I come from a family comfortable with teetering back and forth on the ledge of cognitive dissonance between faith and the scientific method. My father likes the consistent laws of physics. An egg couldn’t fall off the counter without becoming subject of an object lesson on calculating trajectories, velocity, and force upon impact. Same with chemistry. Us children would cry over spilt milk, not because it was wasted, but because we’d get drawn into endless practical calculations of temperature effects on evaporation and absorption rates of different household surfaces. After which we’d go into unironic discussions of Noah’s flood and apocalyptic Revelations.
With such a pluralist upbringing, I’ve no patience for fundamentalism. Both in life and in gardens.
Like making scrambled eggs in the household where I grew up, making a garden involves navigating systems of values that merge clearly-ordered physical systems with subjective aesthetic and psychological considerations. Thanks to the messy nature of human experience of physical reality, garden-making is a complex field of intention and interactions. In making a garden, people pay distinct attention to a specific place and its component parts, manipulating it to enhance specific aesthetic and functional qualities. Involvement with a garden is basically a smaller, more concentrated version of our personal approaches to presence in the wider universe. Which puts us squarely in ethics territory.
Merriam-Webster defines the term “ethic” as “a set of moral principles; the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group professional ethics; a guiding philosophy.” So, a garden ethic involves a set of principles or values that determine how we make decisions in garden-making. Each of us has a garden (or landscape) ethic - usually a grubby mental treasure map compiled from received wisdom and personal experience. Many of us just don’t know how to articulate or clearly lay out these values and the ways that they influence our decision-making process in gardening and garden design.
I always struggled with the idea of a “concept” in design school. It took me ages to figure out that this concept business wasn’t necessarily some big explicit narrative. Not until my full entire semester seminar dedicated to The Theory of Landscape Architecture did I realize that a “concept” is just the primary premise of a garden. Why are you making this garden? What’s your intention for its function? What values are driving your choices?
To some degree, all gardens are “conceptual”. They all have some idea underlying them. Even a whiskey barrel stuffed with seed-grown 6-pack petunias has the basic intention of providing bright flower color in a bleak environment. On ThinkinGardens, Jay Sifford writes about designing a garden with the concept of enhancing light effects in his beech wood by blocking in masses of light- and dark-foliaged plants. Continuing the conversation, Charlie Bloom wrote about her Colourbox No-Concept Garden - which takes a similar approach to Jay’s garden, in focusing on aesthetic effects rather than an explicit narrative. Some conceptual gardens - such as those you’ll see at the Chaumont-sur-Loire, Hampton Court, or Cornerstone Sonoma - will be more explicit or literal in their concepts. The intention for the weirder of these gardens is to push new materials or explore what a garden can do. However, in wider conversations about gardens and garden design, I’d argue that the way forward is to create a more sophisticated and nuanced conversation around garden ethics.
Outside academia and a few garden shows, our industry hasn’t been great about articulating the ethics of garden-making. Usually, a garden is presented as fulfilling one of three primary functions: edible, ecological, or ornamental. Edible gardens prioritize providing for human physical needs. Ecological gardens are typically focused on needs of other species, replicating wild plant combinations and providing habitat. Ornamental gardens are primarily for human aesthetic enjoyment - lots of large brightly colored flowers. These three intentions to a garden are often presented as antagonistic - or even mutually exclusive.
However, to me, there’s not much value in taking an “either/or” approach to garden ethics. Just as it’s possible to hold both an understanding of scientific research methods and fantastical historical allegories, so it’s possible to take a pluralistic approach to accumulating a garden ethic. I don’t just want essays, white papers, & research reports. Bring me poetry, allegories, narratives and songs - then we’ll be well on the way to developing a richer, more sophisticated garden ethic.