Please forgive me as I revisit themes from a couple of my past columns. One was written earlier this year on why we do what we do, while the other was published several years ago – back when I first began writing for WaterShapes – and was all about a subject dear to my heart: roses.
Recent events in my family have given me time and the need to sort through the past, and the experience has deepened my appreciation of gardens, their emotional power and how they come to reflect our clients and ourselves. I’d like to share this process of discovery to define what I see as the essence of what we all try to do as professionals – and encourage all of you to think of what we accomplish as both a noble and ennobling form of art.
Volumes have been written on the feelings gardens can and do evoke, of course, but the simple fact is that no two people will ever view a garden in exactly the same way. Be that as it may, I’d like to share my feelings about a specific garden that has very recently imprinted itself deeply on my heart.
A dozen years ago, my parents bought a home in a neighborhood near mine. It was an average-sized home, but the lot was large for the area.
They’d lived in it for about four years before deciding it was time to do something about the small-but-quaint pond, dilapidated pool and outdated garden – and gave me a call. Of course, working with one’s family can be challenging at times, but we managed to select plants and install hardscape that fit their budget and gave them the park-like feeling that was part of the reason they’d purchased this particular home in the first place.
The garden was planted using relatively small plants, but in the years since it has grown into a lush, warm, inviting haven. As one might expect given the family name, the anchor of this particular garden has always been my mother’s collection of roses. I haven’t counted them lately, but I can tell you that you can’t walk more than ten feet in any direction without coming across a rose bush somewhere on the half-acre lot.
Through the years, the garden has had its share of problems with difficult soil, spotty maintenance and pest problems, but the work I did eight years ago – coupled with my mother’s constant nurturing – has held up well and was magically enhanced by the record rains this year in southern California. The roses are more prolific than ever, and all of the plants have grown together as a very natural, beautiful, cottage-style garden.
My mother passed away this year. Her illness was unexpected and made her life terribly difficult, but she was able to stay home where we were able to care for her constantly through her last four months. I can say without hesitation that no matter how much she suffered, she still enjoyed her garden and the flowers it yielded on a daily basis.
All of us who spent time with her during those months shared her enjoyment. We’d all take time to wander through the garden, and quite frequently one of us would come back into the house carrying a rose or some other flower or some observation about how great the garden looked or made us feel.
As I sat by her bedside, gazing out the window, I noticed that most of us would make our cell-phone calls while sitting out in the garden. It’s a quiet, private space, but more than that, I think it gave each of us a sense of calm or warmth to sit there because all of us knew that it was an extension of mom and a reminder of how alive she was in our minds and hearts.
On Mother’s Day this past May, my father asked that we spruce up the lower garden area (closest to the house) and fill all its containers with lots of color. Everyone pitched in to purchase, plant and care for the new additions, and all of us were inspired by the hope that she might be able to come outside to the garden and enjoy our efforts. Unfortunately, she never did.
Since her passing, I’ve had many conversations with friends, family, business associates and even strangers about my mother. In almost every exchange there is a consistent thread that weaves the discussions: my mother’s love of flowers – and particularly roses.
She loved paintings of roses, had t-shirts with roses on them, enjoyed collecting china with rose patterns. Most of all, she loved her rose garden and, of course, the man who’d shared his last name with her 51 years earlier.
At her graveside service, we asked each mourner to place a flower on top of her casket to symbolize their respect for her and to acknowledge her love of nature and of flowers in particular. It was our way to personalize the ceremony while celebrating something that was a significant part of her life.
What I came away with is a deeper appreciation for what plants mean to some people and how we, as landscape and watershape professionals, have the opportunity (and maybe even the responsibility) to enhance our clients’ lives by making their gardens and outdoor environments an extension of who they are – an extension that ultimately becomes a legacy.
More significant, I came away convinced that we need to open our eyes to this potential and do what we can to honor our clients and who they truly are by reflecting their characters in their gardens.
So look around your clients’ homes. Observe the pictures, paintings, art objects or collectables that might “represent” them. Notice themes or items that seem important. Our most valuable skill as professionals is the power of observation: You can often tell more about a person by what you see of them and their environment than you can from anything they might tell you directly.
You should also ask questions. In my mother’s case, it might have been obvious that she loved our last name. As I’ve related previously, however, I didn’t like my last name growing up because it became a way for people to tease me. The situation will differ from person to person, of course, and not all names have such obvious meaning. The key is asking enough questions to get meaningful answers.
Ask about the things you see in paintings, prints and photos. Every one of those objects comes with a story: If someone has gone to the bother of displaying something, it probably has significance.
By the same token, you can’t assume that just because it’s displayed, that the object is something they want reflected in the backyard. I was once given a ceramic chicken with zebra stripes on it and now display it prominently on my kitchen table. It’s no thing of beauty, but it has meaning for me and arrived with a card letting me know I was a “stylish chic.” Without asking questions, someone might assume I had a thing for ceramic poultry and decide to incorporate a chicken coop into my home or garden – definitely not the right idea.
You can’t see these inquiries as being intrusive: Asking detailed questions shows a client you are interested, that you care and that what you hear will somehow be reflected in the work you do for them.
I’m not suggesting that we pry into intimate details of our clients’ lives, but by showing interest in who they are and what is important to them, the result ultimately will be a landscape or watershape that better reflects who they are. You might find out that someone close to them had a passion for a particular color, for example, or a type of stone or a style of architecture or painting – definitely things you can incorporate into a design.
As is true of most investigative processes, doing this sort of digging takes time and an open mind. Some of the thoughts and ideas that will flow through your imagination may not initially make sense, but I have to say that some of my favorite designs are those that have incorporated ideas I initially didn’t appreciate. It’s the exchange of ideas and the openness we share with one another that make our designs more creative and ultimately more fulfilling for us and our clients.
To be sure, what we do is work. But by personalizing it for our clients and essentially becoming part of their lives, we leave behind not just a garden or watershape, but a body of work that not only represents us, but blends into peoples’ lives in creative, thoughtful and even loving ways. To me, that’s why I love doing what I do.
EVEN THE QUIRKS
I’d like to leave you with a final (and distinctly lighter) thought: As people left my parents’ house after my mother’s funeral, many commented to me on how beautiful the garden looked and how much they know she loved it. This led to discussions of clever ways she’d come up with solutions for everyday garden problems – another means by which her garden became even more of an extension of who she was.
One solution in particular drew a lot of puzzled looks: I often thought my mom went a little overboard with some of her ideas, especially this one.
Throughout the garden, she’d hung silvery compact disks from strings. She’d heard somewhere that sunlight reflecting off the CDs would keep the crows away. Never one to care what anyone else thought, she hung them up and didn’t skimp on quantity. As I sat by her bedside, particularly through what turned out to be her final week, I had to laugh every time I noticed one of the CDs spinning on its string.
Never saw or heard a single crow.
Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].