Gardens: Free and wild or under control?

Published 9:56 pm Tuesday, April 4, 2017

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Let’s wax philosophical.

As Master Naturalists, we are “schooled” in trying to understand all aspects of the natural world — from bugs to bergs, from seagulls to sequoias, from fossils to finches.

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We are trained to look for man’s imprint on nature, mainly in the form of pollution or global warming or other deleterious effects.

One area, however, that we are never asked to consider is art in nature. Let’s consider formal gardens. Are they art? Natural wonders? Neither? Both?

“Art” is a part of many words or terms that seem irreconcilable with nature — artificial, artisans, artifice, artful, artifact and so forth. But can a combination of nature and an artful control of nature be pleasing to both worlds — to nature lovers and to abstract artisans?

Let’s consider some examples: the formal gardens at Williamsburg and Bacon’s Castle, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, and the Elizabethan Gardens in Manteo, N.C.

There are many pleasing aspects. The plantings are in perfect geometric patterns, holdovers from the Age of Reason in the 18th century. They are balanced — front to back, left to right.

The plantings are clipped to precise geometric shapes: square, rounded or triangular. There are no renegade sprouts.

Generally, the larger forms are bushes, which are accented by smaller flowers and low lawn or groundcover features. There may be a centrally placed water feature, which may or may not have a fountain — a vertical feature — or a low, dribbling pool.

There may be gravel or mulch present, but if so, it is carefully leveled and raked in a uniform direction. If there is grass, it is mowed to a uniform one inch in height.

Every inch of a 5,000-square-foot garden demonstrates that uncontrolled nature can be subjugated to the will of man. And that control is cerebral, artistic, artificial. Man, the Artificer, rules.

Contrast that with the average “wild” pollinator garden.

Plantings are chosen for their benefits to wildlife, not to please man with precise shapes. Blue flowering vines may droop over green shrubs and red flowers to mix with white flowering ground covers.

There are no “japonicas” here — no ever-blooming species. All the species in the garden are natives. The small trees are pollinators: no Bradford pears or odd cherry trees from Formosa. The bushes, flowers, vines and ground covers are all native.

There is no fertilizer used, just composted clippings and mulch. There are no pesticides used; the purpose of the garden is to nurture bugs, not kill them.

There’s no fescue, no liriope, no English ivy, just a profusion of growing “stuff.” It’s a riot of color, smells, shapes and the sound of bees.

The concept of “controlling” nature is anathema.

So what’s a sensitive, thinking person to do — favor art over nature or nature over art? Can one savor the attractions and beauty of each in its place, or does one have to choose?

That’s a good question. The answer is….

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at