A Garden Needs a Soul

‘Organized Chaos’ in winter. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

It’s a new year, 2021, and it’s time to plan for the garden. Spring is almost here!

I have written about this topic before but it bears repeating as I see gardeners twisting themselves in knots, trying to follow the rules of good landscaping: A garden needs to reflect the personality of its owner. As Adrian Higgins wrote recently in The Washington Post, “If you create a garden just to project status, it will have no soul.”

Now, I’m not against professional landscapers, just as I’m not opposed to interior designers. However, bear in mind that some of them have a preconceived plan in mind, regardless of the client. You have to make your opinions heard, even when you feel intimidated.

The classic example of a landscape principle that took over is this: Never use the color magenta in the garden. Now, it happens that I appreciate magenta, and the root of this prohibition came from Gertrude Jekyll who loathed the color. For her, magenta was a color never to be used in the garden.

Consequently, because I’m a bit contrary, when I was a novice gardener I planted a long row of magenta azaleas, thinking I would teach the dearly departed Ms. Jekyll a lesson. The result was a blinding row emanating magenta. Perhaps there were other plants to admire, but no one ever saw them due to the oppressive presence of the magenta azaleas.

The lesson learned? Magenta is a great accent color but it’s too brilliant to emphasize in the garden.

There are all types of gardens: fussy, neat, elegant, cottage-style, organized, disorganized — the choice is yours. As I say in my presentations, think about your house. Is it neat and tidy with every item in its designated place? Do you have books piled on the floor? Do you have too much stuff or do you fancy the spartan look?

The reason you should answer these questions is that your garden is the gateway to your house. My house tends to have too many objects without enough space to accommodate them. I have piles of books everywhere. My yarn stash creeps out of its container baskets. To match my house, my garden has a disorganized quality to it, keeping in mind the name I have designated for it: “Organized Chaos.”

Every time I have sought out professional help, I have ultimately scrapped those plans, not because they didn’t make sense but because they didn’t make my sense. Good garden design comes from learning from your mistakes, I think.

When some people first see my garden, they have exclaimed, “Oh, you’re nothing but a plant collector!” Not a compliment.

That may be true, but intellectually, I’m interested in different plants. To satisfy my green thumb needs, I need to experiment with a variety of plants. Some I like, some I vow never to repeat. Along the way, I have discovered some great plants that I love, plants such as Spigelia marilandica, one of the best accent plants that grows in North Carolina. 

I’m incessantly told to plant in odd numbers, that odd numbers are more pleasing to the eye than even numbers. Maybe I can only afford two of a given specimen or perhaps only two are available. “Hogwash,” I tell myself. I’m going to plant what’s available.

Now I’m not advocating planting willy-nilly, with no plan in mind. I dislike the color orange so orange plants typically have no place in my garden. I find regular balls, such as boxwood, rather dull but oddly-shaped plants hold a weird attraction for me.

A good garden consists of plants that you like, ones that you enjoy. Just remember that the garden is the first introduction to your house. Keep that in mind and then start to plant to your heart’s content. Accept your mistakes and savor your achievements. Now that’s how a garden gains a soul.

Goodbye 2020 and may you never return! Welcome to a good 2021.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

Share This Article

Scroll down to make a comment.

Be the first to comment on "A Garden Needs a Soul"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.