Tell It Slant

Wendy Johnson

Of all the seasons in the garden I love the dead of winter best. In icy February when storms from the Gulf of Alaska pelt the frozen ground with hail, the bare-boned skeleton of the dormant garden stands revealed in the stiletto wind.

Winter is a fine time to tinker with the design of your garden and to plot fresh paradise on the undressed frame of the land. In this season I ignore the strong Zen admonition to live in the present moment and instead propel myself forward three months or so and imagine the dormant, gray-branched apple trees clothed in their best apple-blossom silks and wearing frilly anklets of sweet alyssum to draw down the lazy honey bees of June.

Garden design has always fascinated me. When I first came to Green Gulch instead of studying Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, I buried myself in the seventh-century Swiss Benedictine monastic plans for St. Gall and spent hours studying the layout and design of the monastery gardens. I noted a pattern from early Byzantine times of Christian monastery gardens being laid out in the shape of a cross with an inner sanctum reserved for prayer and meditation at the hub of the cross. Admiring this classical symmetry and order, I wondered how to plot paradise on our American Zen soil.

Fortunately, twenty years later, I’m still asking this question. I’ve never been a fan of the spare and austere monastic gardens of East or West outside of their natural landscapes. The mere thought of the artfully raked sand of a Japanese sansui garden or of a Byzantine cross pattern superimposed on the Green Gulch landscape makes me cringe. Instead, the shaggy frontier of this watershed calls for a raw fresh voice that tells the particular story of our San Andreas fault line garden.

“Tell all the truth,” advises poet Emily Dickinson, “but tell it slant.” From the beginning I suspected that the Green Gulch garden would incline obliquely and present itself slant, and that our Zen gardens would unsettle and provoke attention. It just took us a little while to build up our design nerve.

We made our first design and layout and of the Green Gulch garden in the winter of 1976 when the veins of the valley stood exposed. We began conservatively by planting long production rows of vegetable crops interspersed with occasional rainbow-band beds of bright herbs and flowers to attract beneficial insects to our place. It was a clean design: simple, honest, productive and . . . safe. Very safe.

After a few seasons of abundant harvest and fertile success I looked at our productive garden and a desire to mess up the order and confuse things ignited in me. So we did, following the raw, twitching nerve of the land.

It was winter again when we wrecked the order of our row crop paradise and planted a huge, herbal-circle wheel garden surrounded by rambling roses, black dragon lilies, and a dark yew hedge in the very middle of our production rows. We even cut a secret gate leading into this garden in the back of the new hedge and rejoiced mightily when no-one found their way in through this doorway.

Welcoming disorder into orderly paradise gives garden design a new slant. Now we design as much to unsettle as to settle. Every winter we ream out a little core from the well-fed body of our gardens and plug in surprise. An unkempt, native elderberry gets planted mid-row in the apple orchard to feed the wild birds, and at the end of a 150-foot-long bed of purple cabbages, a crooked wooden bench appears, tucked, slant, into the folds of the valley, and facing the raised dragon’s veins of the unknown.

Wendy Johnson has been gardening and practicing meditation at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California since 1975. She is at work on a book about meditation and gardening.

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