Growing Beautiful Food: A Gardener's Guide to Cultivating Extraordinary Vegetables and Fruit (2015)
For your garden to be both productive and aesthetically alive, you’ll have to allow time for the shape and flow of it to make sense. There’s an important role for intuition in the process, and for the slow summoning up of ideas. Gardeners and farmers should always be scribbling, photographing, and sketching out. That’s the virtual planting. The germination happens in the subconscious, as do the best photographs. I’m a much better designer in the landscape because I photograph for a living, having to make quick, intuitive sense of visual space. Goethe wrote that “it is good to think, better to look and think, and best to look without thinking.” At its most ideal, the orchard of your imagination or the ideal vegetable and flower farm can’t look like it just landed there, unbidden. It needs to seem as though somehow its presence always was, and you’ve just encouraged it into being.
Arranging your space with equal attention paid to both the aesthetic and practical is not a new idea. The ornamental farm, or ferme ornée, as English landscape designer Stephen Switzer introduced it in 1715, was an 18th-century conceit that emerged out of the romantic movement, where cultivated food gardens and idealized farms were an expression of that period’s pastoral aspirations. In Ichnographica Rustica; or, The Nobleman, Gentleman, and Gardener’s Recreation, Switzer describes the practice of the ferme ornée as “mixing the useful and profitable parts of gardening with the pleasurable,” noting that “my designs are vastly enlarged and both profit and pleasure may be agreeably mixed together.” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, James Madison’s Montpelier, and George Washington’s Mount Vernon all drew on Switzer’s ideas. And my luminary 19th-century neighbor, Andrew Jackson Downing, wrote extensively on the subject in his A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening: “The embellished farm is a pretty mode of combining something of the beauty of the landscape garden with the utility of the farm … the owner of the small ornamental farm desires to unite with it something to gratify his taste, and to give a higher charm to his rural aspirations.” Because Downing was a cultural force with an international reputation, and he wrote immensely popular books on the subjects of landscape design, rural architecture, horticulture, and pomology, his influence was particularly widespread. According to L. H. Bailey’s The Standard Encyclopedia of Horticulture, Downing was “the single greatest figure in the history of American horticulture and one of the few persons who can be said to have had real genius.”
The relationships you create on your farm need to be your own, of course, and not entirely borrowed. But thinking about what to grow and where, and how to transition between spaces, should be a balance of considering plant habit and needs as much as the beauty of the overall scheme. At Stonegate, I’ve designed it so you enter the farm either through an arched gateway cut into a large, sheared hornbeam hedge (Carpinus betulus), which marks the transition between horticulture and agriculture, or through the central nave of the cut flower farm, where the beauty of multicolored beds of zinnias, gomphrena, celosia, branching sunflowers, and waves of cosmos almost assails you. On the same central axis, but through a wide gate flanked by tall plumes of purple amaranth, is the orchard. Arranged in linear bands, the apple, pear, cherry, plum, and quince trees lead your eye through to the ornamental coop at the back of the orchard, which is a kind of Gothic coda at the end of the view. Chickens mill about beneath the fruit trees; bees wander in and out of hives along a southern edge of fencerow, legs heavy and pollen-dusted; and beyond them, tightly sown vegetables grow in thick, multicolored beds. When CSA members are picking up their shares at the farm on Saturday mornings, this view is backlit by low, eastern light. It’s hard to imagine that the effort made to present the farm as an abundant, harmonic, magical place is lost on them.