Sharon February 3rd, 2009
Aaron thinks it is funny that I’m teaching a class with the word “design” in it. And it is – I’ve several times argued with him that the very fact that we design things so badly so often in our society suggests that we might do better to let vernacular architectures and landscapes evolve, rather than consciously sitting down to try and design them. That is, I have sometimes wondered whether our fundamental problems don’t come down to overdesigning, rather than simply being attributed to bad design. This is not a good position to take with permaculturists unless you like arguing, but it can make for entertaining evenings if robust debate is your sort of thing ;-).
On the other hand, not designing at all can get you an awful mess – and it is hard to go out into the garden and simply evolve – secretly, our brains are in the habit of organizing and designing, even when we think we aren’t. So my occasional critique of project of design is probably pretty moot. But I do think it is wise to question our assumptions pretty much all the time when presented with theories about “the one true way” to do anything. For some reasoning, gardening and farming seem particularly subject to this disease – someone evolves a technique or theory, and rapidly it becomes (if not by its originator, later by its adherents) *the* way.
In Laura Simon’s book of gardening essays _Dear Mr. Jefferson_ , whose conceit is that she’s discussing her garden in particular and the history of gardening in general with that famous gardener Thomas Jefferson (it is an excellent book except for one major and appalling omission – she has a whole section on the labor of gardening and whether it is ok to have help without ever mentioning that slaves did the garden work in Jefferson’s garden – she could have gotten away without discussing slavery had she not raised the topic of labor, but having raised it, the book has a falsity to it that is disturbing); she talks about the current fashion for raised beds, which have gone in and out of style from the medieval period to the 21st century, where they are now ubiquitous, and makes clear that they truly are a fashion – justified, of course, by myriad explanations of why they are better.
Don’t get me wrong, I love raised beds – they dry out earlier in the spring than the unraised ones, which is important in my wet climate and with my drainage issues. They also warm up earlier, and provide defined lines. Of course, a lot of people, who deal more with a shortage of water than an excess, and those who have more heat than coolth have raised beds too. Sometimes they make sense, raising up friable composed soil over heavy clay, or as one person once told me, keeping the armadillos out of their Florida garden beds. But sometimes they are just for orthodoxy’s sake – raised beds are *the* way in a segment of society. We manage to justify them – there are plenty of texts out there explaining that raised beds are better in all circumstances. My concern is that we make our choices not so much on rational grounds but habituals ones.
Simon notes that the straight rowed American style garden arose out of the time shortages 19th century industrial workers felt - straight rows were faster to deal with they were told. In the 1840s, the invention of the wheelhoe prompted garden magazines to claim that flat gardens, rather than the old raised bed style could be maintained by a 10 year old boy in a matter of an hour for an acre garden. Now I want me one of those 10 year olds .
Now we hear the same claims made of raised beds – they reduce weeds, and save time. Well and so they do save some time – you don’t have to keep the paths as clear. On the other hand, you can’t use a wheel hoe or many other inventions, and digging out the bits of crabgrass that comes under the wood or stone barriers can take nearly as much time. Again, my point is not “raised beds are bad” but that we don’t usually make our design choices on fully rational grounds.
Which brings me to my own kitchen gardens. I have two these days. The first, and larger, the ”lower garden” is at the bottom of a hill, by the creek, in our fenced in 1/4 acre front yard. It is the one where I misdesigned the paths, trying to make them as narrow as possible so that we could get every inch of growing space, and essentially making working there incredibly unpleasant and awkward. The garden is presently in the form of uncontained (no sides) raised beds, and two larger flat plots, but will be completely redone this summer. On the side yard is a collection of raised beds and a plan for more of them. These already hold herbs, berry bushes and some ornamentals, but my plan is to make this the house herb and salad garden, while moving most of the calorie crops down to the lower garden.
And I find myself bound up with questions of design. Do I want raised beds in the lower garden? Sided with what? What can we afford? Or could we simply dig drainage around the edges of the garden, and work with it flat? What style do I want - do I want a medieval style garden beds, a cottage style garden, a french potager, a classic American row garden? What aesthetic am I seeking? In earlier gardens, I didn’t think much about beauty at all – I figured a garden full of food was always beautiful. And there’s some real truth there – but now I want to play more with aesthetics, and include more perennials mixed with the annuals. I want a garden that is a bit more welcoming to visitors, since the first thing everyone says is “I want to see your garden.”
I read garden design books, and look at people’s pictures on the web, and gradually things are starting to emerge in my “what do I want” meets “what realistically will I be able to afford/have energy for.” I know I need to find ways to subdivide the garden into plots or beds – I’m not someone who can handle a large open space without some kind of formal limiting. I’m much more attracted to country style mixed plantings than to rows, and I’m leaning towards a flat garden with drainage for the moment, unless I can afford recycled plastic lumber or cinder blocks - our wet climate means wood beds don’t last.
That said, I know it will never look exactly like my dreams – and that’s ok with me too. I know that however well I design, some years I will end up cramming things I never planned to in a bed they aren’t supposed to go in, because I haven’t gotten the garlic ready, or because the soil’s too cold at the back garden. I know that not all the plants I want to put in will be happy where I put them, and that my plans and my needs will change with time. I can design some of that in, but some of it may mean that in a few years, I’m again redesigning, redoing or rethinking.
I know also that some of the most euphonious combinatios will arise from my mistakes or things I never expected – the wild raspberries that grow underneath my spruce trees, and which, each year, provide us with a bountiful harvest with absolutely no effort. They love the environment there – I would have said it was too shady, too sprucy, too something. They told me otherwise. And when I draw my design plan I’ll cheerfully claim them as though I was smart enough to have thought of it.
It isn’t that I seriously think that we can’t design well – it is more that sometimes I feel that we find reasons to justify our designs, rather than make our designs from reason. Of course, that’s true of nearly everything we do. I’m not sure if my taste for cottage garden style kitchen gardens stems from a desire to maximize polyculture or from an aesthetic sense driven by a host of factors I can’t sort through.
Ah well, back to the pretty pictures, the pencil and the dream of the platonic kitchen garden – and the dream of what will evolve out of my attempts to design one and its encounter with reality.