Chaos theory and the garden: Cultivating chaos
A chaotic garden that looks beautiful

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It’s an interesting thing, being someone with OCD tendencies. Everything has to be ‘just so’. Except when it comes to the garden. Gardens are often described as a ‘delicate balance of natural processes and human intervention’. But how often do we as humans manage to get the perfect balance of chaos and order? Unless you are a gardener or homeowner who loves pristine formality, many of us have learned to take our cue from nature, and rather than attempting to subjugate nature to our will, allow things to happen as they may. (Albeit with a little bit of a nudge in the right direction of course.) Nature is a perfect example of the clutter and chaos of life itself. Chaos is inevitable, so why fight to avoid it? And no – it’s not inherent laziness coming to the fore – it’s an environmentally sound principle known as ‘chaos theory.’

I’m not talking about leaving the garden to behave chaotically, usually ending up as a bit of an eyesore. Sure, come spring we’ve tidied the garden up. We’ve raked the leaves, popped our bulbs in, (more about that in a moment) and everything is neat around the edges. But then we have to make the leap from that control mania to the somnolence of summer, the loose-limberness of autumn, and the ultimate dilapidation that sets in in winter.

Chaos theory defined and applied to gardening

“Chaos theory – The theory that some systems, such as weather, are ultimately unpredictable because of the effects of small scale events that can’t be included in the prediction equations.” Like the butterfly fluttering its wings in a jungle in South East Asia causing a hurricane in the States.

That’s how it’s described, and that’s how it fits into our gardens too. 

Another definition is that ‘the theory of non-linear functions, such that small differences in the input of the function can result in large and unpredictable differences in the output.’ I’m pretty sure most of us have at some stage or another seen this theory at work in our gardens, let alone in our lives!  The unpredictable human factor comes into play here. Sometimes we forget to water, and there you go, your plant gets crisped on a hot summer day because the promised rain didn’t arrive. 

The chaos theory in the garden dynamic started with the idea of an unruly cottage garden. It rebelled against Victorian formality, as seen in the gardens of the Edwardian writer, Gertrude Jekyll, who was highly influenced by the ‘father’ of the English flower garden, William Robinson. They allowed plants to spill across pathways and self-seed, creating schemes where nature seemed to have the upper hand. And they encouraged mixed planting of trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs with an emphasis on “right plant, right place” – the gardening mantra of our age. Looking at this approach, we can see how it’s probably more relevant now than it has ever been, given the emphasis on biodiversity and organic cultivation.

The starting point is to choose plants that will thrive in your particular situation, rather than starting a battle with nature. For me, it goes further than being a reformed neat-freak. It’s about creating the most naturalistic space I can with the minimum of fuss! All too often, I’ll visit a spring garden, and find Daffodils and Narcissus all lined up in perfect little rows, looking like pretty soldiers at attention when all I want is to see them dancing together. Hence my favourite bulb planting tips – throw them up in the air and plant them where they land. 

Sometimes things that are randomly thrown together end up creating the most intrinsically beautiful pictures. I also have the belief that if things aren’t supposed to be growing in the space I’ve created, they won’t stay the course. Which just means finding something else that will work. And that if things don’t or refuse to grow in my backyard, then they don’t belong there. We’re all aware of being more water-wise. Especially if, like me, you have a huge resistance to watering the garden all the time, thus experimenting with plants that suit your needs is the only way to go.

It’s an ecological approach that works with nature – not against it. It accepts uncertainty and values questions more than answers: Mostly, how do my actions impact the web of life? 

Gardening is not for the faint of heart. A spell of procrastination, not checking your soil before you plant or any small mistake can cost you your plants. Or leaving the weeding for another day may see your prized Dahlia engulfed in a massive blackjack which has grown like, well – a weed! Even with great care, sometimes things don’t turn out as planned. 

Be one with your garden – and grow yourself

This unpredictability and inherent complexity can be a threat to our gardening goals. So, best we work with the ‘muddle along and hope for the best’ way of thinking. Sometimes it pays great dividends. After all, no matter how random or how unsophisticated our predisposition for particular styles or plants, Mother Nature in her creative wisdom often turns chaos into an inexplicable harmony, ensuring you’ll never regret your gardening choices. (For more information on chaos theory in the world of gardening, get in touch with us.)

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