As part of my quest to integrate “being close to nature” and “living in the city,” I got a copy of a book that promised to help me find the language to explain this impulse: Cities and Natural Process: A Basis for Sustainability by Michael Hough, a landscape architect and a professor. He first wrote the book in 1995, and updated it in 2004. Although the book was primarily written for landscape architects, and has an academic flavor, it’s gentle and readable and, at the same time, revolutionary, because it overturns existing paradigms.
Hough points out that most buildings in the downtown of older cities were designed to create a monumental effect, but, instead, especially when grouped together, they create an arid landscape. I love downtown Seattle but there are places you can’t stand because the wind whipping down those barren corridors is too intense. Hough also describes the aesthetic of most parks as modeled after an English country estate, which in turn is a representation of an ideal woods. So true! No wonder I love parks. But, actually, though they seem natural, these elegant older parks, like Seattle’s Volunteer Park, don’t have the ability to regenerate that a healthy wood has because there is no undergrowth, just those carpets of beautifully mowed grass. Many of Hough’s suggestions—exposing streams, replacing lawns with vegetables, using indigenous plants—have become commonplace. Others are still cutting edge.
One thing I realize after reading the first two chapters of this book is why I have had a hard time gardening in community gardens. I’ve been a community gardener for 15 years, but I am constantly under pressure from my fellow gardeners to conform to their notions of an ideal garden. I frequently get notices telling me my plot is too weedy or it looks abandoned. I believe that’s because I like volunteers. I am always curious about what plants will show up in my garden and just let them grow. I like chickweed and woodruff and dandelions, plants others might consider weeds. I’ve got several fennel plants higher than my head from which I harvest fennel pollen and fennel seeds and fennel stalks, which can be used to stake other plants, but fennel plants aren’t popular in my community garden because they are so hard to dig out when they show up where unwanted. I also have two tall mullein flowers. I don’t do much with these, although I once gave a visitor one of the big, fuzzy leaves because she complained about sore feet. My rose bush is a prickly rosa rugosa, which doesn’t produce the kind of beautiful flowers that most people think of when they think of roses. The flowers are flimsy, pale pink petals that have the most delicious flavor.
Most of the gardeners in my community garden grow vegetables and I watch visitors stroll around identifying the plants they know. No one ever comments on the beauty of my garden, although they do like my bay tree. It started out as a five inch herb in a pot and is now taller than me. I’m shaping the top of it so that it has a topiary effect (a throwback to the English country estate garden). Which brings me to my point, that the aesthetic, even for this humble community garden, is based on clean lines, groomed paths, cultivated plants, useful plants, decorative plants, not the wild, weedy mess I cultivate.