Home & Garden Columns

Garden Variety: A Walk in the Woods, or Not

By Ron Sullivan
Friday January 18, 2008

A few years ago, Joe and I got a tour of Garvan Woodland Gardens, a newish botanical garden in Hot Springs, Arkansas, courtesy of Uncle Leonard and Aunt Evelyn. We were all toted around in a golf cart, and a docent told us about the origins and current state of the garden, about the plants and other features we were seeing.  

After all these years, Eastern North America has come to seem somewhat exotic to me. I grew up in south-central Pennsylvania, in a biotic blend zone that I’ve come to appreciate only after learning more about the one I live in now. The Ozarks have a lot in common with that zone, being much farther south but more elevated. When I recognize a plant from either of those places, it’s as something I should have known but inexplicably didn’t.  

That half-familiarity attended me in the Hot Springs woodland too, strengthened by the newly familiar horticultural favorites scattered under the pines. Something about them gave me little “Hey, wait! What?” moments, more so than the Arkansas natives I’d encountered on visits to Joe’s home state over the years.  

We weren’t far from the home of Louisiana iris, for example, but I didn’t think I’d’ve been looking at the ‘Black Gamecock’ cultivar—one I like enough to have in a tub in our backyard—unless someone had put it in that little stream eddy down the hill. Those oakleaf hydrangeas scattered artfully through the understory, or the dogwoods: both natives, but disturbances in the leaf litter and mulch suggested they were newly planted.  

Here’s where my own gardening history was getting in the way. I came to gardening via the study of California native plants, and to that via California ecosystems, and to that via birding. I’ve always felt a certain tension between “natural” places and artifactual, even artistic settings.  

I can’t resist planting tropicals and oddities and scented plants and pretty flowers in my own patch, and played with all those as well as natives in the gardens I planted for clients, back in the day. But when I’m walking in the woods I have certain bone-deep expectations. I expect to be surprised by unmediated and unrepeatable experiences, by something foreign to my whole species, yet integral to our lives and souls. I suppose that’s what people mean by “Nature” or “the Wild.”  

Maybe it’s a matter of class, or a relict of a suburban childhood. In my neighborhood, there were yards—sometimes but not always “gardens”—and there was The Woods, also known as “Private Property” (pronounced “private propitty”) because it was thus posted. The Woods was a patch of wild, of sugar maple and violets and who-knows what else, less than a block in area and bordered by The Creek (“d’ Crick”).  

Private though it was, I thought it was natural. Maybe it was. Nothing had been dug (until I stole one of those violets to plant in our yard) or planted. It marked me with an expectation of refuge, unsocial, nonhuman, but mine.  

Still more, next week. 



Ron Sullivan is a former professional gardener and arborist. Her “Garden Variety” column appears every Friday in the Daily Planet’s East Bay Home & Real Estate section. Her column on East Bay trees appears every other Tuesday in the Daily Planet.