The Philosophical Gardener

by frankbeswick

Gardening is an activity that draws upon a wide range of skills and knowledge.

Gardening is an under-appreciated skill. That it is essentially democratic, in that most people other than the completely handicapped can garden in some way to some small degree means that it is not an elite activity and so can be looked down on. But I do not want to be the exclusive master of an elite art, I am happy to share my skills and for others to have their successes. But there is much knowledge that goes into gardening and none has mastered all of its intricacies and component subjects.

Image courtesy of pumukel

The Sensitivities of the Gardener

Eve  Pollard, who along with her husband Ian Pollard cultivates Abbey House Gardens at Malmesbury in the leafy shires of Southern England, was quoted in Horticulture, the magazine distributed to members of the Royal Horticultural Society, as saying that she is always philosophically challenged and that you have to be a philosopher to be  a gardener. Well, gardening is an activity for the individual and she and Ian are known for their  highly original habit of gardening naked behind the walls of Abbey House Gardens. At this point Adam and Eve could butt in with the observation that they did naked gardening first, but whatever! 

Eve and Ian took over Abbey House Gardens and part of their philosophy is to locate the garden in the present with due regard to the past. The site has been cultivated and inhabited since at least the Iron Age and was the site of the now ruined Malmesbury Abbey which towers over the garden. The Pollard's philosophy of giving due regard to the past involves tracing out the outlines of the old monastic Lady Chapel in box topiary and making no secret of the fact that they see themselves as successors of the monks who once dwelt there. Yet the garden is cultivated in a modern, organic way, because the Pollards realize that gardens must move with the times, so the past is preserved and the present willingly accepted.

Tim Schmidt, who restored the wonderful "Lost" Gardens of Heligan had the same problem  of blending past and present. Once among England's greatest gardens, they fell into decay at the end of World War 1 from which most of the gardeners failed to return. By the 1980s they were a jungle littered with crumbling ruins. Tim faced the question of to what historical date should he restore the garden. Was the latest always the best,  and then he had to decide what innovations since the decay would have been taken up by the owners. He decided that the garden would follow the modern trend to organics and do without the poisons that the Victorians used. Yet he introduced modern designs at places, as you see below. Here the present is in dialogue with the past.

Yet perhaps the word philosopher is wrong, for academic philosophy is in short supply among my gardening friends, and as a retired philosophy lecturer I am  something of an exception. Perhaps the word sage would be more apt, as sages are those who have achieved wisdom, not always by an academic route. The ability to create and reflect in the quietness of the garden and to work with nature's rhythms fosters a reflective spirit in those who are thoughtful enough to take up the opportunity to reflect. Sadly, not all do, so I would say that  rather than call us philosophers, say that we gardeners have the opportunity to gain the wisdom borne of quiet reflection and to relish the quiet, even silence punctuated by bird song that so nourishes the spirit. 

Sculpture at Heligan

Sculpture at Heligan
Sculpture at Heligan

Spiritual Resources

Garden creators need inspiration, and it should come as no surprise that often the inspiration comes from religious or philosophical traditions, and this may be at the root of Eve Pollard's observations that she is philosophically challenged by her garden, for I suspect that she is in an ongoing philosophical dialogue with it.

The word paradise comes from a Persian word for garden, and at the root of this usage is the idea that the garden is a recreation of the ideal world, a taste we hope of things to come in the eschatological future.

There is a rich variety of Gardens inspired by Christian teachings. There are Marian Gardens devoted to the honour of Mary the mother of Jesus; we have the paradise gardens of monasteries, which were near the churches and which were intended to give glory to God and a taste of paradise to come after death.  To some extent the word philosopher is less apt in the cases of Christian gardens than is the word theologian, for Christian thought is Theology, a discipline that uses philosophy, but is not reducible to it 

Christian gardens are inspired by a combination of factors. If you look at the image of a monastery garden below you will see that it combines appearance with utility.You see that it is well laid out in a pattern pleasing to the eye, and there are some beautiful red flowers that seem to be roses in the background. But the garden is essentially useful, for it grows vegetables for the monastery and in the past grew healing herbs, though nowadays modern medicine is used instead. Flowers may be grown to adorn the monastery church, for Catholicism places great store by the involvement of the senses in the collective, formal act of worship that we call the liturgy[mass.]  

Yet there are other spiritual  resources. Take the example of Mary Reynolds, whose book The Garden Awakening is shown below. She draws upon the ancient traditions of her native Ireland to inspire her professional garden designs, and she seems to be a pagan of some kind, though she does not say which. Her book is well written and is worth reading, for the enchanting character she that she seems to be and for the clear advice on garden design that she gives. 

Each religion has its own style of garden.Muslim gardens are devoid of statuary as the religion rejects images of humans, but in keeping with the Islamic view that the world is ordered and organized by God they are intricately designed and often contain flowing water, an element whose importance is clear in the hot lands from which Islam sprang. Below you will see an example of a Muslim garden, which emphasizes and pattern in keeping with Islam's precepts.

Monastery Garden

Monastery Garden
Monastery Garden

The Contributory Disciplines

I have spoken of the contribution made by Philosophy and Theology to the art of gardening,I have mentioned the role of historical knowledge,  but what are the other disciplines that the gardener needs?

Those running an ornamental garden need a strong aesthetic sense and the ability to express it in design. Design involves the ability to draw well.  

In pre-scientific ages there was ever gardening lore, folk knowledge, but nowadays gardeners need science.   Biology, particularly botany is essential, but soil science is ever useful. Specific branches of biology, such as  arboriculture, the maintenance of trees are valuable, and so is zoology, for the habits of animals are relevant to the garden. The study of garden pests is a subject in itself. It is the case that we have some of each, but we could have ever more. The possibility for growth is endless. 

Some knowledge of machines is valuable, so the gardener may benefit from being something of a mechanic, for the machines need servicing and repairs. Even simple devices like wheelbarrows need servicing sometimes.

Yet if you look at the advanced courses in gardening you see that there is a management and business side to the craft. The RHS diplomas teach students how to run a gardening business, and head gardeners are managers of a skilled workforce exercising a skillful vocation. The ability to manage is essential, and managers must be competent in the mathematics of their task.

Few  gardeners have full competence in all the skills required. My weakness is in the design of ornamental gardens, for I have no drawing skills. I am not great with ornamentals. Yet there are other areas where I am strong, such as soil science and vegetable gardening. 

Islamic Garden

Islamic garden
Islamic garden

In conclusion

The skills of gardening combine in different ways in different individuals, and all gardeners are individuals who make their own way through the garden.So each garden is different and reflective of the individual who created and tilled it. Sometimes there is a history of more than one individual in the garden, but when there is a team there is a team spirit, an ethos that forms over time and which the team share. 

Individuality segues into eccentricity, which is an extreme form of individuality, for the eccentric is an individual with his/her own values and beliefs to which they adhere without undue deference to the cultural norms imposed by society. There is much scope for eccentricity among gardeners for  the gardener works alone without the looming shadow of social disapprobation hovering on his/her mind. Gardeners can be themselves, authentic individuals with their own ways.Eve and Ian Pollard mentioned at the beginning of this article are eccentric in their habits, but this does not make them in any sense mad or anti-social. They are merely different, people with their own minds and ways of doing things and the courage to live by their own standards. 

Mary Reynolds tells of an elderly and quite eccentric Irish forest gardener/farmer whom she befriended in her childhood. He lived frugally on his patch of marginal land that he had made highly productive and was content to garden in the silence and solitude of the Irish countryside. A deeply spiritual  man given to his own thoughts he loved  to reflect as he gardened. One day when she  asked him his views on religion he pondered a short while and after giving her some ideas he picked up a blade of grass and showed it to her. "Mary" he said, "This is God." As a philosopher I am unsure of what he meant, but he left the child with an intensely profound moment borne of his silent ambling through nature in the land that he loved. 


Updated: 03/27/2017, frankbeswick
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juegos friv on 08/09/2017

I appreciate your insight, for it is quite deeper than the norm. I think that we must always engage our minds with the activities that we do, and doing so involves thinking reflectively.

frankbeswick on 07/14/2017

It is up to the individual monastery to decide what to grow. No one is going to hand down a decision on the matter from above. My son worked as a tree nurseryman and he supplied a local monastery. He noted that they were very keen on fruit trees and vegetables, but medicinal herbs were not their interest.

DerdriuMarriner on 07/14/2017

frankbeswick, So since"nowadays modern medicine is used instead" monastery gardens tend not to grow at all the healing herbs of yesteryear?

frankbeswick on 04/01/2017

Correct, but there were English who regarded Edmund the Martyr, the East Anglian king killed by the Danes, as their patron saint.

blackspanielgallery on 04/01/2017

I read Saint George replaced Saint Edward the Confessor as the patron saint of England.

frankbeswick on 04/01/2017

You are absolutely right on toxic plants. Fortunately, there are none on my plot. I once had Oxford Ragwort growing as a weed, but got rid of it.

The rose has no connection with St George's day, for I am not interested in national days. St George had no connection with England. He was the warrior ideal of the crusaders. I would prefer that we have an Englishman, such as Bede,as our patron saint, but our national trouble is that we like fighting too much and so we are stuck with a mythologized warrior saint rather than a great scholar.

blackspanielgallery on 04/01/2017

One question: Is the rose pictured here a subliminal desire to have Saint George's Day back to its former level close to Christmas? I have read of efforts to restore it, but not yet successful.

blackspanielgallery on 04/01/2017

Frank, my daughter is autistic. One year when she was still in school her teacher got a grant to start a garden for the class, and it did well with the students. They enjoyed it. My problem is she eats plants, so the avoidance of toxic plants is a must.

frankbeswick on 03/30/2017

Brilliant! As one who taught gardening for a year in an autistic school, I know from personal experience what can be done with the handicapped.I can recall one eighteen year old lad who was so severely mentally handicapped that his mother was delighted when I gave him his first achievement: he had put a flower in a plant pot and nurtured it. This delighted me at least as much as my awareness that several of my Advanced level students of the same age [not the same school] had achieved top grade in their examination.

Another joy was when I met one of my ex-students on a tram. Autistic and ADHD, he told me that he supplemented his small earnings from MacDonalds by growing his own vegetables at home. This was what I worked for!

I anticipate your article with joy and delight, and it is always a sign of success if a writer stimulates writing in others.

blackspanielgallery on 03/30/2017

Frank, thanks for writing this. Your comment that implied the most seriously disabled are the only people who might not be able to garden inspired me to write about indoor gardening, a way they might at least enjoy a garden. It is amazing how one article can inspire a different take on a related topic.

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