Path to a new garden In her new book, Claire Sawyers of Scott Arboretum offers five principles to ponder before digging in the dirt.

Posted: December 28, 2007

Home gardener or professional horticulturist, doesn't matter: When you ask why they love digging in the dirt, they all get that look in their eyes. They smile a certain way, like they can't believe you'd ask such a dumb question.

Then comes the grin, and major teeth. And they blurt out what Claire Sawyers does: "Because . . . because . . . it feels like you're playing!"

Not even Sawyers, director of Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, is playing right now. Over the winter, we can only plan, mentally, for our grandest garden yet: the next one.

And for 2008, Sawyers offers much to think about in a new book called The Authentic Garden: Five Principles For Cultivating a Sense of Place (Timber Press, $34.95).

Right off the bat, you're thinking: All this cultivating is going to cost me a lot of money. Rare plants, Bacchus busts, the whole nine yards.

Not at all, says Sawyers.

"I'd like people to feel refreshed in their gardens, observant of nature, in touch with nature and engaged," she says, "and I'd like them to realize they don't have to be a millionaire to have a garden that speaks to those things."

Her five principles are:

PRINCIPLE 1: A sense of place.

The authentic garden is "true to a place, a time and a culture."

It embraces what's special about its location, whether at the Shore or in the Poconos. It celebrates its heritage, whether industrial or Quaker. And it reflects its essence, whether hilly expanse in rural exurb or walled postage stamp in the city's core.

Sawyers suggests we cultivate "a sense of the wild" by allowing natural processes to shape our gardens. Instead of planting in rigidly symmetrical rows and boxes, for example, let certain annuals like cleome self-sow.

"We need to let go of being control freaks," Sawyers says easily. "Relax. Let the plants do their thing."

Other stuff, too. Instead of compulsively removing trees or shrubs at the first sign of imperfection, celebrate that rotting stump, those crispy seed pods.

If we resist change and edit loss out of the garden, Sawyers says, "We'll never see how beautiful the natural aging process and cycle of seasons can be."

Gardens shouldn't be about conquering and remaking nature, anyway. And they shouldn't be like strip shopping centers plunked down in Anywhere, U.S.A.

"As individualistic as Americans are," Sawyers says, "we want to fit in with our neighbors. We wind up taking away what's special."

PRINCIPLE 2: Beauty from function.

Who thinks about aesthetics when they need a hose or a compost bin? Sawyers does, and suggests that fences, walls, furniture - even clotheslines and mailboxes - should all add artistry to the garden while blending harmoniously into it.

And when you're not chilling on the patio or grilling a steak, that chair, that grill, should give pleasure to the viewer anyway.

"Ask yourself, when you're buying or building one of these things, 'Can I make it artful?' "

PRINCIPLE 3:

Use humble materials.

This is where wabi and sabi come in, the Japanese concepts that translate roughly as simple elegance and gaining beauty with age. (Not a problem for most of us, who aren't millionaires and can't do a thing about our patinas.)

The idea is easily applied to the garden, which in Sawyers' view "should have more in common with the family room or den of a house than with the formal living room."

Leave behind the oversized and showy. Choose simple, indigenous materials: sticks, branches, logs, stones, clamshells. Sawyers likes to plant on ruins and recycle millstones, curbstones and railroad ties, even bowling balls and rusted tools.

And unless you wish Sawyers to faint dead away, don't paint any of them.

PRINCIPLE 4:

Marry

the outside

to the inside.

One way to do this is to install lots of windows, a deck or a screened-in porch. Being in the garden, whether literally or figuratively, is good for mental and physical health. And what scenery along the way!

At her 1915 bungalow in Media, Sawyers has a gracious front porch with a swing that's hidden from the road. There, she enjoys the hummingbirds, robins and cardinals.

Out back, she has a little sitting area. "Dinners are a delight out there in summer," she says.

The delight factor has a cerebral side, too. It helps address what Sawyers calls "the disconnect with nature that exists in our society on a rather profound level."

PRINCIPLE 5: Involve the visitor.

Doesn't take much: the plop of falling water; a winding pathway; the inebriating scent of a musk rose, or a funny frog sculpture.

Sawyers' ideas on authentic gardens have been percolating since childhood. Hers had no disconnect with nature. Quite the opposite.

Farming was on both sides of the family, and Sawyers basically grew up on a dairy farm in Missouri. She describes dreamy summers spent collecting birds' nests, romping in the barn, and cuddling piglets.

She also spent six years in Japan, where her father worked for the American Soybean Institute, and later earned a degree in ornamental horticulture from Purdue University.

Sawyers, now 50, returned to Japan before and after graduating to study landscaping and horticulture. With its emphasis on line and form, rather than the Western tradition of mass and color, the Japanese way proved life-changing.

It certainly informs her garden philosophy.

Here's the litmus test.

Next time you're marveling at your purple salvia and plummy verbena, your tiny pond and classy scarecrow, ask yourself, "Where am I?"

If you're lucky, there's only one answer: In my garden.

Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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