What’s the difference between a house and a home? We all know the answer instinctively: articulating it is trickier. The architect Le Corbusier famously—and chillingly—described the house as “a machine for living in.” But “home,” surely, is not about mechanics. But when we are at home, where are we?
First the house. Built to shelter a family or individuals from the elements, a habitation where we eat, rest, educate and amuse ourselves, the house includes appurtenances for preparing food, sleeping, reposing, keeping warm and bathing. Here you have the requisite machine for living in, but not, alas, a home.
The anthropologist Mircea Eliade found that, in traditional societies, the home is regarded as the center of the world. The home represents “the heart of the real,” the vantage point that allows people to make sense of their world. The home is a refuge from the “unreal”—the ever-present threats posed by the unknown and unforeseen.
For our hunter-gatherer cousins, the home is situated at the junction of two intersecting lines. The vertical line locates the home between heaven and the underworld. The horizontal line places the home, as the art critic John Berger writes, as the “starting point and, hopefully, the returning point of all terrestrial journeys.” When we say we’re going home, we are referring to just one place: our place.
Beginning in the 1980s, the American home came under a self-inflicted siege. No money down, low interest loans and a steady climb in house values gave rise to McMansions, supersized houses measuring 7500 square feet or more, which planted their big “footprints” in U.S. suburbs.
These dream houses, while very much in the spirit of high-flying 80s and 90s, were incommensurate with the shrinking American family. Since 1950, the average American home has more than doubled in size, while the average household is 20 percent smaller, reduced from 3.35 people to 2.63 people inclined to living large.
“Starter castles” embody what realtors call “curb appeal”—you certainly can see them from the curb. However, their giant “footprints” leave little room on the lot for play or recreation. Furthermore, many homeowners associations prohibit vegetable gardens—in America, no less, one of the ideal places to grow a summer vegetable garden. One wonders what Washington, Jefferson and the other First Farmers would think.
Today, Americans are looking for smaller houses. The mortgage market is tight, and hefty deposits are mandated. Add to that the uncertain economy, flat lining real estate values, and rising fuel prices and small is beautiful once again.
People now want homes that fit them like gloves. The new American house will soon be a marvel of balance, proportion and craftsmanship. Nevertheless, a house, however fine the exterior, is static and inexpressive. On its own, the structure sits mutely and forlornly on the landscape, the windows blankly staring into the middle distance. The times, I believe, call for a new American garden to serve as an equal partner in the new American home.
Now let me tell you about my table trick, a feat of legerdemain that never fails to dazzle houseguests. At the dinner table I ask my visitors to look away, as I stealthily whisk away the vase of flowers.
Now, I ask my guests to look at the table. Anything different? Yes, they will say, something important is missing, but what? At this point I replace the vase on the table to a collective “Aha!”
The impact of the flowers is a revelation to all. The table becomes alive, the room becomes alive, the flowers’ colorful blooms illuminate the guests, and sparkle in their gazes. Gardens have precisely this effect on a home.
Garland your property with flowers, herbs, fruits and vegetables and you will experience this magic. Flowers, their form, color and fragrance, represent the summit of natural beauty. You cannot find fresher, more flavorful fruits, herbs and vegetables than those you grow at home.
In keeping with Eliade’s vertical axis of home, the garden connects us to the earth and sun. From our media-drenched, high-tech dystopia, the garden provides a sanctuary for the senses: a pageant of color, scent, shape, texture and flavor.
A family that works together in the garden shares in one of mankind’s oldest and most cherished rituals. Begin your garden and you’ll witness an extraordinary transformation, as your house grows into a home.