Gardening trends come and go. Vegetable gardens were big (literally) when families had great hordes of kids. English gardens had their day—along with Laura Ashley. “Naturalizing,” in the nineties, reflected a permissive era, but proved a natural habitat for neighbor complaints. Without coming right out and saying I wanted to school the scarecrow next door, I sought the horticultural wisdom of Joan Westby, a master gardener at Leitner’s Garden Center in St. Paul. She has a degree in horticulture. She is a professional. She indulged me with the newest and nowest things yet to come this spring and summer.
These days, “people are looking to create a personal retreat, an oasis,” Westby replied, obviously on familiar ground. “But at the same time, they are very busy and don’t have time for a lot of maintenance. So instead of reworking the entire yard, they’ll extend their indoor living space with a small, restful outdoor space like a patio.” So that four-level deck you built with the kids’ college fund? So last year. Container gardening is red hot. Custom-planted pots, with all your favorite colors and smells wafting around your personal oasis, are the penultimate. (By the way, Leitner’s has been providing this custom potting service for twenty years.)
And if your patio space truly is an extension of your living room, it’s going to be cluttered. (Wait, I said that, not Westby.) Sure there’ll be the Weber, but there also should be comfy furniture. (Hint: You can tell if the furniture is right by providing your children with some dry paper and a magnifying glass. If the furniture burns up, as natural materials tend to do, it was right. If it just melts and creates hazardous waste, it was wrong.) Further trappings of the outdoor oasis, said Westby, include a birdfeeder, wind chimes, statuary, a fountain, and definitely one of those rococo outdoor candelabras. This being Minnesota, she also recommended a beautiful copper fire pit as the sensible source of warmth.
Of course, you’ll want to arrange all this stuff in a pleasing and ergonomic manner, which brings us to patio feng shui. The gargoyles and barbed wire should stay in the rec room, where they belong, and keep planters out of direct-energy force fields. (The easy thing about this brand of gardening is that there aren’t many plants.) Anyway, you get the picture—it’s like a living room, but smells better.
Plagued by déjà vu, I combed my mind for where I’d already spotted the sort of alfresco bliss Westby described. Not in Provence, nor in Sonoma County. It was in Southeast Minneapolis, near the University of Minnesota, in fact. Some trendsetting undergraduates had created a soothing oasis from the ravages of syllabi and Chlamydia right in their front yard with a comfy davenport (circa 1985), several tattered barcaloungers, some tiki torches, and, in a space-saving coup, bongs that doubled as statuary and aromatherapy dispensers.
Container gardening was definitely going on, though in an important fallow stage—beer cans and plastic cups were growing a life-sustaining agar-like substance rumored to be more effective than Miracle Gro. These visionaries had moved a giant TV/wailing wall to their outdoor retreat, too—which not only provided mesmerizing, low-res images and womb-like sound but also blocked sun, wind, and drive-by artillery. It all came into place a full semester before it showed up on Westby’s radar. Isn’t that the way? Trends, like viruses, germinate, not in the minds of professionals and academics, but rather in the fecund soil of the Undecided.—Sarah Barker