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Wild Inspirations
by Des Kennedy
by Des Kennedy

Des Kennedy is a celebrated public speaker, having performed at numerous conferences, schools, festivals, botanical gardens, art galleries, garden shows and wilderness gatherings in Canada and the U.S. His humour, irreverence and passion for gardening and the natural world have made him a 'must see' speaker in demand across the country.

March 24, 2002

Nothing stimulates the designing gardener’s imagination more agreeably than an extended ramble through wild places. Nurseries, garden shows and other industry events all have their purposes, but none compares with the ancient wisdom to be gleaned from Mother Earth herself.

Long ago, garden master Lien-Tschen wrote: “The art of laying out gardens consists in an endeavour to combine cheerfulness of aspect, luxuriance of growth, shade, solitude and repose in such a manner that the senses may be deluded by an imitation of rural nature.” Subscribing to a similar philosophy, my companion and I took ourselves off for three weeks in March to absorb what we could of nature’s late winter beauty before the crush of spring planting.

On Whidbey Island in Washington’s Puget Sound, we camped alone in an old-growth Douglas fir forest. Spaced widely apart, the stout old firs were underplanted with salal, the native broad-leafed evergreen shrub whose leathery leaves are often seen in floral arrangements. Growing in dense thickets two metres tall, the salal formed softly undulating waves of green against which the emergent boles of the firs showed vividly.

Walking along sea cliffs in the same park, we stopped to study the gnarled limbs of firs dwarfed and twisted by storms. Increasingly gardeners are recognizing the value of dead and dying “wildlife trees.” The gnarled seacliff firs, clinging to life in the teeth of wind and drought, reminded us that even in their death throes, old trees remain extraordinarily beautiful.

We hiked along headlands whose grassy banks dropped hundreds of feet to the sea, the smooth clarity of their fall, as satisfying as a freshly-mown lawn, reflecting the sweep of ocean, a pleasing interplay of vivid green and shining blue surfaces.

Sprawled on the grass of a high vantage point we gazed down over an intensely farmed prairie defined by an unequivocal line where dense forest butted up against a meticulously tilled field. No feathering or buffering or gradual transitions here, rather the shaggy complexity of the forest cheek-by-jowl against the immaculate field, a stunning symmetry of opposites.

Barely surviving Friday night rush hour traffic through Seattle, we streaked southwards to Portland, then swung east through the Columbia Gorge into the high desert country of central Oregon. This is a landscape of rolling sagebrush plains and immense lava buttes, almost as removed as we can get from the dripping rain forests of home. In this dry and windswept terrain the landscape lessons were less by way of the stunning opposites we’d seen on Whidbey, and more the subtle compatibilities deserts specialize in.

Gardeners admire junipers for their hardiness and beauty, so we were delighted to find ourselves camped in the largest old-growth juniper forest on the continent. Although many hundreds of years old, the juniper trees were generally less than ten metres tall, but exceptionally lovely. Their densely packed blue-green needles showed stunningly against the silvery grey of sagebrush and bleached prairie grasses.

Hiking along the base of a high lava butte, we came upon an enchanted wild garden of junipers and enormous rocks that had tumbled from the butte and settled in patterns of casual perfection any rock gardener would salivate to duplicate. At one spot, a huge rock was cleft entirely open, as though by the hand of wrathful Jehovah, its twin sundered sections lying like an open book with a juniper tree growing between the two.

Last year’s juniper berries created all sorts of lovely effects. In places they littered the ground under the trees, a vivid embroidery of plummy blue. We saw them scattered on the ground among tiny yellow blooming ephemerals, and in another spot with small pink wildflowers whose name we didn’t know. Both compositions were exquisite. So was the combination of berries still massed on junipers alongside rusty orange catkins dangling from small alder trees growing on a riverbank. The berries and catkins together, with silvery sagebrush underneath -- simple yet splendid.

The point for the gardener, of course, is not to try duplicate these wild arrangements, but rather to absorb a sense of them, a feeling for how correct they are in their place, and to have that sense inform our efforts as we move towards gardening in harmony with natural landscape patterns.


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