Plant it and They Will Come: The Joys of a Social Garden

by Tom Spencer / Soul of the Garden

Throughout history, gardens have served mankind in many different ways: they have been a source of physical and spiritual nourishment and the scene of celebrations and romance. In some cultures, gardens are hidden behind walls and serve as private family retreats. In others, they are up front status symbols. After all, what are the formal gardens of Versailles but enormous billboards for a monarchy so powerful that it could tame the waters and order the forests? This same role is played out from one suburban curb to another across the United States. Our yards tend to be little more than advertisements announcing “value added,” “Martha Stewart lives here,” “look at me!” 

Unfortunately, most Americans completely miss one of the most important roles that gardens have played through the ages- that of being a social connector. This is too bad, because in our isolating culture we are missing out on a real opportunity. Gardens can serve as outdoor entry halls, meeting places, dens, dining rooms, and more. They can invite the neighbors and friends and add to the shared life of our communities.

I have just returned from a business trip to Mexico and was struck by the incredibly generosity of the public gardens there. These plazas and gardens are the stage upon which the cities and towns relax and play out their lives. They are gracious, they offer comfort, they create the opportunity for individual paths to cross, and it is in that crossing that real public life takes root and blossoms.

We can design that same inviting public spirit into our private gardens. When I designed my current garden, I made a special effort to create a place that would accommodate groups of friends, both large and small. So far, I have been pleased by the results. When we entertain, our backyard seems to facilitate mingling and socializing. And, the very act of having a front garden provides us with the time to visit with passing neighbors.  (Important note: Gardens need tending, a slow quiet past time. Yards, however, need mowing. It’s pretty hard to hold a conversation over the roar of a fume spewing motor.)

How does one create a social garden? A few simple ideas can help you can transform even the most unwelcoming space into a place that where friends and neighbors feel right at home. First, create friendly spaces that serve as easy transition points between street and home. Second, provide the simple creature comforts that say “pull up a chair and stay awhile.” And finally, orchestrate your garden spaces so that they spark your visitors’ curiosity, inviting them to explore and guiding them as they wander.

 What makes a welcoming transition point between street and home? Well, how about a sidewalk? It is amazing to me how many streets in our city do not offer this most basic urban amenity. If your street lacks sidewalks, why not create your own? This sends a signal that pedestrians are welcome, an important visual clue that gets people over the curb and into the garden. Be sure that other welcoming gestures such as night time lighting and benches are strategically placed to make visitors feel at ease. You can offer the neighbors a grand view of your garden or just a tantalizing glimpse, but, once you’ve made this gesture, you’ll be amazed how many folks will respond.

When it comes to making a Texas garden comfortable, nothing beats shade. It can come from a tree, an arbor, or a covered porch, but for at least six months of the year no one can endure prolonged exposure to the death star with having out a shady retreat. Comfort also implies having a place to rest and outdoor seating is a key element of the social garden. Make your garden benches or sitting areas destination points in the garden. These areas may be strategically placed to take advantage of a view, or you can ‘craft’ a view by placing interesting plants or objects within their line of sight. Always be sure to place seating by favorite garden features, like a pond. There is nothing more comforting than sharing a few moments beside a small waterfall or fountain- the sound of the water is social elixir.

Another comfort factor has to do with how people move through the garden. Since we like to entertain, we also have been sure to leave large spaces for free circulation of people where they don’t have to watch their every step. Hardscapes or lawns are perfect spaces for parties. We have chosen decomposed granite patio spaces for outdoor entertaining. The wider and simpler the paths, the more folks feel free to move around. And since we usually entertain at night, lights for the pathways are a must. We save our wandering stepping stone paths for places where we want folks to slow down and really look at the plantings.

Finally, I like to create garden spaces that feel like destinations, but always point you towards something else. You may see an interesting flower at the end of a pathway and follow your curiosity there, but once you’ve arrived, a framed view leads your eye to a piece of statuary, or a sitting area, or water feature. This makes for highly mobile parties! Life, and the garden, is a journey that is best enjoyed with friends. Plant it and they will come.

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