Garden-As-Museum

By Michael Bouman, Groundskeeper, Missouri Humanities Council

David and Sue Watkins, pictured on the right in the photo below, were singer friends of mine as we all circulated in the same small network at Penn State forty-two years ago. They both had long careers at Cornell University, and my wife and I saw them once or twice a year virtually every year since then.

David and Sue Watkins

David's talent in the garden was legendary in Ithaca, and he found himself in a position of hosting a garden tour that would be advertised nationally. I think he imagined the amount of work and expense he was in for this spring. The problem is, he was a year older when he had to do the work than when he imagined doing it!

San and I had hoped to be there with them on July 12, and so, when San passed away near the end of June, I decided to fulfill that plan and go there to relive our memories.

David appointed me "Associate Garden Host" for the tour because he had two ID buttons. We had no idea how many people would come during the six hours of open garden. Without any discussion of method or technique, we just started hosting people as they arrived. They came in a steady stream all day, never too many nor too few, until the count was a hundred and fifteen.

Here is the back yard people entered from the side of the house, by a heavily planted ascending walkway from the curb.

Back Yard

This photo was taken from the second floor of the back of the house. The walkway would be off the left edge of the picture, dropping left to the street. People coming into the back yard had a choice: ascend straight to the yard or turn right and follow a path onto the deck.

Almost immediately, I saw a social situation that needed my museum techniques. People looked puzzled as they looked over to me and several others on the deck. One said, "is that a private area or can we go there?"

I beckoned them over to the deck and invited them to look at the garden as the owners did. We had refreshments on a picnic table that is just out of the picture on the right. I invited people to sit briefly and take in the near plantings, and then let themselves be drawn up into the yard.

Following my museum training, I gave the visitors two things to hold in their minds. With so many different plants in view, this narrowing of attention is important in any museum, or garden, or stamp collection. You name it, if there are a lot of "things" in the field of vision, it's best to create a social experience that narrows and focuses the attention.

I focused on the planting you see at the left. It happens to be my favorite area in the garden, so I could use my own enthusiasm to generate interest.

I began with a fact none of the visitors knew: David was trained in graphic design. That is how to look at his garden. He is playing with color and form in a 3-D context, so he has texture and height to deploy as well.

Garden detail

"This is my favorite bed," I chirped or caroled or troped, or whatever one does to excess in a university town. "See how the brilliant green gold color of that Hosta is picked up by the same color in the Coleus on the right? And see how the magenta in that Coleus is intensified in the other Coleus on the left? This bed reminds me of a fugue with theme, counter-theme, and counter-counter-theme. See how the white Astilbe is "commented" in the white leaves of the plant below it? On the other side of the Hosta, David has planted a broad, graphic "brushstroke" of Heucheras, all the same kind, in dark magenta with silver accents. You can follow those three colors all through the variety of this bed!!"

Then I released them to their enjoyment of the garden and picked up my next target of opportunity. If I missed some, David picked them up from his position deeper into the yard.

I learned to see if the visitors seemed in some kind of "protection" mode, not wanting interaction, or if they were hoping for some social clues and benefits.

I kept this up for a solid six hours. It was energizing to apply visitor-centered thinking this way. I can imagine doing this in gardens or museums years from now when retirement offers new venues for what I have come to love to do.