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Where Gardens Start


When I look at plant communities in nature, I’m looking at the original source of garden ideas.

I mean yes, growing food and medicine and other useful plants was probably the original gardening idea. But just because we separate the aesthetic from the practical doesn’t mean that it’s been that way for all time.

Natural plantings must surely have been the first inspiration for gardens.  For one thing, people who live outdoors are observant. Hunter-gatherers settling into one place, for a season or for the new, agricultural life, must surely have known that certain plants grow together well: their lives would depend on it.

The gathering part of hunter-gathering is what supplies the huge bulk of food, both in ancient and modern cultures. Plants also form an important part of clothing and shelter. (If you think this applies only to nonindustrial cultures, take a look at your house, furniture, and clothing.) Knowing plants equals survival.

But there’s something else at work here.

Outdoor life is rich in beauty. I sometimes think the reason why people in our culture buy so much stuff is that we’re instinctively seeking that nurturing beauty we miss from being in artificial light, never stepping on living ground, not knowing the sources of our water and food, never looking up to see a breathtaking landscape, or a sky full of stars.

Gardeners regain some of what’s been lost in their gardens. Arrangements of  plants that are beautiful to us feed our psyches in a very deep way. Part of that beauty is certainly the thought of good food and healthful energy, but some of it is not quite so practical. Science is finally catching up with ancient wisdom in finding the many measurable health benefits of those tangibles and intangibles that give us pleasure, bring us into another and better world.

Which leaves me wondering if beauty isn’t essential to survival, too. I’ve always felt so.


I like the shaggy look of natural plantings, and would be proud to have this grouping in my garden.

But neater, more design-oriented gardeners follow one of the precepts of these natural groupings which I often miss out on, in my urge to have ALL the plants I want in one small space. They plant several of one kind of plant together, and they repeat these plantings through the landscape for a kind of congruity.


The repetitions also mean that wildlife has food and shelter, soil is created, and the plants, in their familiar communities, can support each other. Practically and aesthetically. In the larger natural world, these qualities are often parts of the same thing. Maybe we could learn something from that.

In my next  posts, I’m going to look at some of the individual plants in this mountain community. I’ll be talking about their roles in it, but I’ll also be taking a look at how we can extrapolate from wild plant communities to our gardens. Because the trip to the mountains has helped me remember where it all began: in groups of plants which support each other through visible and invisible networks.

If I wax philosophical, that may be because I’ve been in the thin air and opalescent light of what John Muir called the Range of Light, walking on rock that was polished by glaciers millenia ago. It leads to the long view. The long, long view.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Nancy Bond September 16, 2008, 10:25 am

    I absolutely believe what you suggest: that beauty is as essential to our well being as food and shelter. One must be healthy in mind, body AND soul. It’s an easy hypothesis to prove — everyone knows how different one feels after spending a day hiking through the woods, or watching a sunset, or walking in fresh fallen snow. This was a great post!

  • Pomona Belvedere September 16, 2008, 1:40 pm

    I’d never thought about how you feel after hiking through the woods, etc., as proof to a hypothesis—I like that! And I agree; if we’re not healthy in the soul, being healthy in mind and body is flat, stale, and profitless. I’m really glad you enjoyed this post.

  • cheryl September 22, 2008, 3:30 pm

    I love shaggy groupings as well! I think every garden should have some wild space!

  • Pomona Belvedere September 22, 2008, 4:57 pm

    I suspect you and I have a lot of gardening philosophy in common!

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