Is It Really About Beauty?



Ornamental gardeners like to distinguish themselves from vegetable gardeners as the rarefied live-for-beauty people.

But is beauty what ornamental gardens are really about?  Because to my mind, beauty requires a certain restraint. 

And restraint is something foreign to amateur gardeners, who love
to buy plants and love to dig up the picture just when
it's looking really good in order to experiment with something new.  (Of course, the pros have to be more directly engaged with questions of truth and beauty in order to draw in new clients, unless of course, their landscape practice happens to be in New Jersey, where truth and beauty are entirely unnecessary.)

The most beautiful yards in my town, for example, are not gardened.  They are green and make clever use of just a handful of things–a hedge, a groundcover, a flowering tree or two.  It's all very restful. 

Whereas the gardeners' yards are all an ungodly riot.  

I became aware that my own yard is a riot this week when my husband looked around at the general excess of blooms–hundreds of tulips including a steroidal yellow called 'Big Smile' — as well as those superb tulip drinking buddies the cushion spurges, white bleeding hearts, self-seeded violets, and brunneras –and said thoughtfully, "This place is starting to remind me of the crazy Portuguese lady's place in the neighborhood I grew up in."

I actually had a gander at the crazy Portuguese lady's yard over 20 years ago, on my first trip to California to meet my husband's family.  I don't know why he walked me over there.  I hadn't yet picked up a shovel, but maybe he just had a foreboding about his own fate.  The place surrounded a little yellow and white Craftsman house.  It was overgrown, mysterious, full of birdsong, completely unlike the Betty Crocker Zen yards around it, surrounding their Betty Crocker Modernist ranches–all seasonless and impervious to wind and weather.  The Portuguese lady's yard, on the other hand, was madly productive, full of flowers and fruits. 

Of course, it's possible that a focus on productivity even in an ornamental garden merely suggests that the gardener is in the wrong line, and instead of constantly planting things with blooms as big as cabbages, should be growing cabbages.

Na. I know plenty of pure ornamentalists who are maximalists.  Crazy flowers are fun.

My feeling is that beauty is a side product of gardening, but not the ultimate goal, which is vigorous exercise and pagan nature worship.  If it's all a little tacky–well, to some people, joy itself looks a little tacky.


  1. Landscape beauty does indeed require a certain amount of restraint, though beauty in a single plant does not. But it’s that overall, big-picture beauty that my clients want but can’t figure out how to get. So I suggest they group in masses, put tall plants in back of short ones (duh), put big plants in the corners to anchor them, draw large curves to distinguish lawn from border, etc. etc.
    My point? You can have it all – a riot that adds up to big-picture gorgeousness – if you use basic design principles. Well, maybe not a riot but something even better.

  2. Absolutely! It’s totally a pagan nature worship thing. I have several of those refined, beautiful gardens in my neighborhood, but do you know, I never actually see anyone in them? But I’m in mine every spare second, and the woman down the street who lets her cleomes grow where they seeded themselves (often in cracks in her driveway) is in hers all the time as well. I think it’s because for the garden-obsessed, it’s not about reaching an end product (beauty)–it’s about the chaotic, and never-ending process of getting there.

  3. Yeah, I’m sure some people pass my front garden and shake their heads and say, “What was he thinking?” I have little restraint. Other gardeners pass and say, “What great color! Where’d you get those iris? I’ve never seen horseradish in a flower garden. How do you amend the soil?” They don’t question the chaotic mix, which I like to call a “cacophony” of plants. Sounds better.

  4. At first I thought “oh no, she’s talking about me” and got a little nervous. I am one of those new gardeners who ripped out the parking strip and planted anything and everything that caught my eye which equals total chaos. 2 years later and now a Master Gardener, I can now begin to see how soothing would be appealing, but I am still in love with my chaos(and so are my neighbors!).

  5. Ornamental gardening has always been about beauty. The beauty of the individual plant in flower and changing the barren suburban landscape left over after construction back into something that caresses the earth and the soul.

    The chaos one finds in a garden which is tended by an obsessive plant collector could be politely termed a particular design style, the plant zoo or the natural jungle look. Just this week I have worked with a women who has more than enough of the same plants to group them in drifts with a more pleasing, to my eye, arrangements. I suggested. She resisted. That is not what appeals to her.

    She is not the first person I have encountered as a landscape designer who insists on a more chaotic placement of plants. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

    Pagan nature worship is just a nice side bonus. Naked pagan nature worship is possible with properly designed screening.

  6. I went to an art school, and art students never stop debating about what art is. Now that I’m a grown-up artist, I know better than to stick my toe in that discussion. Gardening for aesthetic purposes is another form of art, and aesthetics are a personal thing.

  7. Yeah! Now I have an excuse for my lack of design. I always figured it was gardening ADD!

  8. Funny, I’e been thinking about this a lot this week. When I heard Amy Stewart talk a week ago, she said something to the effect of “I garden so I have a place to put the plants I collect!” Oh, my sister, I thought. Over the 14 years of my garden, it’s gradually become better-designed and I’ve become more thoughtful. I still manage to grow around 140 different cultivars of various flowers, herbs and vegetables in a small city plot.

    I could never have a backyard like my neighbor’s: lots of gorgeous hardscaping, a wee fountain, and cute little lawn, gravel areas with three (3) shrubs and an ornamental crab tree. Oh, and all surrounded by a simple black iron fence. I have no idea how she exercises this amount of restraint.

    Both our gardens are beautiful, and I think complement each other quite well. Hers now is green and stone and I have spots of color all over as the spring bulbs do their thing. One of the things I find fascinating about gardens is what it reveals abut the gardeners!

  9. Hey, I garden so I can be with the ones I love – plants! Why should I show restraint if I don’t want to?

    Well actually the restraint I have shown (noderate amounts of hardscaping) is because I live in a desert and am trying not to make the WHOLE thing a jungle. Not realistic. I also like a mix of ornamentals and veggies and herbs – some of my happiest veggies are in my shady perennial border instead of in the raised beds.

  10. I love this post. I’ve always been a bit put off by gardening rules. Long live the Portuguese gardening ladies with their disorganized labors of love!

  11. Oi, i just realized i think you’re talking about me…i go to the garden centre with a list, a plan, a vision culled from what i seem to apparently admire, my personal style – simple clean – for my small space and i walk out with chaotic luxurious sampling of plant life. where does it breakdown? i think ‘they’ put you in some kind of trance.

  12. Love this! You DID stick your toe into something by using the word “truth” – love that too! I’m an “artist” (musician) in my professional life and can’t reconcile my artistic ideals with my crazy garden. It’s a very creaturely thing.

  13. Perfect, manicured, sterile. These are words that will never be applied to my garden. I hope they never will be. Nature is chaotic. The average suburban yard is not, nor is it very “natural.” Down with rules! Down with order! Bring on diversity, the exuberant disorder of growing things. Embrace the serendipitous and spontaneous. It’s much more fun.

  14. Ah – now I see ! All these years I thought I was “landscaping”, when really I was “gardening”. Hmmm, well, the chaos in my yard matches the chaos inside the house … & I’m fine with both. Would rather work in my environment & be pleased & comforted, than worry that something was out of order.

  15. As an artist and obsessive collector, I like to have it all cheek by jowl. But I also like to showcase one perfect thing. That’s how the inside of my house is: some rooms not quite minimal and others wildly maximal. And so is the garden. This week’s orange and purple tulips and magenta Bergenia flowers will turn into the summer’s almost totally green garden and then go for a burst of fall color. It doesn’t have to be either/or because most of us are a combination of preferences and they can all come to fruition in the garden.

  16. I’ve seen versions of this particular post before – chaotic, messy gardens planted by “real” gardeners are superior to those that employ design principles, which are condemned as sterile, dull, boring and unimaginative.

    Yesterday I attended a seminar on new plant introductions, during the course of which, the speaker placed a peach colored carpet rose in front of a burgundy leafed Physocarpus. The combination of colors and textures immediately made both plants much more beautiful. Far from deemphasizing the beauty and value of individual plants, good design enhances them. When I come across a plant I like, my first thought is, what can I combine this with to make it really shine?

    So if your preferred garden style is chaotic, messy and over-stuffed, by all means, embrace the madness – but please don’t be smug about it.

  17. Susan the garden-chick, I always strive for beauty. I just don’t achieve it because something else is clearly more important to me.

    I’m not smug–I’m comparing my tastes to those of a crazy old lady! That’s not much to brag about after six years of trying very hard to make a beautiful yard.

    But I do think there is an essential difference between the gardens made by amateurs and pros. There pros are able to realize more complete effects because the garden is made at a moment in time. For the amateurs, it’s a constant experiment. They can’t leave well enough alone, even when they know they should.

    It’s about the experience, not the end result.

  18. I love to garden and I work from home. I feel the need to make my yard as professional-looking as possible, since clients are always coming and going. But I do NOT have a plan, and I only choose plants I absolutely adore. I love my gardens, and don’t care if they aren’t perfect landscaping in my own eyes. In most other people’s perception, my yard does look rather pristine & sterile, I’m sure.
    Free to be you & me! 🙂

  19. on another note, I kinda feel sorry for the lady who bought my old house. Chaos at it’s glory!

  20. As one of those who praised this post, I took special note of Susan the Garden-Chick’s charge that smugness has reared its head. My first reaction was “no way. i’m certainly not being smug.” Then I gave it a second thought and said “well, maybe I AM being smug.” My brain tells me that I’m just happy to find others who don’t follow rules and who know their gardens look a tad tacky but have decided not to worry about it. It’s taken me a couple of years to be confident enough to not worry about what professional/seasoned/educated gardeners think of my personal style. As others here have said, it takes discipline to make a well-crafted garden and I simply am not disciplined. Is that being smug? Maybe…but really I think it’s more about what I think of myself than what I think of others.

  21. I love all these brilliant comments. For myself, I’m in favor of chaos, nature worship, the whole dirty process,even tackiness (which is usually in the eye of the beholder) and joy in the garden.

  22. Goodness. These polite, thoughtful responses to my accusation of smugness are making me think I should rephrase a bit. You’re right, Michele, your post contrasted the experience of creating the garden with the goal of creating a beautiful space and suggested some gardeners might favor the former over the latter. I’m afraid I lumped your post and several of the comments with other posts on other blogs and went on a little rant – after all, this is the place for that sort of thing, right?

    It’s a subtle attitude I detect on gardening blogs from time to time and on some of the comments here, that planning and design equals sterility and soullessness, while a gardener happily planting anything and everything, regardless of the overall effect, somehow represents a purer form of gardening. I designed parts of my own garden in advance on paper (if you’re adding hardscape or really expensive plants, in my opinion, you’re crazy not to), other parts have evolved organically, but whether I’m adding, subtracting or replacing, I’m always thinking about how my latest acquisition will effect what’s already there. I spend just about every summer evening in my garden and if the plants were visually at war with one another, I wouldn’t find it relaxing.

    Having read what I just wrote, I’ve had an ah-ha moment. As a master gardener as well as a designer, I’ve noticed that a lot of my master gardener clients have a hard time putting down their tools and just sitting and enjoying their gardens. Perhaps chaotic gardeners might find themselves relaxing in their gardens with a good book and a glass of wine on a more regular basis if their gardens were more tranquil, and less in need of the constant thinning, pruning, etc. that overstuffed flower gardens tend to require.

    And finally, I do understand beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as an earlier commenter noted. One afternoon as I was unloading rolls of plans from my trunk, my mailman asked what I did for a living. I told him I was a landscape designer. “Can’t you tell?” I asked, proudly gesturing to my front yard, filled with burgundy, silver and chartreuse foliage plants and noticeably lacking a lawn.

    “Ah”, he responded, nodding wisely. “The cobbler’s children have no shoes. Isn’t that always the way.” Clearly not ready to find beauty in a lawn-free front yard.

  23. Apparently, color and contrast among plants is often in the back of my mind when choosing plants these days, also. Last time I hit the garden center, the cashier exclaimed “my, you must like blue!” and I looked down to realize that, indeed, every flowering plant I had chosen was a shade of blue. I was embarrassed, but why, I’m not sure. Perhaps I had been caught striving for a certain look for my gardens, and didn’t want people to think it was planned? Maybe I don’t want to be labeled as a beauty planner because of the condecending views on a planned garden. Hmmmmm…

  24. Many amateur gardeners have no idea where to start, thus eventually creating a chaotic effect. That’s how I was when I started, I admit. I jokingly referred to my yard as a jungle. I moved a year ago and got the chance to start afresh, a clean slate of lawn with lots of mature trees. I think my new yard looks so much better than the old one, simply because it looks controlled, not wild and rampant. Yet I often stroll past my old house and stare wistfully at the now untended gardens. It was my learning garden, and I will always miss it’s charm.

  25. Susan/garden-chick, my Smugometer also registered pretty high in this case, so you’re not alone. Another term for it? Reverse snobbery. But I don’t care. Clients – who are mainly NOT gardeners – will always appreciate the order, tranquility AND gorgeousness we create. (Or in the case of coaches, teach them to create.)

  26. Makes me think of Norman Maclean’s line that sight ran off with the full inheritance.

    Beauty goes far beyond how things look. Involve all the senses, as well as intuition, and you’ll have a beautiful, celebratory garden irrespective of its day-to-day purpose.

  27. Sometimes, part of the “art of garden design” is to be able to plan a garden that looks completely random and evolving- eventhough it is master planned.

    A garden will be beautiful most of the time, in spite of the pro or amateurs talent. How can it not be when the beauty and interest lies in the subject itself- the plants!

  28. This is a great discussion! I just came in from planting a variety of plants that I bought yesterday, when the plan had been to get a bunch of one kind to plant in a “drift” in a new bed. Hm. I seem to know better, but can’t help myself.

  29. There were two Eastern European women in the neighborhood where I grew up who lived in the upper part of a two-story house. Tumbling from every inch of their balcony porch were flowers and vines of every shape and size. It was an explosion of color and reminded me of the colorful embroidery you often see in Eastern Europe. It’s a different kind of beauty and not for everyone.

  30. I don’t quite understand the motivation for this post. Gardens are personal places; relations between an individual, or two, and a space. I don’t garden for your aesthetic gratification.

    I may be offended too…like KarenL, I’m not certain either!

    Still, I love your posts!

  31. From all this I get the feeling there are Gardeners and there are Designers as if designers do not garden and gardeners do not design. Formal education in the “pros” life surely gives them a taste for a history of “simplicity,” “less is more,” or downright Platonism. In art we have Artists and we have craftspeople -the technician who makes for the Artist. The Artist has Ideas, the technician is capable with the hands, has manual skills.

    Someone a while back mentioned that this is a conversation about art and its best not to intervene here. Maybe thats true, but then my smugness will keep me out of the conversation. It is often said about art that one should make it look easy, no matter how hard it was. The audience rarely wants to see how difficult it was to create something. A master makes it look easy. I’ve seen clean garden designs and messy ones that look strained, difficult. Anyone tutored in a field can see the mistakes beginners will make with ease, because we made them ourselves much earlier on.

    It is possible to design the abundant garden. To Design is to think, essentially that is the root of the word. To garden, is that not to think as well, but orchestrated by another set of guidelines. I think the point is to have a set of guidelines, a structure that informs your process, whatever that process may be. In that you will find a total work of art or design or gardening.

    And if your the type to just go willy nilly in the garden as much as you would paint or photograph, untutored but exuberant, there’s a place for that too. You may not be in the coffee table books, or held up as an exemplar in your field, but you will live a life without bitterness.

  32. I am an ornamental control freak. No big showy flowers, it’s tight and urban AND shady, so I must edit heavily. I buy favorite plants and sometimes they are pricey or come from a mail catalog, far from ultimate size. So I can’t just yank and replace. Some people see it and others don’t. Those that don’t, stop stare and point at my neighbor’s flowering annual color-clash, overstimulating, nowhere to rest the eye chaos. Just not my thing.

  33. For me my garden is my place of escape it’s the only area of my life at this time where I have no one telling me what to do or how to do it. This is where I come to find the relief I need there are NO rules here except the ones I make. If it’s been a tough week and I feel like I need some thing bright and cheery then I look for something colorful to plant it also works the opposite sometimes I just need a little foliage and no dramatics.

    For me it’s not the end result either it’s the journey and I just love it.

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