Cue the swelling music, and then …
Count on hearing those superlatives and more over the course of Monty Don’s three-part American Gardens, which aired on the BBC earlier this month and can be seen stateside here and on other sites. A book is on the way.
As Don states in the intro to each hour-long episode, he’s trying to define the American garden, though doubting from the outset that this is possible. The first hour is devoted to the Northeast and (some) Midwest, the second to the South, the third to the West.
A longtime garden presenter (Gardener’s World in the UK) and writer, Don sticks mainly to large public gardens, some well-known private gardens, and a couple community gardens. In my view, this dooms the entire mission. Is it possible for places like Longwood, Chanticleer, Lurie, and Lotusland to represent American gardening practice? While I’d agree that many US gardeners gain education and inspiration from these destination beauty spots, the sites themselves, in their near-perfection and studied showmanship (as Don states repeatedly), say very little about how we garden—those of us who do.
Still, what was Don to do? Take a tour of average gardens in average neighborhoods? He’d likely lose his audience for this show and jeopardize his other gigs. Maybe best for us to sit back and enjoy Don’s journey, which is full of luscious videography of desert gardens, wildflower meadows, tropical jungles, and stately European-inspired formal landscapes. An elementary school garden and a Bronx community garden are nods to ordinary gardening. I do admit that prairie meadows are intrinsic to our recent focus on native plants and that many US gardeners are warming up to the wonderful world of cacti, which are showcased in the immaculate desert gardens. But these spaces do not define what we’re trying to do in our gardens, if such a thing is possible; they never could.
It gets interesting when Don breaks into gentle criticism, calling Longwood “a circus,” and wondering about the long fenceless expanses that characterize suburbia. Mind you, he hardly mentions the L word, choosing instead to speculate that a lack of fences might represent our yearnings for neighborliness and community. Ha. There are also a few words (very few) about water use when discussing the estates and golf courses of Palm Springs. That said, Don’s undoubted knowledge and expertise inform every visit, so it’s possible to learn more about even the most well-known properties.
At the end of the third episode (spoiler), Don decides to go for it: “I came to the conclusion that the American garden was one that was characterized by an attitude: the pioneering, bold spirit of trying new things, and pushing outwards.”
That’s a safe thing to say. I have to wonder what would happen if Don accompanied garden bloggers on a couple of their Flings, which focus mainly on private gardens, many not professionally designed (as almost everything Don saw is). I think he would have come a lot closer to a working definition.
Strangely, Don’s discussion with Adam Gopnik in Central Park rang the truest. No one area dominates or defines it. No rhyme, no reason, just cool stuff.