Rhodora, a wild form of the rhododendron, grows wild here in the Maine woods. Its flowers are not nearly as dramatic as the cultivated variety, but they are plentiful and can fill up massive areas. Like its cultivated cousin, all too soon it will disappear, not to be seen again until next spring.
In 1834, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem called “The Rhodora,” in which he sang the praises of this beautiful wild flower bush and called it a rival of the rose. He said, “Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing, then Beauty is its own excuse for being.” And how right he was, yet the Rhodora is all but forgotten these days.
I used to keep brilliant and posh perennial gardens, and I still keep a few small areas here there because they are striking, but I began to realize that my gardens looked like everyone else’s gardens. I began to feel that they were too dramatic, too flashy. They started to remind me of a woman wearing far too much makeup. Her face might be elegantly chiseled, but her true looks are completely unknown.
I began to slowly transition to “natural” gardens. At first they made me feel uncomfortable. These are just weeds! I thought to myself. Of course, there’s some truth to that, but I tried to search in my mind where I’d learned that weeds were ugly in the first place. I had definitely learned it, but where and how I could not surmise. So I stuck with my uncomfortableness.
The first thing I began to notice when the blinders came off was how well the “natural” garden grew. It really didn’t need my help very much. As time went on, I found I was no longer a slave to my garden--cutting, pruning, pulling, tweaking--and I could just enjoy it. The next thing I noticed is that while all plants get attacked by animals and insects, the cultivated varieties get absolutely devoured. Not so with the weeds. They have had much more time to adapt to the severity of their surroundings, and no one has coddled and spoiled them.
I began to notice patches of wildflowers on the road, how they grew together, what soil they favored, which colors seemed to uncannily always find one another. I started to take lessons from them. Sometimes I would swipe one or two off a dusty road or out of a field and bring them back to my garden. They didn’t want to leave their home. It took some real coaxing, but once I got them free and replanted them, they grew with abandoned joy.
Perfectly mowed and manicured landscapes are eye-catching. Their perfection, though regimental, is calming, soothing, peaceful, and orderly. One feels a real sense of rhythm and cadence in a perfect garden. And then there’s the riotous, naughty, ill-behaved, gangly, gregarious, loud-mouthed, messy, dirty, black sheep of the family called the natural garden. It steps on everyone’s toes, spills wine everywhere, and dances with a dangerously lilting step.
Found everywhere, this natural garden beast is often ignored and treated with contempt. But Emerson knew “that if eyes were made for seeing,” the belle of the ball would not be the prissy, high maintenance princess found in many a backyard but the whirling gypsy dancing out of control just beyond the concrete road.