Once I visited a military museum at Saumur in France, housed in a castle there. Its main collection was of saddles—every example of whatever man has fashioned to seat himself on a horse was on display, from almost all the armies in the world, old and new, north and south, east and west. I was bored within minutes, surprisingly, because I spent several years of my youth on a cattle ranch. I love saddles! So the strong sense of ennui was very odd at first. After some time I realized that the tedium resulted from the academically finished quality of the exhibit. It was too comprehensive. Perhaps it was because I liked saddles so much that I felt trapped by the museum’s sense of formality and convention. There was no exit, so to speak. When I was done, there was nothing left for me to learn about saddles.
A similar experience can take place in gardens. If the collection is too vast and perfectly organized, it can turn enthusiasts off with its emphasis on logic. Gardeners tend toward the personal signature and distinctive style. Or if the repetition of contrasts continues too long, it can destroy the intended effect of the picturesque. Occasionally I have seen visitors of a botanical garden wandering with their eyes glazed over. Great gardens—large or small—have unresolved and unfinished qualities that pervade the design rather than announce themselves. One is thereby released and transported from the garden, not held to its thrall or enclosed in its constructed totality. Having everything, or the perfect fit, or the ultimate statement, is no blessing. A terminal effect resulting from either content or style leaves the garden visitor bloated and unwilling to return. D. H. Lawrence loosely captured this spirit of openness in his credo, “Living, I want to depart to where I am”.
Inducing boredom in a garden is a common—and entirely innocent—mistake, ironically due to the desire to please, impress, educate or persuade. Careful planning is required to avoid the good for the sake of the great. However, ultimately the saving grace of a garden design is time. It provides not only the relief of change, but the guarantee that folks will return for new evaluations.
Speaking of time, fall is up to bat. The gardens in both Pennsylvania and western Washington will begin to rest. All of the plants will pause at some point during the winter. We have one more two-day Open, a glorious celebration of Viburnums and Hydrangea with Dr. Michael Dirr premiering his new book, in Pennsylvania on September 21 and 22.