Take a seat

Benches are classic garden seating but awkward for conversation. — vikram/CC

Benches are classic garden seating but awkward for conversation. — vikram/CC

In gardening, you get ideas all the time – practical and whimsical, good and bad. But every once in a while, you get a notion that starts out small and soon blossoms into a full-blown “Eureka!” moment.

It happened to me a while back as I contemplated the revival of my main garden, a fenced plot devastated by flood waters, neglect and general attrition. In thinking about the remaking of this garden, I’ve been studying it from different vantage points.

I happened to idly observe to myself that there were too few places to actually sit down. And then I was stopped short by the implications of that thought. Cue the lightning bolt! Major insight!

Mind you, “too few” doesn’t mean none. There was the one five-foot cedar bench, centered under the clematis-laden arch at the back of the garden’s central terrace. You can picture it because it’s practically an iconic image – a rustic bench beneath a vine-covered garden arch. It’s what gardeners reflexively do when there’s an arch crying out to be sat under.

The trouble with this picturesque picture is a little secret I’m about to share: Nobody really wants to sit and socialize side-by-side on a garden bench unless it’s a couple involved in some frisky courtship business. For the rest of us, the appeal of a bench is soon exhausted.

For one thing, conversation is usually conducted face to face, which makes for some uncomfortable contortions there on the bench. When you sit, you need someplace to put things. The big bench leaves no room for a table, and quite a few of my mugs and wine glasses already have perished for lack of a secure spot to place them -- the brick “floor” being an unforgiving thing.

So, my first good thought was “Ditch the bench!” My arches now shelter two comfortable cedar chairs, each with its own small, square side table. People can adjust their seating and shift to better their view, catch more sun or seek more shade – the beauty of the chair vs. the bench. We can lounge together in silent reverie or move the tables together and have some lunch, face to face. It’s all good.

Individual chairs are often more congenial. — BLOOMA outdoor furniture/CC

Individual chairs are often more congenial. — BLOOMA outdoor furniture/CC

This whole business of places to sit led me to an underlying – shall we say philosophical? -- issue: What is the garden for, anyway? The reason that before now I never gave much thought to sitting down is that I rarely did. My garden was a place to work. The tending of a 50-foot-by-25-foot perennial garden is a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless.

There’s planting and weeding, pruning and watering, mulching and dividing, fending off insects and beating back disease -- 101 things to do on a regular basis. If I wasn’t tinkering with the sprinklers and getting wet, I was down on my knees in the mud planting or sweating away back in the borders snipping something. Really, I only sat down if someone else was around and often not even then. (I’ll wager that some of you recognize yourself in this description.)

My new garden is going to be a pleasure garden, a place of leafy leisure. I will relax there and commune with nature, watching the hummingbirds visit the flowers and the dragonflies sunning themselves on the bricks as I did today, trying out my comfy chair there under the arches.

It occurred to me next that I needed even more places to quietly sit and observe the life of the garden. And with that thought, my new garden plan snapped into place.

Now that the go-to spot is well chaired, I’m up for adding some benches as secondary seating. One can go down in the foot of the garden, looking up the terraced slope, and another can occupy a spot at the highest point, looking down toward the stream. This will divide my garden neatly into three little zones -- upper, central and lower. Suddenly it was easy to envision how each little garden can have its own focal points, conveniently viewed from a well-placed perch.

I tell you, it’s amazing how assigning seating to these areas immediately brought to mind ideas about how to arrange future planting for maximum enjoyment. My new garden will rely a great deal more on small shrubs, groundcovers and foliage color than any I have had in the past, reducing the imperative to constantly work at maintaining it. My goal is to have a garden that looks harmonious and intriguing without relying nearly so much on the transient charms of seasonal flowers.

This plan calls for a daring reform of both the garden and the gardener. I plan to learn, at this late point, that there are other postures than my usual ones, assumed in the course of endless doing. The day is coming when I’ll go down to my garden with an entirely new thought in mind, one that goes like this: “Have a seat. Sit a spell. Enjoy.”