Gardening is a dialogue: Reading Joe Eck’s Elements of Garden Design


I just finished reading Elements of Garden Design by Joe Eck, a delightful series of essays on the theory and practice of garden design. It’s a wonderful book for beginners and experienced gardeners alike, and should be read while curled up on the couch during these last days of winter, dreaming of the spring garden. One section in particular resonated with me. In a chapter titled “Influences,” Eck muses:

Gardening is surely the least lonely of the arts. For though a garden may be physically made alone, it is still a dialogue with all the gardeners one knows and has known, and also with those one only knows about, from books or magazine articles.

He goes on to say that “the first step in making a garden is looking”: looking at nature and how plants grow in natural communities, and how nature arranges rock and watercourses; looking at other gardens, including those of your friends and neighbors, gardens opened up for tours, a garden glimpsed over a fence during a stroll through town, and the many gardens featured in magazines and books. (I’m sure he’d have included blogs had they been around when his book was published in 1995.) And when something resonates with you, he advises, it’s important to puzzle out the underlying thought that may have charmed you more than any particular plant combination. Decide what elements appeal to you, or the idea behind the design, and then take that idea to your own garden and play around with it.


A wonderful side effect of this borrowing of ideas and adapting them to one’s own garden—aside from a more beautiful space—is that when you stroll through it you are reminded of your gardening influences: a friend who shared her iris with you; your grandmother who taught you to grow moonflower vine from seed; the master whose public garden you toured on vacation, and who transformed the way you thought about using perennials; a local whose garden, visited on a tour, converted you to the beauty of native plants, or formal geometry, or a Zen-like restfulness; a blogger across the country who inspired you to lay a stone path. Your dialogue with these other gardeners may be unspoken, but it’s expressed in glorious form as your garden evolves and grows.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

7 Responses

  1. How true. Gardens…and gardening…are full of memories. And, those memories and inspiration come from all around us.

    You have certainly been an inspiration for my garden.

    I like the quote about ‘looking’. Seeing what works and what doesn’t, before you leap, can save a lot of time, money and heartache.

    Thank you, Linda, and you’ve inspired me as well. Thanks for continuing the dialogue about tough, deer-resistant gardening. —Pam

  2. The dialogue with other gardeners is so important in gardening. It’s one of the main reasons I began blogging — so much easier to join the dialogue.

    I think so too, Shirley. A blog gives you a venue for longer musings than a mere comment field allows. —Pam

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Oh yes. All of these influences can be seen in my garden and in my garden thoughts.

    Isn’t it wonderful, the connection to others that gardening provides—even when it seems a solitary activity? —Pam

  4. Inspiration being the heart of gardening, I now love blogging because it allows me to draw that spark from so many more beautiful and thoughtful sources.

    And of course blogging has led to many treasured friendships, both here in Austin and around the country. —Pam

  5. I hadn’t heard of this book but now I must certainly add it to my reading list.
    (my teeny tiny whales tongue agaves make me think of you!)

    Funny you mention that agave. It features in tomorrow’s post, along with a dialogue begun by YOU. —Pam

  6. Lisa says:

    I love the snippets of Eck’s perspective that you’ve shared with us. I’m definitely adding it to my list of books to read! I’ve read some (of his) magazine pieces, I guess, but hadn’t seen that book. I like the idea of personal observation creating meaningful gardens — I’m always trying to encourage folks to think about why they respond to certain gardens and not others, this wild place but not that one, and encourage the notion that what makes me feel good in my garden may not be what you enjoy — so interesting to think about.

    Hi, Lisa. The essays in this book were originally published in Horticulture, so perhaps you read them already? I’m on a second book of his now called Our Life in Gardens, co-authored with his partner. Good writing! —Pam

  7. Itsa says:

    Years ago, I read an article about an elderly gentleman’s garden. When asked how to get started, he said “Just plant something!” I loved that advice so much that I painted the quote on my fence.

    Love your blog. I’m over here in Beaumont so many of the things you have will not do well here, but I love my visits to your garden!

    Thank you, Itsa! I’m so glad you enjoy your visits. Thanks too for sharing the “just plant it” quote—good advice! —Pam

Follow