Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Taste is the evidence of things not seen

That's right. They tour gardens at garden writers' conferences. It doesn't matter that it's Dallas in the dog days, and 98 degrees in the shade if they have it, and you are asking the bartender at the Dallas Arboretum for a cup of ice water instead of the complimentary wine just so that you can pour it over your sweltering head. Dad-gummit, you are going to tour that garden because you are a garden writer, and you like gardens even when they are hotter than the devil's griddle with the burners turned on high, and you are made of grit.

And it turns out to be worth it. The Dallas Arboretum is worth it. Go there. See it. 

But you might want to wait until it's a bit cooler.

I don't want to talk about the Arboretum a whole lot, however, even though it was shockingly nice. I mean, there were the requisite spectacular blooming flowers, tasteful container plantings, seasonal pumpkins floating in the fountain, and impressive, twisty crape myrtle allees that looked like something Ichabod Crane would ride through on his horse on a dark and stormy night, and etc., and etc. I was completely charmed (charmed!) by it all when I wasn't stuffing ice cubes under my fancy hat. It's just that of all the ones I saw over the weekend at the Garden Writers Association annual conference, it isn't the garden that I liked the most. That honor goes to one called "The Pump House."

This is normally the place in the post where I'd show you some dishy photos to bolster my case. Unfortunately, my camera has taken this inopportune moment to belly-up. So at present there isn't any way to upload the eleventy-million or so I took while I toured this private garden, which is probably for the better, since you might not want to sit through a virtual vacation slide show. At least, you wouldn't want to do it without being fortified with lots of wine. 

And cookies. You'd probably need chocolate chip cookies.

Also, it's a good thing I don't have photos since the absence of them fits neatly into a little exercise we were assigned at the conference by garden writer Billy Goodnick. He wanted us to describe a garden we'd seen at GWA using the language of design, which includes words like harmony, adjacent colors, negative space, and....um, other stuff I can't remember since I didn't take any notes while he was talking, which is a neat trick I've learned from my students.

So: no photos, no notes. But I am nothing if not a "damn the torpedoes, let's ice the cake anyway" girl--ergo, here we go.

But first I'd like to talk about something interesting that happened during Billy's talk. We were supposed to pick a partner and together describe one of two photos of gardens he had up on a screen. My partner wanted to describe the one on the left: a deep-green big-foliage scene; and I wanted the one on the right: a messy juxtaposition of soft, contrasting textures, and complementary colors of subtle blues (foliage) and faded oranges (flowers). 

It turned out that apparently nearly everyone else picked the photo on the left. Words like "serene," and "soothing," and "lush" were bandied about. In truth, I kind of thought the photo on the right was serene and soothing, too, though I'll grant you that the texture of the smaller leaves and petals did not lend themselves to being called "lush."

So I asked my partner where she was from and it turned out to be Houston. Now Houston, you will note if you've ever been there, is considerably more big-foliage-y and deep-green than my home ground (see photo above: taken at 70 mph on the trip home with my iPhone, which, unlike my camera, thank goodness, has not died), so when she allowed that H was her hometown, I thought, "Hmmmm." 

Brothers and sisters, when it comes to making connections, there are no flies on me. 

I mean, just take a look at that garden in that photo up there. (And yes, my friends, that is a garden, since, as those of us from around these parts know, that is a good, healthy stand of CRP, or Conservation Reserve Program. It is a planted prairie tableau, for as we are all aware, the real, native prairie is nearly gone from our lives.) If you'll indulge me for a moment, I'd like to use the language of design to talk about that CRP garden.

First, repetition: I mean, really, do I need to explain this? Just look at it--repeatin' itself all over to yell and back. Plus, did you catch the neat repetition trick I used with the mirror, where you can see that the prairie is even repeating itself behind you? And! The whole mirror/repetition thing is very "meta," as the snootier academic-types might say.

Second, color: Note the contrasting hues of sky and grass, and how the blue "pops" the yellow. (And speaking of the yellow grasses, how would you describe that color? Despite popular belief, the landscape of of the panhandle plains is clearly not brown.) Blue and yellow are both primary colors, and though the sky tends toward the cool end of the spectrum and the grass toward the warm, neither is uniformly either, so where the two meet at the horizon is something of a blend. As a design element, I think it works, partly because both, as colors, are de-saturated there. 

Colors that are not saturated are simply those that are pale or weak under bright light (of which we have plenty), or in this case, because of aerial distance, and should not be confused with colors that are light in value. As it happens, the color of a grassland also tends to be light in value, plus we have aerial distance out the wazoo, so it makes for a more subtle palette than one might find in, oh, let's say Houston. Or Maine. Or England. Or Bali. Or...

Third, texture: Note also the fine, uniform texture of the grasses and how they play against the sky. Also,  I'm going to use the gardener's old trick of "borrowing" a view here and claim those fluffy white cumulus clouds--a nascent prairie thunderstorm--for some more contrasting texture.

Fourth, negative space: Honey, we own negative space out here. Enough said.

So given that this is my home landscape, is it any wonder that the photo in Billy's talk that spoke to me was the more subtle of the two? Taste, after all, is shaped by the things we carry with us. 

Hence the reason I felt something wiggle around my heart the moment I stepped into the Pump House garden. A collaborative work by Mesa Design Group and D.I.R.T. Studio, the garden is centered around an old water pumping station in Turtle Creek, and as such, has a distinct utilitarian look to it. (You can see some of the images from the project here, on D.I.R.T.'s website.) The pump house itself is rectangular and blocky, and nothing has been done to alter this. In fact, many of the structures are allowed to retain the usual effects of decay that occur when a constructed place is neglected, lending parts of the garden the effect of walking through a ruins site. A crumbling wall entrance to an empty driveway bay, a rusty pipe feeding water into a trough, which in turn spilled as a waterfall onto concrete below, large slabs of broken concrete used as pavers--these reminded me of the hours I spent as a child exploring old buildings I'd stumble across in the deserts of New Mexico.

It is worth noting here that in semi-arid and arid climates, things take a very long time to decay, and so these kinds of old structures are part of our landscape vernacular here in the southwest. "Place recognition" became a strong element for me almost as soon as I rounded the street corner and saw the garden.

Some parts of the plantings, did, too. For example, on the north side (I think it was north), was an arid and barren stretch of buffalo grass, which stood in stark contrast to a much greener "monkey grass" scene growing in the shade. Of the two, the drier stand of grass seemed to fit in more with the powerful, overall "I am back home and out exploring the scrublands" feeling that the place called up in me. Now admittedly, dry shade is a problem, and you won't get a stand of prairie or desert grasses to grow in the shade because, well, we don't happen naturally to have any shade out here, so I can see why the designers planted what they did. I would have preferred hardscaping there, however, rather than the (to me) jarring effect of the deep green. 

Deep green, you see, just doesn't belong in a dessicated landscape. We've discussed this already.

(Ironically, many of the plantings--most of which do look natural in such a landscape--come from Treesearch Farms, a nursery out of Houston.)

The best gardens, in my mind, evoke place, which is something I'll define here simply as landscape with a story. So here is the story I got from this place of a garden: I am back in The Big Bend region, where I did my dissertation field work. We've been out in the desert all day, walking up and down the dusty paleosol humps of earth looking for fossils, so we're tired and thirsty, and a little bit heat-sick. We are now at this border-town bar that is little more than an old, burned out, crumbling four slabs of vertical concrete with big, open windows, a wooden (latillas) roof, and a cooler of beers. A rusty trough trickles with water in a nearby shady oasis.

Now, in spite of liking a glass of wine with my supper, I'm not really much of a drinker (as my GWA friends can attest), and I'm really not a beer drinker, as the fizzy-ness makes me feel full and bloated. But out in the desert at the end of the day, nothing taste sweeter than an ice cold Shiner. So that is what I'm having, and I'm surrounded by friends and good ranchera music, and some chips and salsa are at the ready, and a fan spins slowly overhead and the air it moves is like the breath of God.

That, my friends, is the story of this garden. None of it was actually there, of course, except in my heart.

And as I drove back from Dallas and hit that flat, sere, subtle land I call home, my soul opened up like the horizon before me, as it always does, and I knew it as my story, too.


  1. Oh, yeah--sing it Sister! Great piece. I want to see the Pump House garden after you description, because it's very much in the lines of what Richard and I are working on at the Carpenter Ranch in northwestern Colorado: an homage to that particular place, and its particular character and stories.
    One small quibble about CRP land: it's prairie with only a limited palette, in fact, a cow-centric palette--no wildflowers, no shrubs, none of the grasses that don't suit domestic bovines. That makes it a very pale imitation of prairie indeed in the community sense. But your point is great, and thanks for making it so eloquently.

  2. This is one of my favorite posts to date for some reason. Really enjoyed it. Especially, "Honey, we own negative space out here!"

  3. Your closing sentence, is how I feel when I see fynbos. Protea bushes in bloom, clumps or restios, bulbs pushing thru. A place where my heart escapes out of urban confinement.

  4. "Neat trick I learned from my students." LOL. But really though, LOL.

  5. Beautifully written, Susan. I love this. You transported me to that border-town bar.

  6. Susan, Beautiful essay. The word verif is mistful and that is a bit of how i felt when i finished your post!

  7. Susan--About CRP: It's not perfect, but it's better than the alternative.

    Seeker--Yes, we do own it, don't we?

    EE--Thank you. I'm glad my words struck a chord.

    Eileen--Of course, we aren't talking about any students we know...

    Pam--I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Gail--Mistful! My new word of the day. :)

  8. Hi Susan! Great post, loved to read it! Eszter

  9. Great post. Put together like a fine piece of carpentry, and a prose style garden writers (or any writers) might emulate.

  10. Great post! Thank you so much. I wish I had been there!

  11. Elizabeth--It's great; wish you could have seen it, too.

  12. wow. i think you took the challenge that billy presented us and went to the head of the class! no need to add superfluous "-ly" adjectives here... your description of the pump house in connection with the landscape you're most familiar with gave me a new experience and appreciation of texas vernacular. i'm not even from these parts but am making a mental collection of unique landscape moments as i come across them. thanks for sharing your keen observations with us. it's as if i can taste them.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.