WE BECOME BETTER gardeners, and our lives are enriched, by visiting gardens made by people of outstanding ability. To those who love gardens there is nothing quite as thrilling as seeing a good one get better over time. To that end, one of the best gifts great gardeners can give is to provide for their work to continue beyond their own years. While the original gardener may never see it as fully envisioned, others will benefit from the garden’s genius and structure, and succeeding generations can create exciting new compositions within the framework of the original.
We have learned to respect and appreciate the estate gardens of history s socially prominent, with landscapes crafted by acknowledged masters. But for many gardeners it is easier to draw inspiration and instruction from our fellow nonprofessionals. Perhaps engrained in the American spirit is the celebration of what a single individual can accomplish through creative drive and hard work. This same celebration is evident in the best personal gardens, those that have come about through a long-standing and passionate engagement with a piece of land, with its particular constraints and possibilities. Personal gardens continually change, following their creators’ passions and personal experience. They are more than a canvas upon which to paint, and they are different from a musical score: they are personal visions and cultural expressions, and they are more dependent on collaboration with the natural world than any other art form.
Across the country there are many gardens that give voice to the regional and cultural expressions of a time and place and tell the stories of their individual creators. Gardens of such personal expression are most threatened by gradual decline in their owner s ability to maintain the garden and by the lack of an appropriate organization to assume ownership and management. At the Garden Conservancy, we are fortunate to work with garden owners and community activists who won’t stand for these exceptional gardens to be lost. Although there are plentiful examples of gardens that have been “preserved” to death, many more have slipped away because there was no way for their creators to pass them on to an organization with the vision and resources to sustain them. An organization has to be in place to open the garden to the public, raise the funds to maintain it, and see that it continues to be of outstanding quality. The Garden Conservancy provides for the creation of such organizations, helping them come into being and helping them stay on track.
To Bill Noble, garden preservation is a most necessary art
We work to preserve gardens because we want the public to appreciate them and learn from them. With each new project, we have expanded our understanding of what makes personal gardens important and what is involved in keeping them alive. Documenting the garden is important—its new stewards must be able to understand the creators’ original design intent and their thoughts about how their gardens might continue to evolve. There are a number of ways of ensuring this. We have recorded oral histories, obtained written statements by garden owners, conducted plant inventories, videotaped the garden with its creators, and organized garden plans and images.
One of our biggest challenges is finding gardeners who are artists and plantsmen in their own right, who understand the creator’s philosophy as well as the site and its plants, who are not afraid to experiment to keep the garden fresh and interesting. The framework of the garden remains, but it develops in new directions, the painting of the picture becoming more important that its completion. We most succeed when we match the next generation of gardeners with the exceptional gardeners of today.
Not every garden can continue past the lifetime of its creator, but when there is a willing owner, a gardener capable of taking it to new heights, and an organization prepared to manage the garden for the public good, then the struggle is worth it. All of us will benefit from being able to see how the Ruth Bancroft Garden, Peckerwood, Montrose, the Chase Garden, Rocky Hills, and George Schoellkopf’s garden continue to grow into the future.