Down to Earth: Herb Garden is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Jim Long has created many sacred spaces on his property, such as this herb garden and a gazebo he constructed himself.

For many gardeners, the garden is a personal, sacred space. It’s a place of meditation, of labor, of seeing growth and progress. It’s a place to experience the joy of participating in nature on a daily basis. The garden is spiritually uplifting, from an artistic standpoint and from the sensory delight of the food it produces. Sharing meals from the garden with friends marries food and conversation, a pleasure that can’t be duplicated in any other setting.

Recently I visited my friends Don Haynie and Tom Hamlin at Buffalo Springs Herb Farm in Raphine, Virginia. Over time, their 18th-century farmstead has expanded from a modest herb garden to include an array of delightful vignettes and theme gardens with shady arbors and hidden conversation areas. Strolling along the pathways between garden buildings and an ancient log cabin, I was struck by how their gardens are so intimate, yet so welcoming to visitors seeking quiet space.

As Don guided me through the garden, we visited about what happens to gardens when the gardener is gone. We talked about Adelma Simmons’ famous Caprilands, once the mecca for herb gardeners, with a restaurant, workshops and tours, which seemed somehow lessened by her passing in 1997. Gardens are such a reflection of the gardener’s personality and once the garden’s author passes on, the garden often falls into disrepair. “What’ll happen to your garden,” I asked Don, “when you are no longer here?”

“I suppose someone will bulldoze it to make room for house lots,” he said. “It’s not what I want, but it’s probably what will happen. There doesn’t seem to be an alternative.”

Looking at my own garden, I see a small, personal space that reflects my love for plants from a variety of cultures. These plants represent my lifetime of work and travels. I consider my modest little gift shop, the old barn that houses my goats and chickens, my cluttered tool shed, and the little guesthouse where friends and relatives have a private place to spend the night. I look around at the bell tower and the upstairs deck where visitors can see the garden below and the lake beyond. I can’t imagine my garden as anything but this — a secluded farmstead, hidden and peaceful, my own sacred space.

It seems sad to create a garden, to invest a lifetime into making the dreams manifest, only to have it abandoned — or worse — when the gardener passes on.

Must a garden be forever tied only to the personality of the gardener?

Not long ago I visited the astounding gardens of Robert and John Allerton in Monticello, Illinois. The dream of Robert and his adopted son, John Gregg Allerton took them around the world to collect plants and sculptures to fill their 10,000 acres of gardens. Gardens were their passion and they expressed that passion effusively in Illinois and also in Hawaii. In 1946, Robert and John left the Illinois gardens in the care of the University of Illinois and the Hawaii garden is now in the care of the National Tropical Botanical Garden of Hawaii. The gardens remain, but the sense that they are sacred or personal is missing.

It may well be that a garden truly can’t survive without the gardener. Like a plant needing its roots, a garden must have the spark of love to be truly sacred. Even shared with others, the garden remains ephemeral, purely a personal expression of an individual for a moment.

That we are allowed to experience someone else’s sacred spaces may be sufficient. Like a firefly in the summer’s night, the garden is there and then it’s gone, a blink in the eye of the beholder.

Jim Long writes books and stories from his home in the Ozark Mountains. View his gardens or make comments Join other Herb Companion readers in our online forums,, to discuss Jim’s ideas on the sacredness and individuality of the garden.

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