Wild Hair: Plant-Designed Gardens

Yesterday I read a book by Marta Williams called “Learning Their Language.” In this book, Marta argues that plants and animals are just as sentient and intelligent, you could say sapient, as humans. That’s a novel idea.

I was considering that idea this morning, as I drank my coffee out under some grape vines, and as my gaze scanned the garden, I began thinking about how gardening, even permaculture gardening, is a way of imposing human will on green spaces.

I’ve studied permaculture quite a bit, and I love that stuff. Permaculture — it is the best. I’ve also learned some sneaky tricks for having messy, wild gardens in suburban spaces. There are two primary tricks:

  • Add hardscaping in the form of benches, paths, statuary, and trellises – both to make the spaces more useful and to reassure the neighbors that this is a tended space.
  • Make sure that there are plenty of flowers up at the front of the garden – sort of a floral misdirect. (Ignore the lettuce – look at all of these gladiolas!)

That’s when it occurred to me that we could create garden spaces in which we do no planting or tilling whatsoever. No weeding. No irrigation. Because all we’d do is set up the hardscaping – laying out paths, picnic tables, shades, and statues, and garden beds filled with bare soil…

…and then we’d let the soil plant itself. Weeds. Volunteers. Scrappy native plants. And we’d let it grow, whatever self-selects for that space.

I haven’t tried this yet.

Doing this could result in ABJECT FAILURE.

But what if it’s an awesome exercise in wu-wei? Letting go of the need to control? Abandoning perfectionism?

Also, what if it was easy to do and, ultimately, lovely to look at?

What if, instead of pulling the plants you didn’t recognize or snark at them for being common weeds, you looked them up and learned their names, culinary purposes, herbal uses, or soil enrichment properties? What if they attract butterflies, repel pests, or block the baking soil from the harsh of the sunlight?

Ultimately, this would be about honoring the wisdom that plants have, as they choose their living spaces and companions.

Allowing such a plant-designed garden (look Ma, no hands!) to evolve itself over a period of, oh, say, five or ten years, would probably result in a lovely place uniquely adapted for its weather and context – including self-seeding flowers from neighbors gardens, common weeds, natives, and weird-ass stuff that we don’t know what is.

What do you think? Could a plant-designed garden succeed as a pleasant green space for human enjoyment and plant empowerment?