some thoughts on small gardens
Here are some observations and confessions centered on 30 years spent with my two home gardens, both of them small. These were created and maintained for years at two Santa Barbara addresses. One was downtown, near State Street. The other is in the Mission/de la Vina area.
First, what might define a small garden? Everyone has a different notion and if they don't, it will pretty much be in the hands of controllable space where they live. One characteristic would restrict the home garden concept to an area one person can control. That person, you, should be able to take care of the plantings and goings-on by yourself. You can have help. There are many times in gardening where one person can't transplant a boxed tree or move a statue. But generally, and surely in concept, the small home garden should pretty much be a one-person show.
Beyond that, there are few rules. A cottage garden, a perennial garden, a statuary garden, a rose garden, a cactus garden.. They all can be small... intimate, even. A site for this is practically unlimited. Your garden could exist as a few pots at the backdoor of an alley entrance. A location might be be a 20x25 sq.ft. front yard with evaporated lawn grass. A flat roof is another possibility. You and your site are in charge here.
Time is a concept that influences the small garden. You may have exactly the right idea for the garden and it might even develop into a thing of beauty. But over time, plants are going to change. Even with the best of care, the plant will grow old and become something different, probably overgrown. Noticing these changes and reacting to them is the handwork of the small garden's gardener, you. Time will intrude upon you in another way. Keeping things the same for a long time period has a way of ultimately confronting you. Adding plants and/or other ingredients changes the look. The garden really is an agent of change. Character changes. A new pot, a plant with a colorful, dominating metabolism. That's new information to the eye. Part of your job is to add the inevitable new recruits. But in a way that presents an interesting combination to the eye. Sometimes you have to think vertical, where height creates a look. Same with color: how do I best present a new color in an old setting? Is a balance being destroyed? Is my focal point strong enough? How is all this blending into the background?
Arranging plants, pots and whatever you want in the garden, is important. This is how mystery can be created. Pots twisted at angles to each other. Plants, potted or in the ground, mix it up with more permanent elements. This is all about relationships. Allowing a little space here, an alley there, drives the eye to interesting spots, to patterns of light, shade and who knows what? This can be subconscious or even unconscious. You don't need to know the rules of vanishing points, though these things never hurt. A whim or instinct can motivate expression. For this kind of endeavor, you don't need a lawn. Hard surfaces are okay.
If your garden contains a combination of plants and statuary and pots and objets d'arte, then you have more responsibility. You might want to mix all these elements and possibly think of balances... and maybe a unified look. Here I do want to make a distinction about the small garden as something different from a collection. There is a fine line. You might have a collection of cycads, a collection of pots, a collection of cactus. It's certainly possible to present collections as part of a garden. But a collection that is just a collection, a group of objects with no purpose beyond itself, probably will not be artistically interesting. As art, that usually spells ordinary. But not always. Here is an example. Many years ago I was in Mexico City and was in pain from a rotor cuff injury. A doctor sent me to a hospital in the suburbs for Jacuzzi therapy. I took several streetcars to get there, and across the street I noticed a two-story block house covered with aluminum automobile hubcaps. Rows of them went around the four sides of the building, which was a residence. Only windows were left without hubcaps. There was a tiny space around the house perimeter and this too was covered with hubcaps. The scene was striking. The brightness reflected light patterns from the varied aluminum discs, bolted through white stucco, Obviously it was a collection, not a junk yard. And there was a kind of veiled artistry about it. Maybe it was folk art. You also could say it was a hubcap garden. I never got clear on exactly how to interpret this rather amazing display, but the image has remained with me for a long time.
In any case the garden ingredients are solely up to the gardener or collector or gardener/collector. As time moved on, I became a collector/gardener. My home garden sites reflected combinations of plants, and the use of a collection of pots and objets d'arte. Once I had a combination settled I would leave it that way for months, touch nothing except to water. Sooner or later I would think of a different plant arrangement. I might (and did) buy an old Greek oil jar. My idea of a placement test took shape and it now appears as as a metaphorical object. I became intrigued with pairs and three's of plants and pots. All this introduced new looks. I found playing with garden elements very satisfying, especially when something artistically successful was created.
Years ago I bought a carved stone grated window fashioned in a checkerboard pattern. It was from India, carved hundreds of years ago, and was intended as a wall window, allowing air to cool the house behind the wall. There was a crack and repair on it and one day while we moved it, the stone window broke into 5 or 6 fragments (picture below). I didn't know what to do with this and still don't. But I placed the fragments in the garden. I had no known purpose for this, other than a daily reminder and belief that some day the answer will appear. I am talking to an artist about possible pedestals. I show a picture of this to illustrate another point of the personal home garden: its role is to test the untested, to act as research for artistic solutions, to find meaning in the unexpressed.
This fussing and tending and testing can go on for years. That may be the definition of my garden. And I haven't even started on meditation. — HENRY NULL