Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Mayors Landscape Awards

I was honored to receive Second Place (Region 1) for Single Residential Landscapes from the venerable Chicago Mayor's Landscape Awards for 2011.

Here's the essay I submitted with the application (regular readers will recognize places where I plagiarized myself!)
I grew my garden in lockstep with my family. We moved in to a vast expanse of grass in 1986 (actually a vast expanse of snow, since it was December).
For a while the garden grew with the family-- add a child, add a flower bed. As the children grew in complexity so did the garden, adding vegetables, trees, more flowers, patios and a pond. The children are grown and gone and the garden is grown yet comes back every year, a lovely metaphor on the nature of parenting adults.
I get joy from gardening that is visceral and emotional. I put in a bed to fix the shape; or put in a plant to change the profile or enhance the color. My garden has a beautiful design, but I didn't "design" it. It's just nearly 30 years of living in a space, and moving things around, kind of like the living room furniture. It just takes a little longer with plants. If the color or size works in the spot I want to fill, I’ll try it. If I want to try growing some new thing to eat or preserve, I'll try it. A benefit of this is that the plants that have survived are indeed hardy, with some spectacular successes. I have a number of my own backyard cultivars- an heirloom tomato, sweet alyssum, cleome.
A garden assaults the senses; it makes you “be”: taste, spirit, beauty, scent, intellect. Is there food, light, color, understanding? Are you scientist or goddess? Do you plant for joy or with an understanding of the the science of the effort? What makes a garden a garden and not just a yard? There’s sight of course— what most people think of when they see a garden— it looks nice. And taste— you can grow the things you eat.
This is where gardeners start, I think, with a desire for beauty and food. But gardens also have sound. Buzzing insects, and singing birds. Rustling of small animals in the brush, maybe running water. Gardeners know about touch. The fuzz of a lambs ear, or the prick of a rose. A crisp forsythia leaf, the hard shell of a nut, the heavy sun on the back of your neck and of course the wonderful feel of the soil around your hands.
Technique is important to get the result you want, and each pursuit has an inherent aesthetic that is met even if you don't think about it. Green things are pretty; food tastes good.
But technique alone cannot bring joy, that ineffable element that stills your heart and calms your brain. Through every season, as the plants cycle through their growth and decline, the monochrome of winter arrives, tone and contrast become the main color statements in a garden— black dirt or red branches against white snow, the warmer areas that melt sooner creating lines through the garden, a shoveled path. In winter you see more clearly the lines of a tree, and the texture of seedpods left for the birds. The dense branches of a shrub, especially if its red or orange or purple berries still hang on, add a contrasting round shape within the lines of the canes or branches, and the overall shape of the bush stands in contrast to the clean lines of architechtural elements like walkways, trellises and patios.
I finally went through the Master Gardener course, thinking I wanted to be a “real” gardener at last, but I think like our old friend the Velveteen Rabbit, a gardener becomes real, not through her methods or involvement, but through the love she feels for her plants, and the feedback of friends; through the flowers in her vase, and the food she shares.
The application asks for “challenges” but I refuse to think of my garden in that way. A garden is not a challenge, but an antidote to the challenge that is life.


  1. Congratulations.
    Your last line says it all. There is nothing more calming that working in a garden. I think the very literal earthiness (working with the earth, actually having it in your hands) is the very reason. I find the same calmness working with the earth (in this sense -clay) when making pottery.