Use the time you have this fall to create a new garden. Some people naturally do this; most don’t, preferring gardens that change only over the course of the year. However, I believe that, after it is reached, perfection should be changed.
I’m in the enviable position to have evaluated thousands of new plants over a thirty-year career. Each year I judge dozens of new plants at our farm here in Pennsylvania. Before 1992 I did so in Chicago, California, the UK and Costa Rica. Also, I assessed even more varieties all over the world. When I was growing up, my parents used the yard as a demonstration garden, “changing out” (in industry jargon) new test plants several times a year. In addition, my father brought home large pots and tubs of new geraniums, petunias, impatiens and many foliage plants and the effect of the gardens and patios was dizzying. I do not come by “the changeling garden” honestly; it is an unintended consequence of my career.
The most beneficial effect of an ornamental garden is its pleasurable sensory experience. Therefore, change the entire garden every year. Or when, over a few years, you reach your goal in your design and plant selection, enjoy it for the rest of the year, tear it out and start all over again. One day I realized that I have a lot of memories of my garden as well as the test gardens, both of which change content every summer, numerous, deep impressions that classical writers called a “memory palace”. One day, as I worked in the garden, I realized also that, with some extra work, others might enjoy this experience.
The concept of an ever-changing palette is nothing new. It is, on the other hand, expensive. At Heronswood Garden in Washington, Dan and Robert and their staff not only changed things all the time but also banished the so-called “transition areas” that are overused in garden design. The famous novelist, Elmore Leonard, said that a writer should always “try to avoid the passages readers skip”. We are recreating this intensity at Fordhook Farm by changing the plants every year and designing gardens so that you emerge from each area with your head buzzing, as if it was our location in Kingston, Washington, which is open twice during the summer under the auspices of The Garden Conservancy.
A neurologist friend told me that brain research indicates that our memories are stored throughout the brain, and that they expand through both sensory and cognitive inputs—what we would call working in the garden. My unique career confirms this research. I would feel uncomfortable in a garden that does not change substantially every year. Although the trees remain the same, each year at Fordhook is a new experience.
I propose this new type of garden—that is, new every year—as an antidote to the “designed garden” movement. Garden plans seem sterile, especially those in the coffee table books. The presumed authority of their publication is as much a turnoff as the designs themselves, which are often a bit weak. I admit that a changeling garden involves extra work. Seattle has a gardening climate second only to the UK. There is a layer of not one but two cloud covers over the Pacific Northwest, as if nature doubled up, to which is added a thick layer of pine and fir trees, a secondary foundation of shade trees, and then there you are strolling around your property. If you can handle a year dominated by shade, you can enjoy gardens filled with almost every luxuriant garden plant available. Only the UK— with several parks and hundreds of gardens in each village—offers more. An energetic tour of gardens in the Pacific Northwest, including Heronswood, might yield the same “memory palace” effect of manifold variations on a single garden or in this case climate, that I have experienced in my dream-like career.