lunes, 21 de enero de 2019

Praise of Gardener

Cigarral de Menores in Toledo

Gardening is a special artistic discipline. I can think of no other in which the final result depends on the combined work of two authors: the designer and Nature. In fact, strictly speaking, it doesn't make sense to talk about the final result, because a garden will never be something finished. So when talking about the work of a landscaper, it might be more appropriate to talk about the starting point rather than the final result. That starting point, which a landscaper has designed and a builder implements, will then be shaped by the gardener and nature into a love-hate relationship that, like in a bad marriage, will alternate the most intense moments of love with the threats of imminent divorce. It is just as illusory to think that we can leave the garden in the hands of nature, as to suppose that the gardener will be able to impose his will. Gardener and Nature are sentenced to quarrel.
Can the landscaper and gardener be the same person? Sometimes they can (especially in private gardens) but other times, especially when the garden is designed by a professional landscaper, they can´t. And this is the second peculiarity of this ephemeral art: the initial vision of the artist, the landscape designer, can be profoundly modified over the years by the work of the person who maintains it: the gardener. Sometimes the landscaper and the gardener will collaborate in the maintenance of the garden, but other times the landscaper will disappear from the scene after a while. So at some point, it will be licit to ask who the artist really is. The fact is that books and blogs talk a lot about landscapers and little about gardeners. In England, the figure of Head Gardener is consistently established and is a position of great reputation. In Spain, I'm afraid not so much. I think we see the gardener as the guy who waters, prunes and little else. Sometimes even the landscaper is seen as the guy who waters, prunes and little else. Let me give you an example of this. A few years ago, in an interview, Fernando Caruncho said:
 "I'm a gardener, not a landscaper. From a very young age I have said that I am a gardener, because it is a word that goes back 5,000 years, and is full of nuances that I don’t want to be lose. The gardener is not only the man with the scissors, it is the man who wants to live in the garden to find an alternative path to knowledge.” 

This is what I meant, the vision of the gardener as "the man with the scissors".  Maybe I'm being negative, but that "man with the scissors" sounds a little condescending to me.  As Forrest Gump would say, a fool is someone who does silly things. Well, the gardener is the one who practises gardening. So, yes, the gardener will be the one with the scissors, who will also be the one with the pick, the spade, the hoe, the wheelbarrow, the rake, the hose, the watering timers and son on endlessly. And his influence in the garden will be decisive, because the fact is that whoever wants to live in the garden in order to find an alternative path to knowledge, needs the man with the scissors. And by the way, the man with the scissors had better have a good dose of knowledge.

We can easily find Caruncho’s bucolic image of the gardener floating on his contemplative cloud in books. Yet I'm afraid it doesn't correspond to reality.  There are garden owners, there are garden designers (which we usually call landscape designers, architects or landscape architects), and there are gardeners who garden. And gardening is almost never done wearing a Lacoste polo shirt. It’s curious how little is said about the hard work of a gardener. Gardening requires very large doses of physical labour, which is seldom reflected in books and interviews. I remember reading Beth Chatto telling of her arthrosis derived from hours and hours of work, from lift excessive weights. However this openness is the exception; little is said about this physical part of gardening. Now it's trendy to talk about how close we are to garden bugs, to publish books about gardening without digging, to believe in having a garden without doing anything. In the last issue of Gardens Illustrated there is a review of a book entitled: "The Ten-Minute Gardener: A Month-By-Month Guide to Growing Your Own”. The book seems fine, but the title is pitiful. It’s not my opinion, it’s Caroline Beck’s, who reviews the book. Her words say it all: "There is a section on double digging - really? not on my northern soil and certainly not in less than two days - one for the digging, the second for the osteopath's appointment". I understand her, I need an osteopath today. My kitchen garden is made up of ten steel cubes that form elevated terraces. Perfect for garden without digging. But the nearby holm oaks don't think so and have decided that this soil is theirs. And now I have ten raised terraces invaded by roots. I have no choice but to empty each cube (just over a cubic metre), cut the roots, protect the bottom with weed control netting, and refill the cube. And so on ten times.  And then pray that the weed net works and next year we won't have the same problem. This was my way to find an alternative path to knowledge last weekend. 

My first cube empty
Recently a friend said: I'm sure you already have a list of everything you want to do this winter in your garden. She laughed when I replied: Yes, it’s four pages long. I’m afraid the job of emptying the cubes is only one line in the four pages. Of course the amount of work to be done is proportional to the size of the garden. But if you're thinking of having a garden of a certain size, it doesn't hurt to have a good osteopath’s number at hand. In short, if we don’t value how complicated and demanding it can be to maintain a garden, we’re not going to value the work of a gardener.
Last spring I was present at the first landscape congress organized by the Rey Juan Carlos University. I enjoyed presentations given by top professionals, and I had the opportunity to meet some very interesting people. A conversation in the break, and two remarks on the talks, gave me the idea for this entry. The first remark was made by Silvia Villegas, head curator of the horticulture unit at the Botanical Garden in Madrid. She closed her talk by thanking gardeners for their work, because without them gardens wouldn’t be possible. There was applause in the hall. It seems there were a number of gardeners there. The second was by Miguel Urquijo, who said something like we need gardeners although it’s hard to find a good one. In this case there was no applause but a whisper of anger. If I had been a gardener I wouldn't have been offended by Miguel's comment. I’d say that showing enough interest to be at those talks is a guarantee that those present were good gardeners. Besides, I agree with Miguel Urquijo, I don't think we have enough good gardeners. Just take a walk through our streets and public gardens and behold some of the atrocities. In general let's say that there is a certain tendency towards the agricultural exploitation of gardens, and it seems that pruning is extremely important for some gardeners.
During one of the breaks, I met Ángel Domínguez, owner of the Vergel del Cerro nursery in Toledo. Ángel told me about his professional approach to the world of landscaping, and I thought it was a brilliant idea that resolved the struggle between the need and lack of good gardeners. Taking advantage of the high density of large gardens in the vicinity of Toledo, Ángel has made a niche for himself as something that Miguel García has called Landscape Keeper. I don't know if this term already existed but it's perfect to define Angel's work. During his work in the nursery, Angel noticed that many wealthy people commissioned their gardens to important landscapers who usually disappeared once the garden was in place. Whereupon gardens were left in the hands of local companies that often didn’t have the necessary knowledge to maintain and develop the garden. Ángel uses a simple example to explain it: would you buy a Ferrari and then take it to the village garage? I certainly wouldn't. The village mechanic may be a handyman and have great goodwill, but it’s unlikely he has the necessary technological means and knowledge.  Indeed, the same thing happens with these modern gardens in rural areas. Gardeners at the best are restricted to what they’ve always done, and at the worst are farmers converted to gardeners with little sensibility of what a garden needs. Angel's approach is that of a consultant. He visits the garden and draws up a plan that complements the maintenance work of local gardeners. Last fall Gema, Miguel García, Gonzalo Morillo and I, visited some of the gardens where Angel works.
Gonzalo Morillo, Miguel García, Ángel Domínguez, Gema Perez and Miguel Recio
Fantastic gardens such as the Palacio de Galiana and the Cigarral de Menores where I could see what Angel had explained to me. And these gardens are not the best examples, because from what I saw they have excellent gardeners, people who keep them exquisitely clean and tidy. Yet they still suffer from two things that Angel complements. The first is capacity: Lino, the gardener of the Palacio de Galiana, struck me as an extremely dedicated professional, but if he had to prune the dozens of huge cypresses in the garden, he might not have time to do any of the other countless important things. Angel has a team of gardeners who can meet the demands of a garden like this. 

Gonzalo, Miguel, Lino, Ángel and Miguel
Angel's second contribution is more subtle and perhaps this is where his differential value comes in.  The experience of some of these gardeners is limited to a single garden. In other words, to very particular soil, climate, light conditions and to very concrete plants. This gives them a vast knowledge of this particular context, but when an external factor modifies it they have no perspective. Redesigning the garden, a new plantation, a new plague, may put them in an awkward situation. On the other hand, landscapers who design the garden may not have specific knowledge of the area. In his new plantations Piet Oudolf usually works with some specialists in the area. In fact, if he wanted to make a garden in Toledo, he could hire Ángel, because in short, what Angel comes to contribute is transversal knowledge that adds specific knowledge of the area and more general technical knowledge. From the references I have about him, I think that this sum of knowledge gives him what the Anglo-Saxons call a green thumb; that magical touch, that ability to guess what happens to a plant, what needs to be done so that the grass meadow stops yellowing or the sterile orchard begins to produce. There are people who have a green thumb, and of course it has nothing to do with magic or a God-given gift.  As Michael Pollan points out in his book Second Nature, a green thumb can be a particular type of memory, a compendium of small stories, of failures and success that have been distilled to the point where the gardener can take advantage of his lessons without even thinking about it. In the same book, Pollan classifies the faults of a garden into three categories. The first is what we might call the acts of God or Nature. If you plant tomatoes in May and then there’s frost, bad luck. The other two categories have more to do with the good work of the gardener. The second would be the problems of infraculturation, when the gardener hasn’t been able to alter his space to the level that his plants require. He hasn’t been able to tame Nature enough. This is typical of novice or lazy gardeners. The third category is overcultivation problems, when the gardener overdoes his interventions, something all too common in our streets and parks:  too much pruning, too much fertilizer, too many pesticides. Therefore, a green thumb is a gardener able to walk the line between the dangers of undercultivation and those of overcultivation. Angel works in a good many gardens, so I guess that he’ll continue to pile up stories that will allow him to walk nimbly along that fine exciting line.

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