6 October 2022 – Today I learned:
That I don’t design my gardens to enhance our views of it from inside the house, and why. (Or, a seemingly exhaustive survey of my gardens, again, and why I don’t look out the windows much.)
My permaculture group is reading Margaret Roach’s The Backyard Parables: Lessons on Gardening, and Life, in which she references Garden Design 101: Look Out the Window. She asks, where do you sit or spend the most time, where is the good light in the garden, what draws the eye? These are some good things to think about — but honestly it hasn’t occurred to me in 13 years here or in any of my gardening life (30+ years) to consider this.
We’ve owned one house, on 10 acres in very rural Waterboro, Maine, where the views from the first floor — most of the first floor was one spacious post-and-beam room, including the living, family, dining rooms, and the kitchen, so it’s where we spent 90% of our waking hours in the house — were always lovely, mainly because there was a large ledge outside the window and lots of trees a ways across a fairly large flat lawn. The primary exposure for most of the living area in the house was south or southeast, so the light was good and the view was often dreamy out the main (bay) windows — at least in my memory; I have only one photo out of the windows in that house and it’s in winter.
I didn’t plan or plant the front yard garden until the year before we moved away — surprising since that’s the house where I started to really get into gardening and in eight years had planted not only a large vegetable garden but a shade garden, pond garden, driveway garden, annual bed, and a largish garden around the shed. A garden in front of the main windows apparently occurred to me only toward the end of our tenure there, so I never saw it mature. This was that bed when planted, with a Nishiki willow prominent:
And here’s what the front yard looked like before that, someone else’s yews (deer loved them) and rhododendrons up against the house (and those remained; I planted my bed in front of them), and the rest a lawn of either grass or snow-covered grass, with magical light and shadows, and the ledge and many mature trees partially surrounding it:
A few more views of that front yard, where most of the windows faced:
We must have been satisfied with those views, for the most part. They still look great to me, though I would probably mess a bit more with the front yard now.
Before that, in the first house we owned together, outside of Baltimore Maryland, I was a total gardening novice. I took a landscaping design class and then asked the instructor to design the landscaping. Again, no attention was paid by the designer or me to views from windows. Most of the garden was designed for the front yard, for the benefit of the neighbours on our cul-de-sac, I guess, and for us when we sat on the front porch, because the front windows were in the living room and formal dining room, where we rarely spent time. The family room and kitchen, both much used, were on the back of the house and we planted nothing there. But again, that view was a wildish field, where we occasionally saw pheasants, and it’s hard to improve on that, especially having lived in a big city, largely bereft of fields, for a number of years.
These plantings are nothing like I’d design or plant now, though I loved the buddleia (probably not a great choice for Maryland, where they can be invasive, but excellent here in New Hampshire if you can get them to live through the winters), the junipers, the deutzias (USDA hardiness zone 5 — we’re inching closer and closer to that target here in central New Hampshire now), and a plant that many hate, the gladiolas. (I think I spy a Japanese barberry there! Little did I/we know.)
The plant I really loved there was the three-trunked river birch, which was planted on the side of the house where no windows looked out (maybe an upstairs bedroom window did?).
I inherited a fully planted garden when we moved to Bath, Maine, our third house. That was a blessing and a curse, more of the latter, but in any case, the previous owners had not, I fear, been thinking about views from inside that house to that garden either. The house was straight-up Victorian, with a small add-on family room that had a large glass door to look through from my desk or the sofa, onto a spacious deck and into the garden. Next to the family room was the kitchen, the place I spent most of my time other than the family room, and it didn’t have a window to speak of but got light from the family room doors and windows in the dining room.
As you can perhaps not see in the photo but I can tell you from experience, even sitting fairly close to the doors did not give much of a view to the garden, way beyond the long green deck. And of course sitting at a desk facing directly out would have defeated the purpose of doors entirely.
Some photos from the side and back of the house:
Sitting on the deck, which the dogs and I often did, the view was quite lovely in spring and fairly spectacular in summer, then not much in fall and rather ugly in winter, which is too bad in Maine. So that’s another thing to consider with views, how your garden will appear through the window in every season.
Victorians would probably have spent most of their time in the front living room, giving onto the street beyond the charming wisteria-laden (-crushed?) front porch, looking out those windows to a bit of loveliness, perhaps in the form of peonies against another white picket fence.
A few photos from the front of the house:
And that brings us now to this house, where we’ve lived for 13 years. As I mentioned at the outset, when thinking about the garden, I never considered views from our windows into it. There are many reasons for that (perhaps) oversight. One is that our windows (the ones that came with the house), with a few exceptions, are casement windows, and while they have their benefits, at least half have more obtrusive hardware and wood trim than other windows; their view is somewhat obstructed by their framework. It doesn’t help that some of them are three or four separate vertical panels, multiplying the trim and hardware.
Second, the best windows (large bay windows) for looking out in this house are in the living room, a room in which I spend almost no time; and even if I did, not only is our across-the-street neighbour’s house one of the main features from those windows, but they (the windows, not the neighbours) are in grave danger now of being completely occluded by huge rhododendrons planted against the house by prior owners. We could do something about that, but since I’m not in that room much, I’m not much motivated. And my husband, who spends more time in there, is not a fan of removing perfectly good plants, not matter how they might muck up the view. (And if you know rhododendrons, you know that having them inches from your face does not show them to their advantage; they are spindly and sparse inside, which is what you see when they’re pressed up against your window; much better to cast your eye on them from 50 yards. Maybe in someone else’s yard.)
I’d like to add that as you may notice, I have actually planted a garden border parallel to the rhodos, and beyond them, and in my estimation it’s plenty worth gazing on from inside. But more on that in a minute.
Another (third) reason for not designing for views here is that the room we do spend most of our time in year-round is the family room/sitting room, which has windows on the north, northeast, and east sides. Because of the placement of the house and some large trees, the east side — the windows I look out when at my desk or on the sofa — is where I had to place the vegetable garden; it’s got the most sun. It’s not all that attractive taken whole, even with lots of perennial and annual flowers and shrubs in and around it.
I could perhaps try to address that, make it prettier, more eye-catching or serene or uplifting from inside, and maybe I will. Right now, the purple butterfly bush is still blooming and the trees have turned orange and yellow and it looks all right out there from the vantage point of my desk.
Another room with outside-view potential is the kitchen, a popular spot in the house, though not for sitting. The one window in it, above the sink, is actually an interior window, giving onto the large and very glassy sunroom, which was added to the back of the house prior to us. So when you stand in the kitchen doing dishes or paring veggies, or using the kitchen island for breadmaking, you’re looking into the sunroom, with the backyard beyond it. Like so:
It’s a pleasant if considerably busy view, and sometimes the westerly light makes it magical.
From the sunroom, where we do tend to sit and read (and host parties) from April to November, there is quite a good view of the garden, including the back border and tall trees beyond the patio and small lawn. You can also see the bountiful shade garden (to the left in the photo, beyond the door) from some vantage points. So here we are finally following Roach’s instructions.
Some of the sunroom border:
But wait. In the sunroom photos above, what are those black blobs on the windows? And you probably can’t see them but there are also vertically hung black parachute cords, four hung outside each window. All of that is to keep birds from hitting the windows, and we have either the bird silhouettes or the parachute cords or both on every window on the first floor of the house (except the living room, which doesn’t suffer from bird strikes). These bird repellents (or bird savers, as they’re called) distract from the composition of the views for me. But birds hitting the windows are even uglier.
(I know there is some kind of clear (to us, not to birds) film that we could adhere to the windows’ exterior but it’s expensive and I’m doubtful how long it would survive our winters. Printed paper birds taped to the inside and parachute cord affixed to the outside are very cheap and long-lasting.)
So here we come to the sticking points, why I probably won’t take to heart Roach’s design-for-the-window-view suggestion though I recognise its potential: if you really have excellent views, looking at them off and on throughout the day might lend a sense of well-being, serenity, relief.
(1) I didn’t have a coherent garden design in mind at any of the houses except the one a professional designed (and the design was in her mind, not mine), and that’s my mistake. This yard would be more aesthetically arranged with one, no doubt, and more appealing to look at from inside, perhaps. Instead, it was designed piecemeal. I did and do have a guiding vision for this garden, however, which is primarily to provide habitat, food (naturally occurring, not in a feeder, e.g., except when no plants are available), shelter, and water for birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians, and other animals on up the food chain; and to plant and encourage what grows well here and seems to belong here (though I have a plant collector’s heart, which adds to the piecemeal feel of things). And if I’m designing to actively lure birds to the yard, I feel compelled to do what I can to keep them from hitting the windows, even if it means my view out those windows is less desirable.
In recent years, I’m also looking to add more native plants to the mix, particularly those that pollinators, caterpillars, and birds prefer and need. In 2010, I met permaculture and now try to grow more food and garden with permaculture principles in mind, such as using edges and valuing the marginal, using renewables (fall leaves vs. delivered mulch, e.g.,), catching and storing energy (including water), integrating rather than segregating (don’t necessarily plant a lot of one thing together, like a monoculture, unless you really have the space for multiple and interspersed swaths), et al.
So the garden is a bit haphazard, the result of no overarching plan, a limited budget that doesn’t run to swaths of plants and colour blocks even if I wanted them (Roach mentions a mass planting of twenty winterberry hollies), and an enthusiasm for all the interesting plants available, and there are thousands, often at local plant sales, not to mention many gifts of plants needing a home from friends.
The garden is also rather messy, because it’s meant to mimic a natural habitat as much as possible. There is untidiness involved in offering year-round habitat, in letting insects and other animals overwinter, in mulching mostly with leaves and not with materials brought in from other places, in not cleaning up everything (or much of anything) in the fall or spring but leaving it so that moth cocoons and bees and wasps and beetles and newts and others can survive winter or the early days of their lives in spring. Nature is actually kind of messy when you really look.
Gardens are about life and death, not only about pretty plants. My garden emerged from an ecology in which processes of decline and decay are intrinsic, and visible throughout the year. I need to make meaning of the dead tree snags leaning against the sky, water seeping over heavy clay, rot in autumn, the ripe smells of natural fermentation. Although I also have green springs and golden summers and snowy winters, I accept what is given. The processes of decay and making of new life are a governing characteristic, an idea-driver, in my garden.”James Golden, garden designer and writer
I do cut down some stalks, weed and prune from time to time, and we mow the lawn once a month from late May to late October (perhaps more in a wet year), but my prime goal is no longer tidiness. (I’m very ambivalent about our recent, ongoing, and seemingly necessary battles with grapevine, Virginia creeper, and bittersweet, but I’ll leave that for another post.)
I feel there must be some sweet spot where a very naturalised garden space, full of edible plants, native plants, and breathtaking colour & texture looks composed and feels inspiring to gaze upon. And stays that way over years. I haven’t found it yet. But I’m enjoying trying, most of the time.
By the time one is eighty, it is said, there is no longer a tug of war in the garden with the May flowers hauling like mad against the claims of the other months. All is at last in balance and all is serene. The gardener is usually dead, of course.Henry Mitchell, The Essential Earthman, 1981
2) Another reason I’m not convinced that designing for window views is a prescription for me is that even in winter I’m more likely to want to be outside in the garden/yard, feeling it with all my senses, than inside looking out a window into the yard.
The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.Hanna Rion
When I’m at my desk (family room, 20 feet from the window), I’m looking at my desk and things on it (often the cat). When I’m working out (family room, very near the window, where the TV is), I’m working out, and I’ve found over the years that the window is a big distraction some days, inciting me to run and get my camera to take photos of something on the buddleia, the crocosmia, the lilac, or to get the phone with the Merlin app to listen to a bird out there, or just to run outside in my gym togs to see what’s what.
Maybe my drive to go outside is because there aren’t many places in this house (or our other houses) to sit and see much of the garden, especially the front garden, and there’s certainly no rule that a person can’t both sit and enjoy gardens from inside (if windows and design permit) and go out for a more comprehensive experience (if time and ability permit).
(3) To make matters worse for window-viewing in this house, in the family room the cat’s 4-foot tall condo is smack-dab in front of the windows, because he likes it that way. He, being an indoor cat, is a very strong proponent of windows with a view.
His bedroom condo sits under a higher window, allowing us (and him) some views outside.
OK, full disclosure: If I lived on a marsh or at the ocean, my preferred -scapes, I might very much want to be looking out the windows all the time while doing, or avoiding doing, other things inside my house or condo. I might be drawn mothlike to the burning flame of those views. Or, alternatively, if Piet Oudolf offered to completely overhaul our yard for free, all the gardens, the whole design, and if he were willing to install that expensive transparent bird saver film on the windows every year, then, yes, I’d plop down in front of the perfectly framed view, cat condos be banished. Sure, the meadow-ocean-marsh view would be distracting, sure the cleaning, cooking, blogging, reading, working out, and other activities might suffer, but such a soul-satisfying sight might feel worth the steep cost to household functioning. So it may be simply that my gardens haven’t justified much gazing.
On the other hand, with these views of the beach or the marsh or Piet’s meadow just outside, I have a sneaking suspicion that I’d spend even more time outside enjoying them as a full experience than I would gazing at them through windows. There’s something about the other senses that draws me outside, where I can also hear, smell, and touch (occasionally taste) the plants, the birds and insects (not too much tasting, smelling, and touching there), and feel the elements — wind, air, water, rain, sunshine, snow, ice, soil, heat, cold. (Writing this makes me think that having a water feature near enough to open windows to hear well from inside would be a lovely addition. Margaret Roach mentions in the book that she has frog ponds near the “best seat in the house.”)
“The key to good growing, especially to keep problems in check, is lots of shaking hands with plants. Don’t just wave hello to them from ten feet away. Go touch them, look under a leaf or two, and notice the small changes that are the first signs of trouble.Janet Macunovich
I know I’m going on and on about my preference for getting outside, so I want to stop and recognise that I’m fortunate so far in life to be able to spend time outside, able to walk and squat and bend and reach and keep my balance, mostly, in all kinds of weather.
If I weren’t able to do these things, then views (and sounds and fresh air) from windows would suddenly become much more valuable to me. Not only am I able to walk and move in ways that allow me to be outside on all kinds of terrain, but I am doubly fortunate to have the time many days to do it. I can afford to spend an hour or two or more in the garden (or other outside places), just looking around, just experiencing it. I don’t have much desire to look outside to see the garden when I’m doing other things inside because I’ve just spent an hour there or am about to. Again, if I couldn’t get outside because of time constraints or ability, window views would become more appealing.
But if I have a choice, as I do now, and if many of my current windows aren’t ideal for gazing out to the garden in the places where I spend time indoors, and if the views out my windows are a bit messy, not too aesthetically appealing, and are further compromised not only by the windows themselves but by bird savers, cats, and giant shrubs that are probably not going anywhere, then I will choose to be outside instead of looking outside most of the time.
I understand that many people like to gaze at something beautiful, or alive, mutable, colourful and happy, tranquil and calming, while working at their desk or baking and cooking or doing the finances at the dining room table, and all the other inside tasks. As I say, I could probably gaze at the ocean all day. Here, inland, I have a purple, red, and white Rothko print above my desk that I look up at from time to time.
This print, with colour blocks of its own, seems to satisfy me; but perhaps it’s also that while I love to be in the garden, and usually enjoy working in it, the sight of my garden from my windows — unlike the sight of a beach, marsh, lake, or even that meadow that Piet has perfectly designed and is exquisitely maintaining for me — usually provokes the slightest uneasy feeling that I should or could be doing something out there in it. Perhaps that’s just the lot of the gardener, to see in their unfolding masterpiece one more little tweak, something to be erased or added, that might make it even better, more beautiful, more dynamic and fruitful, more welcoming for all living beings, even while we understand that the garden itself knows much more than we ever will about its essential nature.
What continues to astonish me about a garden is that you can walk past it in a hurry, see something wrong, stop to set it right, and emerge an hour or two later breathless, contented, and wondering what on earth happened.Dorothy Gilman
So what have I learned today, besides that Margaret Roach strongly advocates for designing gardens with views from inside in mind, and that I haven’t done this? And that apparently her cat, Jack, doesn’t occupy prime real estate in front of her windows with his condos like mine does?
I’ve learned, or realised, that while it’s theoretically possible that a garden designed and maintained using permaculture principles (to some degree) and with other living beings besides us as its prime focus can be aesthetically exquisite and inspiring (I’ve seen some on Instagram, if that counts), mine isn’t and may never be.
Be pleased with your real garden, don’t pursue the perfection of a picture. What you see in a photo lasted only as long as the shutter snap.Janet Macunovich
My garden is often a beguiling, out-of-control mess and that’s OK mostly, but also, I don’t really want to spend time gazing at it when I’m inside doing other things (or not doing other things). It might be useful to do so, to note from the comfort of climate-control what little tasks are needed, or to see where there are gaps or clashes or damage or something surprising. But my ungainly windows, my luddite-level bird saving devices, my out of control shrubbery, my (insert adjective of your choice) cat, and my distractable personality work against this. And, as of now, I can take a walk out there and get the feel of the place, perhaps trip on a vine or brush some burrs against me for the full-body experience, and feel a tiny part of the whole shebang.
“Obviously a garden is not the wilderness but an assembly of shapes, most of them living, that owes some share of its composition, its appearance, to human design and effort, human conventions and convenience, and the human pursuit of that elusive, indefinable harmony that we call beauty. It has a life of its own, an intricate, willful, secret life, as any gardener knows. It is only the humans in it who think of it as a garden. But a garden is a relationship, which is one of the countless reasons why it is never finished.”W.S. Merwin