Have you ever felt that our concept of human beauty is limited? It’s easy to look at a professionally-orchestrated photo of an already-lovely woman and see beauty. But is an age-spotted hand, worn from loving service, any less beautiful?

And could it be that our view of what’s beautiful in a garden could use similar expansion? Does beauty always have to be primped and pruned?

Let’s take a whirlwind jaunt and explore!

I took the photo above on the Schoodic Peninsula in Maine in 2012. As far as I know, this garden is entirely the work of nature. No human hands patted those plants into place or keep them watered or weeded. But isn’t it a wholly satisfying arrangement?

I see simple, almost stark, meditative beauty here.

Moving on to another example, let’s stop to visit Winterthur, the childhood home of Henry Francis du Pont. I took this photo while driving through Delaware in 2016.

Now, this tableau takes some human intervention to maintain it. You can see that the verge along the roadside is kept mowed. And because most land in the eastern U.S. would be forested without human intervention, that big field of goldenrod is probably also mowed once every year or two to keep woody plants in check.

Just imagine a mowed path curving through the field to a table and chairs set in the shade of one of those trees at the field’s edge. Wouldn’t you want to follow it and sit down under the tree and just drink in the splendor for awhile?

To my eye, this beauty is open, expansive, light, almost playful.

Now let’s bounce back up to New England, this time to Bartholomew’s Cobble in western Massachusetts.

Here, we’re looking at a garden where human intervention has been kept light. The mosses and ferns are there because the site has exactly what they need to thrive and multiply. People made and maintain the pathway.

What kind of beauty do you see when you look at this one? I see deep, ancient, mysterious beauty here. It beckons. It might be just a little dangerous. I want to explore it anyway.

Rounding out our expedition, here’s a photo I took on a day trip through Connecticut with my parents in 2017. This was taken by the lovely cottage (my dream house, really) at Topsmead State Forest in Litchfield.

Of all the photos, this is the one that most people would instantly see as a garden. And I don’t deny that it’s truly beautiful: pastoral and serene, suggestive of long, lazy afternoons under a fringed umbrella, with an engaging novel and a tall glass of icy lemonade.

But on the flip side, if this is the one you’d most want to emulate on your own property, it’s important to understand the trade-offs. This one took the most human intervention to create and this one will take the most work to maintain, by far.

When you’re not relaxing under your umbrella, you’ll be sweating through long, weekly mowing, weeding, and deadheading sessions.

That doesn’t make it bad or wrong. It might be exactly what you want.

But as for me, when I look at nature, I see the greatest gardener I’ve ever met – or am ever likely to meet. Maybe I’m lazy, but I’ve done the bolting vegetables, the barricade of thorns, and lots more along the way.

At this point, I’m happy to watch and learn from the best, and to try to mirror it, however imperfectly. Doing so gives me a whole lot more guilt-free time to sit on the patio and simply enjoy the view. And that’s my favorite way to spend time in the garden. 😊

Where do you see yourself on the naturalistic versus manicured gardening spectrum?

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