“What’s the difference between gardening and landscaping?” My colleague looked up expecting a clear technical answer. “Gardening’s when you kill your own plants, landscaping is when you pay someone else minimum wage to kill them for you.” Yep, I thought I was funny there.
For me, gardening is about more than just cultivation - it’s about presence, spending time in a place, knowing it inside and out. “Beauty is the harvest of presence,” David Whyte writes in Consolations, “Beauty especially occurs in the meeting of time with the timeless; the passing moment framed by what has happened and what is about to occur,” When you actively garden your own garden, you’re present those for individual passing moments of surprising beauty. The sudden flush of a dogwood splayed out amongst pines. Countless anemones and trout lilies spangling a woodland floor. A plump peony bud crystal-coated with dew. Or, as Leo Babauta writes about plum blossoms in the spring: “The height of their beauty is a transient, impermanent, evanescent moment, fading as soon as it peaks.” (Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change, 2016)
As someone who makes gardens for other people for a living, I’m constantly aiming to set up conditions for beautiful and memorable moments. But setting up these experiences is like designing a game. If conditions are right and the visitor’s attention is in the right place, maybe they’ll get it. Or maybe they won't. In A Gentle Plea for Chaos Mirabel Osler writes about the vicissitudes of garden timing, “In Japan there are times of day, or times of year when deliberate viewing of cherry blossom or the melting snow takes place. I wonder how this would work in our gardens? For though we know that there will come a certain day when something is at its best, contemplation of it has to be an almost solitary affair, because you can never tell beforehand what the weather will be like, what damage will be done or even how eccentric the seasons may be that year.”
But the likelihood of someone who’s not actively involved with the garden noticing such surprising and transient moments is less likely than for someone who actually gardens. These special moments are the gardener's reward. Mirabel Osler says it best - “Who hasn’t stood in their garden at some unexpected moment of the day, when perhaps the tension in the petals of a tree peony is almost a breath away from dissolving, or when the immaculate clarity of a tender arum lily seems becalmed for a moment before the petal curls too emphatically? Or when in a certain light there is an almost smoky aura given off by the mauve and white Japanese anemones, when black thunder clouds pass behind a laburnum tree in full flower, or when frost outlines a head of winter yarrow - how often then have we wanted to share it? But try to organize a midsummer flower party when scents and blooms are filling the garden and you can be sure it won’t come off.” (A Gentle Plea for Chaos, 1989)