Ever ready to object when I hear the word ‘pretentious’ used to condemn something that might warrant a deeper conversation and a bottle of wine, I have recently found myself defending the practice of naming one’s garden to [apparently] less pretentious gardening friends; and I thought that it might be worth throwing out the topic to a larger audience.
I originally brought up the issue after watching a video posted by horticulturist and fellow tropical enthusiast Irvin Etienne, who with an iPhone and a fantastic sense of humor, walked Facebook Friends around his new garden ‘Dicamba’ on the first anniversary of buying the house and land in rural Indiana.
The ears of horticulturists and activists no doubt pricked up with that last sentence.
Rightly so. Irvin’s choice of names for his new garden is a playful jab at the fact that he is surrounded on three sides by crop fields, and his precious collection of plants is extremely vulnerable to the chemical reactions sloshing around on the backs of tractors throughout the growing season.
Dicamba, the herbicide, is the one he fears the most.
Whether he has created an effective talisman against evil, or just a clever joke to interest and amuse passers-by and visitors, Irvin felt the need for a quick caveat before his audience could begin drooling over his collection of gorgeous tropical foliage. The name was a lovely little joke about life, he told us, and the act of naming it wasn’t intended to be arrogant or snobby in any way.
His sentiment isn’t an unusual one for American gardeners. In fact, it’s probably the norm. Even if we feel the desire to name our properties, the instinct is immediately quashed by…. by what, exactly? Solid middle-class values? Fear of standing out? Fear of being thought to want to stick out? Fear of being tacky? An inflexible US Postal Service?
I asked Irvin for his thoughts about it – “We Americans are a messed up lot.” he said, “Maybe it goes all the way back to those original colonists escaping England and all its stuff?”
There may be something to that. And yet, we still accept without question that Martha Stewart gardens at Skylands, David Culp at Brandywine Cottage, and Dan Hinkley at Windcliff though we cannot give ourselves, or others, the same pass.
We should. Here’s why.
Naming your garden to create a sense of place
As a little girl, I used to study the envelopes of letters that came from all over the world for my father, who had spent his previous life in the UK, East Africa and Canada. UK and African addresses were notorious in those days for being short and to the point, but one thing that most of them had in common was a named property – Quail Cottage, Pentwyn, The Old Lodge…one of them was even named ‘Nanyuki,’ after a beloved town in Kenya where the owners had spent many happy years.
To my young eyes, there was a romance to those names that went beyond the strict utilitarianism of a numbered house and garden. The name might reflect the history of a property – such as The Old Lodge – or pick out a long-treasured feature – such as Wisteria Cottage. It made them special, and often [literally] connected the house to the landscape around it – a beautiful aspect of British design that we tend to shy away from in America.
These are not unique names. There are perhaps thousands of Old Lodges and Wisteria Cottages in the UK. But to their owners, they are unique. They are more than four walls, a roof, and a number plate. Properties become firmly rooted into their villages or neighborhoods by their names. And in time, they become rooted into the hearts of their inhabitants.
Does this mean that you cannot become attached to a 123 Taylor Street? Of course not. But naming a home and garden, or renting or buying one that is already named, forms a deeper level of connection – a stronger sense of place and an emotional investment in the story of that place.
A name bestows life to a home and garden in a way that numbers cannot.
Naming your garden to celebrate ownership
Home ownership is an accomplishment. A primal nesting instinct made manifest. Many of us work for many years to buy that first home and garden, and achieving that goal should be a cause for celebration. Naming one’s property feels like a natural extension of that celebration.
It is no doubt easier to inherit a name and embrace it, than to come up with a name on your own. Our property, Oldmeadow, made it easy on us. The open stream valley had once been used as a pasture and orchard before the Second World War, and for years was referred to as “The Old Meadow” – though the current house wasn’t built until 1975. Our only contribution was to lose the definitive article and the extra space.
Using that name, and letting the expanding garden be directed and guided by that name, seems incredibly natural – and connects us to the previous owners who built the house and worked the property for over 40 years. Someday, new owners will have a choice to go back to the numbers, or embrace that history just as we have – celebrating their part in the story of this place.
Maybe I’ll spring for a sign by then.
Naming Your Garden for a bit of fun
How many ‘Achin’ Acres’ have you spotted over the years on long country drives? Irvin is not alone in his desire to amuse himself and his visitors.
This is probably how most American Gardens get named, as it appeals to both our irreverence as a culture, and our desire perhaps to get away with naming our property without being tarred with the sin of pretentiousness. You can hardly be vilified for making a joke. (Actually, it’s 2020. Never mind.) The British are just as cheeky – maybe even more so – as a quick Google search for “Funny House Names” will attest.
If this is your motivation – have at it! Swamp View. Windy Bottom. Last Hope House. (Costa Pakit has got to be my all time favorite.) Enjoy yourself knowing that you are not only having a giggle, you are connecting to your property in the very same way that the owners of Wisteria Cottage are. You’re just having more fun.
Naming your garden because you’re delusional
…because you seriously think the next owners won’t tear it all out and plant a lawn if you name it.
We all share this fear. How many gardens have I seen over the years dismantled by new ownership? If naming our property gives us hope for some level of garden legacy, is it a bad thing?
And for you judgmental gardeners out there…
I know many people who have no issues with living in brand-new subdivisions with grand names such as “Foxhill Manor” or “Deer Mountain Estates” – subdivisions that have flattened the hills, driven out the wildlife and razed the original manor house to the ground.
Their houses are politely numbered, and if their neighbor was to break with tradition and erect a small sign naming their actual home and garden, all hell would break lose with the Clipboard Police. Yet they are in effect living in a named estate, and they almost always refer to their home’s subdivision, rather than their home’s street address.
Human beings are a nit-picky, critical bunch. Hell, that’s what Garden Rant is all about. But if you laud and applaud P.Allen’s Moss Mountain Farm, love to visit Lotusland, and can’t wait for another weekly missive from Monty’s Longmeadow; yet snidely comment when your neighbor decides to christen their beloved home and garden, you may just be a bit of a snob yourself.
Go on…be brave. Name your garden.
If I’ve changed your mind, but you’re stumped for ideas, try this fun UK site which will randomly generate several choices based on your answers to some fairly obvious questions. My answers yielded some less-appealing choices such as Tulip Poplarlands and Possum’s Barn, but Oldmeadow has now been officially sanctioned.
However, you might want to find the connection with your property before you find the name. “A name does not make it feel more permanent.” Irvin told me. “Quite frankly I think the house made it feel more permanent — or a combination of house and location. My previous house felt temporary even after 22 years. I never fully moved in mentally. New house I was there the first day.”
And that instant connection made a name feel right – even if, in the end, it’s an ironic one.
So, a word of caution – just as you take your time evaluating your new garden for sun, shade, drainage, deer and soil issues, take your time discovering the right name if you haven’t inherited one. Check the county records for your property. Talk to your neighbors. Chances are, the home has history you can draw upon for inspiration. Madame Ganna Walska’s famous garden in Montecito, CA was Tanglewood, Cuesta Linda, and Tibetland, before it became Lotusland in 1945.
Have you named your home and garden? If so, I’d love to hear what it is. Please take a moment in the comments below to tell us what inspired you — or, why you’d never EVER be caught dead doing something so terribly, terribly pretentious. – MW