I was recently reading another gardening blog and she asked what gardening rules we found it hardest to abide by. My response was all of them!
But let me clarify before you judge me: I am a very firm believer in horticultural rules. I believe in Right Plant, Right Place more than any other gardening idiom- I’m driven by ensuring the plants I choose are well suited to the natural conditions I have and I won’t be swayed. Thankfully though, knowing the science and botany and you soil allows you to deviate from things like USDA Zone Hardiness recommendations here and there. But I very much believe in following botanical rules rather than trying to grow things that aren’t suited for my conditions- those are rules I’m not interested in breaking because it means a lot more work and faffing and cajoling than I like to do.
Its the DESIGN rules that I bristle at. Much like the inane rules about when you can wear white, I’m not sure who decided on these gardening rules. Limit your color scheme. Limit the number of plants. Don’t use contrasting colors, its garish. Use contrasting colors for pop! Get your proportions exactly right! The list goes on and on.
Are some of these rules helpful if you aren’t sure what to do or where to start? Absolutely! But are they also a hindrance if you know what you want to do but are held back by some arbitrary rule you read in a book or blog? Yes. Emphatically yes!
The thing is, these rules make me feel (and I am generally a rule-follower in real life) stifled. They make me feel like there is some perfect ideal I’m working towards and that this is a test that I’ll fail if I stray from the rules. They make me stress out about the decisions I’ve made and if my vision for my own space is “good enough” or “right”.
Its my garden! Mine! There is no test! It should look how I think it should look. It should feel and be how I envision it- design rules be damned. My garden will never feel like mine, like an expression of myself, if all I ever do is follow someone else’s rules.
Think about those Chelsea gardens that really stick out in your mind… they didn’t follow the rules! They were creative expressions of knowledgeable designers following their gut to make something amazing. Dan Pearson’s 2015 The Laurent-Perrier Chatsworth Garden (which won both a Gold Medal and Best in Show) is a perfect example:
Yes, smart horticultural choices were made, but if you followed all those design rules, you’d never in a million years end up with a space like this. This space only works, only speaks to people, because it is a unique and creative space— a singular vision executed smartly. That’s what makes it special!
What I would advocate for, instead, is thoughtfulness. Give yourself time to reflect and adapt your plans before you enact them. Be thoughtful about how plants might look growing next to each other (or trial them out at the nursery!). Be mindful of how plants will grow into a space before you plant them. Walk the line of a path before you install it- that way you’ll know if its too winding or too narrow- and you can adjust your plan to what feels right. Mark spaces out with twine and flags to see if it feels the way you thought it would. Think about the pros and cons of materials you choose. Mull over your decisions and plans, give them time to mature and congeal- this is what winter is for by the way- and I assure you the end product will be superior and better match your vision than if you just did it on a whim.
I’ve sketched out plans and designs for our garden and invariably re-do and reconsider and reconstruct them no fewer than 3 or 4 times (sometimes more!) before any actual dirt is moved. I’ve taken plans outside with me and walked the area, to see how it feels in practice, then made adjustments to match what I was feeling or noticing in situ. Yes, its slow, but it helps me make sure I’m doing things because it will suit my space and my vision for it rather than because I think I should, because a magazine told me this was the way to deal with a space like mine, or because I’m following someone else’s rule book.
In any event, I think the most important thing to remember is that your garden is yours alone. Do what makes you happy- plant what you love- use a million colors if it brings you joy. Plant in swathes or don’t. Use hedges and trees to enclose your space or embrace the big, beautiful open sky. Do what speaks to you! Do the things that will help you achieve the garden you have in your mind and don’t be afraid to do something unconventional- as long as its true to you and your vision it’ll be a success.