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The alchemy of gardens

Rather than focusing only on the things we put into or take out of the garden, focus on how the elements interact

“So what are we appreciating in a garden? The details or the effect? It’s the alchemy of gardens again — it’s woe to anyone who wants something else in life.”

— Mirabel Osler, “A Gentle Plea for Chaos,” 1989

At the heart of Mirabel Osler’s deep appreciation for low-maintenance gardens is not a streak of laziness; instead, it’s her unabashed enchantment of the ways in which a garden — not the gardener — creates something greater than the sum of its parts.

The gardener plants the trees and flowers, builds the walls and digs the pond, but it’s the spontaneous interactions among these elements, and with the environment and visiting wildlife, that transform the beautiful, individual parts of a garden into a magical place.

That is the alchemy of gardens.

The ancient practice of alchemy originated independently in Egypt, China and India with the goal of combining plants and minerals into elixirs that would prolong life. Later on, this idea extended into the belief that the interaction of base metals, such as iron and steel, with a mystical substance known as the “philosopher’s stone,” could transform the metals into gold.

In Europe, alchemy led to advances in many chemical processes, and by the 16th century alchemists had branched off into two groups. One faction focused on the discovery of new compounds and their reactions, and this line of investigation evolved into modern-day chemistry. The second faction continued to examine the spiritual and metaphysical aspects of alchemy, searching for immortality and the transmutation of common metals into precious ones.

In agriculture, alchemy led to the understanding of chemical processes between plants and the Earth’s atmosphere, between plants and organic matter in the soil, and between plants and other elements that form an ecosystem. We’ve learned that, in a way, immortality is achieved as carbon is exchanged from one living thing to another. (Interestingly, today’s alchemists — nuclear physicists — can, in fact, manufacture trace amounts of gold by irradiating platinum or mercury.)

Osler does not argue that gardeners have no role in the alchemy of gardens; rather, she warns that too much human intervention curtails interactions and deprives us of experiencing pleasurable surprise in the natural waywardness of plants. She writes, “There is a point when your steadying hand should be lifted, and a bit of native vitality be allowed to take over.”

Instead, gardeners can design opportunities for physical, visual, aural, tactile and olfactoral interactions to occur.

Osler offers many examples from her garden in Shropshire, England: she allows phlox, columbines, poppies and Jacob’s ladder to reseed themselves “like colored smells about the place”; she plants autumn-flowering white clematis at the base of a crabapple tree so the flowers will entwine themselves among the branches and produce “a whole new blossoming late in the year.”

She chooses plants with an eye toward contrasting interaction between smooth and crenelated leaf textures and different shades of green; she grows fragrant roses so their scents will mingle and waft through the air; she creates a pond so she can watch the resident kingfisher hunt for small fish and frogs; she places boulders in the stream so she can listen as the water gushes over them.

She plants a climbing hydrangea next to a wall to watch the self-clinging foliage take over the stone surface; she permits the herb garden to get out of hand because “the effect of tousled abundance is so pretty.”

The key, Osler says, is for gardeners to learn the growth habits of plants and to decide where to plant them accordingly. She says, “Every plant has its own way of filling space; without understanding this beforehand, how easily destroyed are those spaces which make the difference between a garden that sings and one in visual discord.”

Osler also encourages us to consider human interactions with the garden in our designs, for example, by constructing paths for walking through the garden and returning by a different route. She says, “It is essential, however small it is, to walk ‘round a garden, not merely to the end and back.”

I’ve written previously about how our gardens can interact with the local environment to help maintain healthy ecosystems. Osler reminds us that the interactions gardeners need to support for ecological reasons are the very same relationships that make our gardens enchanting places. Rather than focusing only on the things we put into the garden, or take out of it, she advises us to make gardening decisions based on how those things interact.

That is the alchemy of gardens.

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.