On Gardening and Asymmetry

There is a waterfall fountain in our backyard. It is flanked by two large blue decorative planters that were left behind by the previous owner of the house. When we moved in, the planters housed a large shrub of some kind. We didn’t put in the effort to identify the shrub. It was flowerless at that time and needed to be trimmed. The plant had taken over the trellis behind it. On the right side of one of the planters is a bright red door, leading to our garage. The fountain, the blue planters with overgrown plants, and the red door together made a pretty sight. The plants, however unruly, added to the beauty of this scene and made it picturesque.

Or so I thought.

My husband disagreed. It is at moments like this you realize how different we all are. How we can look at the same scene and feel different emotions. He felt anger where I felt calm. He saw a mess where I saw beauty.

He wanted to clean things up. And so did I. His idea of cleaning was to yank out the plant altogether. Mine was to trim it. It will flower eventually, I told him. I don’t think it is a weed. It must have been decorative. He disagreed. Kaat jaad, he said, which translates to wild plant/weed in Konkani. We went back and forth on trimming vs pulling it out. I was pregnant and exhausted. So I let him have his way. He pulled the plant out. He hacked out every last bit of it as if he wanted to remove all traces of the previous owner having lived here. He wanted to make this space completely our own.

In a matter of an hour, our backyard ceased to be beautiful to me. The fountain was turned off. Planters were empty. The trellis was bare. It looked ghastly and naked without the shrub that was covering it.

So I thought.

It looks clean, he said. We disagreed. Again, we looked at the same scene, but we felt different emotions.

For more than a year after that, we ignored the space. Every day I saw the ugliness, the weeds, flourishing in the empty planters. But being new parents we did not have the time or energy to devote to our backyard.

Now, one year after having a baby, we are slowly getting our hands dirty. We are making multiple trips to the nursery to get plants, pots, and soil. The pandemic might have contributed to our renewed energy. Forced to spend a lot of time at home, with nowhere else to go, we are decluttering and redecorating.

In my excitement to fill our yard, and especially those planters, with plants, I got three different vines to fill up the three large blue planters that we have. I wanted vines that would take over the still bare trellis. Just like the plant that we pulled out, except this time, it would be a flowering plant of our choice.

I got two bower vines and one yellow bougainvillea. Seeing all the bougainvillea in full bloom during walks through our neighborhood had evoked a deep sense of nostalgia about my hometown, Mangalore, where it is ubiquitous along with hibiscus and Rathnagandhi (peacock flower). So before our trip to the nursery, I knew I wanted a bougainvillea. I had also made a list of other vines that I wanted for the remaining two planters. At the nursery, I found a few bougainvillea saplings and picked one with yellow flowers. I couldn’t find any of the other vines on my list at our nursery. So I grabbed the bower vines at random.

Once home, I picked the sunniest spot/planter for the bougainvillea and assigned the bower vines to the remaining two planters. The bougainvillea had outgrown the pot it came in. Eagerly, I transplanted it into the planter I had in mind. And a couple of days later, the other two bower vines were transplanted as well.

The fountain is now flanked by a yellow bougainvillea on one side and a bower vine with variegated leaves on the other. A little away, in another solitary planter, is the other bower vine.

If I had really thought this through, I could have bought two identical plants for the two planters next to the fountain. With the plants I ended up buying, even though they weren’t identical (one had variegated leaves and the other didn’t), I could have planted the bower vines on either side of the fountain, and the bougainvillea in the third solitary planter. That space would have looked symmetrical.

The previous owner had planted identical plants in the pots next to the fountain. Even with their unruliness, they were mirror images. She had obviously thought it through.

The asymmetry bothered me the first time I noticed it. Which was ironically a few days after all the plants were repotted. I did not notice the asymmetry immediately. Until then I was worried if the plants would survive the repotting. I was focusing on individual plants. When I noticed the asymmetry I was standing by our kitchen window, my eyes taking in the entire scene. I was looking at, not just the plants, but also at the fountain that stood in the middle. And the view felt lopsided. The bougainvillea was shorter, had fewer leaves and yellow flowers. The bower vine had variegated leaves and pinkish-white flowers. It was taller and had already caught on to the trellis. But more importantly, I had planted two completely different plants next to the fountain even though the previous owner had obviously designed this space with symmetry in mind.

I had not given it sufficient thought. Or any thought. I did not picture my yard before I started planting things. I was focused on filling it up. Filling up the empty planters. Filling up the tiny yard. I wanted greenery. I wanted flowers. I wanted succulents. I wanted vines. I wanted ferns. I hadn’t thought about order or aesthetics or symmetry. I just wanted a garden.

While growing up, plants were added to the garden based on the house owners liking for a certain flower or a certain plant. There were gardeners but professional landscapers were rare. Plants were added as obtained from nurseries and from friends and family. Cuttings collected from here and there. The collection grew organically. New plants were added wherever possible, by making space, by moving things around, lining the walls of the house and the fence. And this was the approach I had unintentionally taken.

Now our tiny backyard houses a haphazard collection of vegetables, flowering plants, succulents, and vines. There is no theme or pattern. Everything was planted based on the availability of empty pots and based on empty spaces that received adequate sunlight.

This asymmetry in our garden can be fixed easily. I could move the bougainvillea to another pot. Or I could, with some help, move the planter. The asymmetry is also not hard on the eye. Lopsided, yes, but not ugly.

Then why does it bother me so much? What does it matter if the fountain is flanked by two different types of plants?

Is my discomfort with asymmetry a product of the hours I spend scrolling through posts on social media? I follow, among others, a lot of interior decor accounts in the hope of drawing inspiration as I design and fill up my own home. Is this discomfort then influenced by what I see and save on Instagram and Pinterest, with the hope of making my private space look similar? My home is not perfect. There are a lot of spaces inside our house that need work. The walls are bare, the hunt for perfect paintings is still on. One of the rooms is yet to be designed and decorated, it’s purpose undecided. It has currently taken the role of housing all the extra items we own – it has become the spare room. It is home for all the things we are saving for a better day – sarees, suitcases, clothes that no longer fit, books, and magazines. There is asymmetry everywhere. Overall, the house is a far cry from the glossy, curated, filtered, and staged images I have in mind. And I am fine with it. What I mean to say is that it is not perfection or unreasonable expectation that is the cause for discomfort.

So then what is bothering me? Why is the asymmetry so unnerving?

I needed answers, and the internet rarely disappoints, so I googled it.

Turns out humans are hardwired to find order to make sense of the chaotic world. Symmetry is part of nature and that is why humans are drawn to it and seem to find it aesthetically pleasing. This answer put me at ease. To know that we are all just wired this way, that it is inherent to most, if not all humans, makes me feel a little better. It makes the discomfort natural, acceptable even. But it still doesn’t make it easy for me to ignore it.

My husband could care less about the asymmetry in our garden. We can just get rid of the fountain if it bothers you, he says. That should fix it.

As I stare at him dumbfounded, I wonder why I didn’t have the patience to just plan this out and plant identical plants. I wonder if I should have gotten a professional landscaper. I wonder if, when these plants are fully grown, I will regret this decision. Because now, the plants are young, it is easier to re-pot and to move them around. But I imagine a fully grown bougainvillea with green leaves and yellow flowers, the bower vine with its variegated leaves and pinkish-white flowers, both the plants blooming, flourishing with the trellis hidden from sight, the fountain turned on – and what I picture in my mind is not that bad. It is not perfect. It is not symmetrical. But it is still beautiful.

As I struggle through the pandemic and this year in general, as I come to terms with the stress, anxiety and uncertainty of 2020, I am learning slowly to accept things as they are. To try not to control, and try not to fix things. Especially that which cannot be. To be comfortable when reality doesn’t match the picture in my head. I am learning to let go of expectations. I am learning to appreciate what is there, what I have by adjusting the frame, by changing my viewing lens. I am learning to be at peace with discomfort.

So while the asymmetry does bother me, the individual plants do bring me joy. Even though the frame feels lopsided today, when the plants have grown, I know it will be a pleasant sight.

So maybe this time, as we look at our little space, my husband and I will see the same thing. We will feel the same emotions. We will both see beauty amidst the asymmetry. We will both feel calm. We will both agree.

One thought on “On Gardening and Asymmetry

  1. Re-read this post to calm my own mind, especially what you wrote about trying not to control things and to accept things the way they are!
    And yes, following many decor accounts on Instagram myself, and sometimes it gets too frustrating when I look around my own place and it doesn’t match the expectations!

    Liked by 1 person

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