The Thinking Garden

A Thesis for Our Times

CHERYL LYON – I was visiting my friend Barbara Ratz in her home when she shared with me a paper she had written in 1994. It turned out to be a gem with deep relevance for our times.

The paper was part of a Guelph University Independent Studies horticulture program. But this was no dry, academic treatise. It’s a slow walk with a wise guide to fully experience a thoughtfully planted garden, then bring its meaning up to date − all the while, as Barbara writes, “getting a little exercise and fresh air!”

The author begins with the reminder that “to garden is to participate in an activity older than recorded history,” immediately reminding us of gardening’s deep connection to human culture and survival.

Barbara and her partner Curtis Driedger created their four-acre garden (which they called “a traditional working landscape”) on six acres of reclaimed river bottom land zoned agricultural, south of Peterborough, Ontario. She sees gardens as “texts” to be read in the landscape, a prelude to looking at their own garden for the stories it contains along its m paths.

Immigrants from Western Europe, particularly the British Isles, influenced today’s North American gardens, beginning with the cultivation of herbs. I visited Barbara’s own herb garden outside their kitchen door with its familiar sage, rosemary and thyme. She noted how the arrival of more recent immigrants to Canada with their own herbs and spices expanded our food palates. She notes how medieval and Renaissance herbs are largely the same ones grown today, and that modern pharmacies as well as today’s alternative medicine is also rooted in those gardens.

Barbara’s tour moves along a path to the vegetable or “kitchen” garden. There our guide reflects on how these pioneers thought of them as they set down in unfelled forests or on vast, untilled prairie. Today, these gardens continue to bring different folk together in seed exchanges, garden shows and farm gate food stands.

Next we find ourselves in the flower garden that Barbara notes has, in literature “universal for Beauty and Rest” and intimacy with Nature.

A stand of fruit trees comes next. Their inclusion among flower beds is a reminder to avoid splitting gardens into what is useful and what is beautiful. She notes that “it is truly an act of hope to plant an orchard,” given how long it takes for them to mature. Druids were said to tend apple trees, and were punished by death for cutting them down.

After this lingering in the orchard, we proceed to the chicken coop draped with roses. The sight of this red loveliness leads our guide to a long meditation on roses (though not chickens) and importance in art, religious symbolism, medicine and romance.

Barbara defends today’s much disparaged lawn in her landscape of the garden. “The lawn may not be a garden as such” but at least it’s good to “run, jump and fall down on,” and for front yard vegetable gardens, where enlightened municipalities permit. Our guide then quotes a complaint of one J.B. Farnsworth, anticipating in 1823, one of our own modern urban stresses – early morning lawn mowing neighbours:

“the silly habit the mower has of indicating his industry by the frequent use of the grit stone in sharpening his scythe, and generally at the time of morning when such noises are most tormenting.”

Barbara guides us next to the arboretum, closing the circle of our tour. On the way, she reminds us how, in past times, trees were mythical, sacred, cut down at the hewer’s peril if not done with respect and for good reason. And how here in North America, we clear cut forests to create farms, made fortunes from selling the lumber, supplied masts and planking for the fighting ships of the British Navy and heated homes with wood stoves.

The arboretum is a collection of different kinds of trees spread along the lane leading into their property and sprinkled around a nearby wetland: sugar maples, jack pine, willows, lilacs, cedars. Barbara and Curtis’s home, shed and barns are all made of wood from trees thoughtfully managed and harvested from their property.

An avid reader, Barbara can call upon literary references with ease. She references poet Robert Graves who connected the naming of trees with the alphabet, as she refers to nearby trees “a few of these ‘letters’ within our sight now.”

Throughout Barbara’s commentary, we sense her deep sorrow that urban design and density now often leaves no room for self-sufficiency gardens, and a touch of nostalgia for the beauty of roses draped over chicken coops. Barbara ponders the gardening renaissance of our times as a sign of mental health. And she concurs with poet and farmer Wendell Berry that gardening is “an act of faith,” an antidote to cynicism and despair. Near the end of her paper, she highlights again that a garden is about “the relationships between its many parts.”

Her journey ends with a reflection on the garden as “an essential partner.”

“Only here do I really feel a sense of importance in my human capacity as a caretaker, rather than just another cog in the wheels of the ‘satanic mills’ of progress. For me, to garden is to be human.”

This garden tour provokes wider rethinking: about the role of small farming, backyard and community gardens in urban food security in a changing climate; about how gardens pull us into close and life-giving connection to one another and to Nature; about how necessary beauty is to a good life.

The Thinking Garden anticipated the re-thinking that gardeners and whole communities are now doing about food provision for survival through the climate crisis; about simpler living through greater self-sufficiency; about our life-supporting relationship with the land.

Written thirty years ago, Barbara Ratz’s paper foreshadows current day questions, “deeper waters” that now, thirty years later, are rapidly confronting us as Earth’s climate deteriorates: Are small farms, such as the six-acre one in the document, still possible in the face of urban sprawl? Will windmills and solar energy projects affect open-field farming methods, or are small, intensive farms perfectly suited to them? How will all gardens change as Earth’s climate changes what, where and when we can plant? Will the beauty we currently treasure alter when familiar plants can no longer tolerate the changed weather and are replaced with new, unfamiliar varieties? What adaptations in our diet will arrive with the northward shifting agricultural zones, eventually making pineapples possible in Ontario?

More and more city-dwellers are finding soul satisfaction in making both front and back yards and public spaces as attractive and productive as they can be for our home and our community’s food supply and to reconnect us to the natural life of the planet. And to attract pollinator insects, especially bees and butterflies whose numbers are declining.

The Thinking Garden” marries beauty and utility, yielding timeless values to guide our human community through the climate crisis now upon us.

Like planet Earth itself, the thinking garden has no single exit or entry point. It is whole, regenerative and beautiful, a microcosm of the community of Life itself. One senses that humans are not the only thinkers in this garden − the garden itself is thinking too.

The Thinking Garden: A Thesis for Our Times © 2024 by Cheryl Lyon in the Greenzine is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 


The Greenzine is grateful to the author for her generosity in sharing her original copy of her thesis with the Greenzine.

Drawing is from the cover of the thesis. Photos courtesy of Barbara Ratz and Curtis Driedger.

1 Comment

  1. A really charming article–I have sent it on to a couple of gardening friends. The article and the drawings happily convey the beauty and intentions of this garden to the reader. Thank you to writer and thinker Barbara Ratz as well as to Greenzine editor Cheryl Lyon–between the two of you, I can feel this garden “thinking.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*