The garden is the apex of human creativity as a microcosm of the universe. The garden is multidimensional, tactile, visual, artful, aesthetic, life-giving. It is embedded into the very life forces that the mind seeks to understand.
Yet the successful transference of this intimation is up to the designer of the garden, the conception of philosophical and artistic meaning projected into this filled space. The Garden of Eden is attributed to God, and the great gardens of Persia, India, China, Moorish Spain — all are projected images of heaven. And the special gardens of Japan, the meditation gardens, are abstractions of Big Mind. So the garden has great potential, and our small, circumscribed backyard gardens reflect the simplicity of our skills and the smallness of our worldly desires. (The spacious barren lawns of English nobility, on the other hand, reflected the barrenness of a civilization valuing the utilitarian and ostentatious.)
For a long time, the backyard gardener has been persuaded to imitate industrial agriculture and the dreaded plantation with their endless rows of production. Permaculture introduced not only principles compatible with a natural philosophy but also garden designs compatible with the mind’s mingling of ideas and thoughts, reflecting nature as it is when not obstructed or overthrown by human design. Plants intermingle as naturally as in a forest, meadow, or shady grove, and yet productivity rewarding the human need for food is grown in abundance. The garden should be small enough to reflect the personality of the gardener, large enough to be practical, circumscribed enough to allow for individuality and circumstances. We must depend on the wisdom of nature before usurping its designs with ours.
The manner in which the garden is tended reveals to the gardener the deeper patterns of existence. Is it not more satisfying to grow a plant from seed than to transplant a potted sample grown and nurtured by another’s hand? Is not the taking of fruit, vegetables or leaves, however necessary for food, a kind of violation, a stealing of offspring? (The Jains only ate from what had already fallen, voluntarily delivered by the plant or tree, or they ate food culled by a hireling! The Japanese poets were repelled by the notion of cutting flowers for a vase rather than leaving them where they grow.) Is not the flowering at season’s end not a poignant reminder of when the course of our lives, too, is done, even in the last expression of beauty? Letting a few plants go to seed, however, and carefully collecting the fecund seeds for the next planting, is like receiving an inheritance of the past delivered to precious safeguarding, with the promise of a future, even if we will not witness it.
Like life itself, the garden starts in hope and anticipation, for Spring is in all cultures esteemed as a time for growth, beginnings, fresh possibilities. Like life, hope abets our efforts for success, and small adversities are overcome, beginning with dreaded culling of crowded sprouts, a heartless task not necessarily pursued with diligence or thoroughness by all gardeners. A natural universe does not not spare everything, either, but in paradise (or permaculture), nature takes care of these concerns to our blissful ignorance. As months pass, and vicissitudes are overcome, and the garden yields its work to eye and palette, one may count nature as blessed, and our modest role as coordinator or facilitator breaks humility. We are mere the observer. All of the processes have gone on without our understanding, without our sight, indeed, at the biological level, the microbiological level, mysterious to the eye. At most we have abetted the process, though blindly. Is the whole process just for our hunger, or are we simply a species who drops in to watch?
And then, when everything seems exhausted, we cut down the remnants or let them quietly sleep — but that is later, much later! For now it is Spring and our plans and hopes and expectations are of beginnings, and new growth, richer and more fecund than before. And we will look on best if we are quiet, attentive, easily awed, if let nature take its course, and sit beside the garden in its quiet, as when we meditate and say nothing, expecting nothing, but living in the garden — or the garden in us — in a quiet way. Approached in this way, as a daily ritual, the garden becomes our private universe, if not paradise.
Hermann Hesse wrote in Notes at Easter, in 1954:
My gardening in the course of the years has become nothing but a hermit’s pastime without any practical meaning — that is to say, it has a meaning for me alone.