Gardens, a private garden occasionally open to the public in Lee, N.H. that blurs or even crosses the line into being a sculpture garden. The property is owned by sculptor Jill Nooney and her artistic husband, Bob Munger, who together have created acres of gardens that are more like earthworks.

Among other delights, there is a 200-foot waterway called The Wiggle Waggle, a grassacre not of lawn but of blocks of native flowering grasses that reads as an abstract painting from the vantage of their barn, and a collection of 50-plus conifers in a stand called Conetown. And, the entire sculpted property is peppered in sculpture, both Nooney’s found-object welds and Munger’s structures, as well as a vast collection of art by friends. Most (all?) of it for sale. Somehow, rather than overwhelming the garden and stealing attention from their fabulous collections of plants, their art embellishes the garden and tells a fascinating story of its owners. Which is exactly what art in the garden is meant to do.

A few years ago I trespassed another very different but entirely art-full garden in Buffalo, N.Y. that came pretty close to crossing the line into miniature golf course-ness: An abandoned mill towered over and shaded a tiny, intensively planted backyard absolutely filled to the gills with statuary. Concrete Venus de Milos and Davids shared the shrubbery with saints, Asian lanterns and gnomes.

But it worked, not just for the owner who clearly loved his all-inclusive sanctuary, but for this perfect stranger as well. And that right there is why. His garden and Bedrock Gardens are loved unabashedly. They are intensely personal spaces created by unselfconscious gardeners who probably don’t give a damn what I think, which made it hard not to love and be inspired by them.

I recently heard a lecture on “infusing the garden with personality” by gardener and author Tovah Martin who, decades ago, wrote about one of the most fiercely idiosyncratic and self-possessed gardeners ever in “Tasha Tudor’s Garden.” Tovah offered a reminder that I’d like to have engraved on my hori-hori: Your garden is yours. Stop caring what other people might think.

If you do what you love, whether it’s to create a haven for wildlife, amass a collection of every species of viburnum or daylily, and/or display a gallery of knick-knackery, there will be beauty — maybe not in the eye of every beholder, but in yours. And, in any case, if you love your garden madly deeply, chances are others will be inspired to as well.