PHC, The Garden: Ask ‘Why’ and Watch Inspiration Bloom

Read Part 6 of "Pink House Chronicles - The Garden" here.

"Why" is a word that begs an explanation. Like a seven-year-old.

  • Why do you work all the time? Because ...

  • Why is it so hot? Because ...

  • Why are you building this garden?

Sometimes we explain things with stories. Think how literature informs us about many of life’s big questions. The words create scenarios in our heads that can explain so much.

I think every garden should tell a story that explains its reason for being. The way it looks – the plants it contains, the arrangement of its spaces – all should be the physical embodiment of the story of the people who live in it (and used to live there). It should express the inherent qualities of its particular site, its opportunities and constraints. And it should reflect, in all of its aspects, the garden’s over-arching inspiration.

Recently, I was asked by a young, would-be designer – what do you use for inspiration? After a moment’s pause I started naming some of the things that have been the jumping off point for some of the gardens I have had the privilege to work on: a client’s collection of bird houses, an existing Japanese maple tree, the Mediterranean style of the house, their tropical holiday that made a lasting impression, the campfires the family loved to gather around on their vacations, a man’s passion for fishing, her interest in dragons, the boggy soil conditions, the historical mining remnants still on site, their little granddaughters who love to put on plays, the color red.

Inspiration informs so many of the decisions you will make. It is the armature upon which everything will hang, holding the design together so that there is a story to see, hear, and touch.

Without a story, an inspiration, or a theme, the garden is just a collection of plants and pavement. A missed opportunity for creating sensible beauty.

Our minds are always searching for pattern and meaning. We look up at a sky scattered randomly with points of light, and fashion from that constellations, complete with stories that our civilization has handed down for thousands of years.

Clever monkeys that we are, we need to remember that not only can we perceive patterns in what we see and create meaning from them, we can also actively MAKE patterns and designs that have real meaning in our own built environment.

So what is Doni’s garden inspiration? We’ll show you, as we continue with PHC – The Garden!

But don’t think we’re done asking questions!

Because design is all about wondering ... WHAT IF?

Karen McGrath is a professional garden designer working out of Redding in the foothills of north central California. Her mission is to bring people outside, which she accomplishes by designing custom-fitted, outdoor spaces for their homes. She also volunteers her time and expertise at the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Redding CA. Reach Karen via email at [email protected], or at (530) 222-4277. Check out her website at

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of

is a professional garden designer working out of Redding in the foothills of north central California. Her mission is to bring people outside, which she accomplishes by designing custom-fitted, outdoor spaces for their homes. She also volunteers her time and expertise at the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in Redding CA. Reach her at [email protected] or at (530) 222-4277. Visit her website at
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4 Responses

  1. Paul Frye says:

    O.K., here's kind of a hippie-dippy thought/observation. I think that gardens, of most any arrangement, have intrinsic beauty. When "things" become a bit too well/ artificially arranged, that first point is less true.

    My gardens are arranged, mostly, by light access and how much room they will take… Tomatoes here, squash there, cukes over there. My daughter's roses are planted along a back fence line and, in front, along a 4 ft. "dog-eared' cedar fence, some bulbs around the foundation of the house along with some bedding plants. i suppose it could look a lot grander, but I like where someone, 30-40 years ago decided to plant a cuppla' lilac bushes. They have ended up right under my north facing bedroom window. And, the neighbor's plum tree that leans (pleasantly) way over our East fence, almost opposite my East facing window is there sorta' incidentally. I like the ambitious blossoms and the eventual plums, which are early ones, the first arrivals of summer's bounty. I think that if you don't enjoy the fresh produce, and doing "outside' kinda' stuff, that you are living in the wrong place.

    I'm pretty sure that my observations on gardens is anathema to the many "true gardeners" and I mean no insult to Doni and the Pink House, to Karen, to anyone. Let's all just get along. I do believe that it does take a village. At least, that's what it looks like from these 70 year old eyes. Blessings and Peace.

  2. Ginny Hibbard says:

    Although enjoy seeing many different gardens, in our Death Valley of the North which is Redding, I do feel to conserve water is extremely important. Not having a lawns is better to consider than having one in the Valley.

    Therefore, lots of drought resistant plants, shrubs, trees are what is called for in Shasta County. Using rock, gravel, and lots of bark around plants, shurbs, and trees is the way to go.

    Having been a director on a State's Rural Water, which was part of the National Rural Water, plus county water committees. I learned very quickly, if one consumes more water than falls from the sky, then water is not a renewable resource.

    Once the underground aquifers begin to deplete, we humans and animals are not looking at the best future. And, no, I am not a Sierra Club person. For instance, Santa Clara County's underground water resource was down over eight (8) feet 20 years ago. Nitrates were abundant. With less rain most years, that water table is not going to rise. I would hate to see that happen here in Shasta County.

  3. Kate says:

    Loved your article….and the comments. Creating around a theme or inspiration is a fabulous idea! I love having a patio space that can accommodate my need for "change" and for trying new things….this year I have a kumquat plant…but it's in a container! Thanks for encouraging us in our gardening endeavors!

  4. Jennifer Jewell Jennifer Jewell says:

    I am so enjoying these Pink House Garden chronicles and I found this edition to be particularly thought provoking to me – the idea of the layers of story in any garden is so crucial I think to a garden not only with visual strength and good design, but also with a sense of soul that you can feel. Of course the storied layers are many and depending on who you are and why you are standing in any garden at any given time will perhaps influence which story line you find most compelling – the historical story of the environment in which a garden sits, the cultural history of the people (maybe many?) who have built the garden over time, the current story of the present gardener, the story of the designer if different than the actual gardener, and then of course the story that each of us brings with us into any garden. All of these lines can and should (and do in all the Karen McGrath gardens I have seen) enrich the way we absorb a garden. Thank you Ms. Karen not only for bringing lovely gardens (and gardeners) into being, but also for giving us good thoughts to ponder while we garden. And as always Doni – thank you for sharing your story line so generously with us. Looking forward to the continued journey.

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