“When the ice of winter holds the house in its rigid grip, when curtains are drawn early against that vast frozen waste of landscape, almost like a hibernating hedgehog I relish the security of being withdrawn from all that summer ferment that is long since past.”
— Mirabel Osler, “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” 1989
So begins English gardener and writer Mirabel Osler (1925-2016) in her first book about creating a garden with her husband, Michael, on several acres of land in Shropshire, England. It’s the perfect piece of garden literature to kick off the new year because right away Osler tells us that winter is an important time for gardeners.
She writes, “You don’t have to garden to garden; gardening in the mind is a gentle vice with an impetus of its own; it may not be as potent as actually making one, but … gardening in the head can fill our winter tranquility with unrest. What gardener can condemn this as a time of stagnation?”
Osler went on to write four other gardening books, two books on food and travel in France, and a memoir. However, she is most remembered for “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” written at the beginning of her gardening journey when she still referred to herself as “not a true gardener.”
She warns readers, “In a way this is the anti-gardening gardeners’ book. … What I want to do is to let in a cold blast of high altitude air to make some gardeners gasp from either indignation or pique or, better still, agreement.”
Throughout the book, Osler encourages “proper gardeners” not to take themselves, or their gardens, too seriously. She makes clear her dislike for gardens that are painstakingly precise, where each individual plant is splendid but “where, alas, is seduction and gooseflesh on the arms?” She prefers gardens in which architectural lines formed by hedges, walls, paths and trees are planned to create the bones of the garden, but then “a bit of dishevelment and abandonment” are permitted to evolve.
She opines, “People say gardening is the one occupation over which they have control. Fine. But why overindulge oneself?”
The ideal is for gardeners to spend more time delighting in their gardens and less time toiling in them. Osler says this can be accomplished through “random gardening” as practiced by “the unserious, the improper people, who plant and drift, who prune and amble,” those who “fritter away little dollops of time sitting about the garden.”
Osler’s words should give us pause for thought: How much time do we spend sitting in our garden — not sitting and critiquing the garden or planning what to do next — but sitting in simple gratitude “for the pure sublimity of smelling the evening air”?
How much time do we spend wandering, and wondering, in the garden, as opposed to the time we spend weeding and watering and worrying?
What would our gardens look like, and feel like, if we practiced random acts of gardening, thereby freeing ourselves and our gardens from authoritarian rule?
In “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” Osler offers some suggestions by discussing the five most impactful elements of her Shropshire landscape garden: trees, water, walls, roses and bulbs. When she and Michael moved to the cottage in 1980, they began planning the garden based on a brook that ran though their property and various walls that had partitioned off sections of the former working farm. The stream and the rock walls were two preexisting features that guided their decisions about where to plant and what to plant.
It’s useful to consider the dominant features — the bones — of our garden landscape. In Medford, the five most impactful elements in my front yard are three maple trees; three sets of evergreen hedges that form a privacy screen around the yard; grass pathways that wind around the flowerbeds; a low rock wall and rock borders around the beds; and a ‘Fat Albert” Colorado blue spruce planted by the street.
In the wintertime, especially, these five features provide most of the color and architectural interest of the landscape.
According to Osler, the predominant elements of the landscape provide a basic structure around which our garden plantings can be more whimsical. Likewise, random gardening is less regimented; tasks are based on observation and natural rhythms of the garden ecosystem. Those who practice random gardening are not neglectful; instead, they deliberate about what not to do more often than they write to-do lists.
Osler asks us, “Have we lost our impulsive faculties? Have we lost that intuitive feel for the flow and rightness of things: our awareness of the dynamics of a garden in which things scatter where they please?”
Who’s with me for practicing more random gardening in 2022?
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. She hosts a monthly podcast “Celebrating Women’s Work with Plants in the Rogue Valley” at https://mailtribune.com/podcasts/the-literary-gardener.