Toronto Star column – published June 15, 2013
There was a time, about 250 years ago, that a British woman by the name of Mary Wortley Montagu decided that it would be helpful if specific meanings were attached to different flowering plants. A red rose, for instance, represented passion, a carnation pride, and primrose eternal love. It was both quaint and, in its own way, instructive. Victorians could simply bundle up some cut flowers from the garden and send them to a friend or relative knowing that the recipient would understand what was meant by the gift; so widely was the language of flowers known at the time.
Flowers are More Powerful Than Words
In our minds is a snapshot of a gorgeous garden. If I ask you to conjure up an image of the most beautiful garden you can imagine, you will pull from the hard drive of your mind a picture that no doubt will be different from my own. And the person next to you a different one again. Truth is, we all have our own ideas of what a garden should look like, which is one reason why it is difficult for writers like me to use words to describe the gardens that we have in our head.
No doubt you have heard that native people from Canada’s frozen north have over 60 words for snow. The Inuit language is an additive one where adjectives are added to words to form ‘new’ words. For example, snow is one word in English and Inuit. Blowing snow is two words in English but in the Inuit language, they combine the two to create a new word. I can think of about 5 adjectives to describe snow– hard, icy, wet, light, driving, and white. Maybe I am just not very good at this. But then, I am generally not steeped in snow. I am steeped in ‘gardening’ both professionally and as a hobby. Even as I write this I realise how weak the term is. Steeped in ‘gardening’?
We are at a crossroads where Canadian gardening is concerned. The word ‘kill’, in terms of weeds, needs to be replaced with ‘control’. Take lawn weeds for instance. People often ask me how to kill weeds now that 2,4-D is off the market. My response is that we need a different question. “How do I control weeds?”, now, that is more like it. We killed weeds for two generations (since the second world war) and when the weeds grew back where the dead weeds once lived, we sprayed some more. Times are different now: we compete weeds out of existence with a stronger and thicker lawn (see my June 8th Toronto Star column).
Let’s look at our descriptions of a garden. When we return from a trip abroad where a beautiful garden is involved we go to great lengths to describe it using the plants in it as points of reference. For example: “Butchart gardens is famous for its hanging baskets brimming with begonias in full bloom. The Japanese garden has a magnificent cutleaf Japanese maple in the centre of it that dominates the planting.”
Peter Rabbit visited Mr. Macgregor’s garden and described the carrots in great detail. Too bad there isn’t a word that describes fresh carrots: one word that describes the sweetness, texture, and the oxygen in a garden-fresh carrot – wiped on the pant leg and munched in the sunshine. Garrison Keillor, the great American story teller, said that fresh sweet corn is better than sex. Now there is a guy who understands how to use the English language to advantage. I get that. And I understand how right he is. If you don’t agree, then I guess I have either eaten better sweet corn than you or… oh, forget it.
Gardening is sometimes referred to as ‘horticulture’ but that is confusing too. I have a complete set of the first three years of ‘The Canadian Horticulturist’ magazine dating back to its beginning in 1880. Every issue refers exclusively to fruits and vegetables. At that time in our history there was little room for ‘ornamental’ horticulture as most Canadians were busy trying to feed themselves. We weren’t importing strawberries from California or mandarin oranges from Spain at that time, you can be sure.
Time to Blaze a New Trail
I believe that the answer to this dilemma is to turn to others who have blazed a trail before us. Like wine drinkers. Now there is a classy lot. If there ever was an opportunity to elevate the image of a fermented fruit juice you can count on the sommeliers. A fine wine, or maybe a ‘not so fine wine’ – where is that line between fine and garden variety wine anyway? I digress. A fine wine may be described as having “chocolaty notes, the nose of a rose with a warm alcoholic finish”. I made that up, except the warm alcoholic part (credit to Tony Aspler).
Why can’t a garden be described using the flowery tones of a wine critic? Imagine if your favourite wine authority wrote this about a wine, “This 2007 Pinot Noir from WellingtonCounty is reminiscent of grapes.” You wouldn’t put a lot of credence in it now would you? And there is a reason why they never refer to the actual source of the great taste experience in a wine. It is too obvious.
Maybe that is our problem, dear gardeners. We are too literal.
We love to state the obvious: a Mountbatten juniper grows to 3 meters high, has steel blue foliage and favours an acidic soil. Awwwwhhh. Pardon my yawn. Wake me up when you’re finished. We are obsessed with the ‘cultural’ information: the stuff that describes the culture of a particular plant. We sell the steak, not the sizzle.
It is true that seed catalogues down through the ages have used extravagant and floriferous language to tempt you into buying the dream. But they describe plants, not gardens.
Which brings me nicely to the point that I wish to make, above all. We do not plant, weed, and prune when we garden. While these words describe the activity that takes us to an end result, anyone who thinks that gardening is only about the activity connected with gardening is living with an illusion. Gardening is no more about the movements that we employ while in the garden than a walk in the park is about walking. If a walk in the park is just about walking then why not save yourself the aggravation and walk on a treadmill? The answer is: singing birds, fresh air, the sky, and saying hello to strangers while on your journey all factor in to park walking. Like Louis Armstrong said in his song, “I see trees of green, red roses too … And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” But not on a treadmill.
It is About the Experience.
Mary Keen, a columnist in The Garden Magazine in the U.K. said recently, “A garden, like a poem, clears a private space in your head where you can retreat. It isn’t about complicated techniques or aspiring to what you see in magazines. It doesn’t have to be perfect.” That says it all then, your gardening experience this year is not just about producing a better or more productive garden. Much more, it is about the dreams and aspirations that poetry can inspire.
Community gardens, allotment gardens, wild life gardens, native gardens, urban farms and children’s school gardens mix it up with the suburban landscape complete with the perfect lawn and well-defined evergreens that frame the ranch style bungalow.
It is a new day in the garden. Time for a new language. Mary Wortley Montagu might just agree.
Question of the Week
Q/ I missed your ‘Gardening Week’ segments on Canada AM. Is there somewhere I can watch them online?
A/ Yes. The segments from ‘Gardening Week’, and all of my Canada AM segments, can be viewed on http://canadaam.ctvnews.ca/gardening