Why Give to a Garden?

May 5 is ‘Give Big’ in Seattle—the day when the donations given to charities across a 24-hour period are augmented, or stretched, by The Seattle Foundation. This results in the participating nonprofit receiving a ‘bigger-than-donated-buck’.  An assumption underlying this model of giving is that the charities contribute in some fashion to the quality of life enjoyed by the local citizenry.

As a steward of the Dunn Gardens, a landscape in need of donations and fund raising to thrive, I applaud the ‘Give Big’ initiative. And it causes me to reflect once again on what it is that the Gardens, or any garden, for that matter, offers the community. How do they make Seattle a vibrant place so people enjoy a good life?

An answer is readily available on any sunny day in the Emerald City. The park system, bequeathed by forward-looking city fathers, and informed by the Olmsted genius, is full of contented souls. They are enjoying, with their strolling and hiking, gossiping and plant admiring, what Frederick Law Olmsted, father of American landscape architecture, dubbed ‘unconscious recreation.’

Like the park system, Dunn Gardens was also designed by the sons, and torch-bearers, of Frederick Law Olmsted’s philosophy. Once an estate garden, it is now open to the public for tours. I paraphrase the master’s words at the end of any tour I lead around the property. “Frederick Law Olmsted believed you should feel better after being in a park or garden than before you came.”  People always nod in happy agreement. If I ask the reason most visitors simply say the place makes them feel good.

A well-designed garden does that. It is an art form that is as real and satisfying as a fine painting or a pleasing sculpture—it is a piece of creativity that touches a human being. As such it is to be treasured.

Gardens, irrespective of their age, also have a history. It happens that this year the Dunn Gardens is celebrating the venerable milestone of 100-years. But, every garden has a story.

The tale could be an expansive one that is intertwined with the location.  This is true of the Dunn Gardens. Founder, Arthur Dunn, arrived in Seattle in 1898 with $270 in his pocket and a letter of recommendation from each sober citizen of his hometown in New York. In the language of the early 1900s, the fish canning business he started with a partner grew to ‘pleasing proportions.’ He was able to provide his family with a summer home. And an Olmsted Brothers-designed garden.

But even home gardens have histories. On the hill of my home is a Japanese white pine that is flourishing in its chosen spot. I selected the slow growing tree in tribute to my late brother, also a gardener, whose qualities are exemplified in the specimen. It is solid and generous. Hunt around any garden and you will find a tale that connects people at a satisfying level.

            A garden is also a venue where life is celebrated in a way that cannot be enjoyed elsewhere.  Weddings spring to mind as the happiest and most anticipated events. But gardens are also places where people come for reunions and, in some cases, to mend. Last year the Dunn Gardens hosted a cook-out. Each family who attended had suffered a great loss. The children arrived, tentative and unsure, progressed into a state of confidence and joy—the zucchini car races were a remarkable hit—and departed the grounds inthe familiar state of contentment. That event will forever remain in my memory as extraordinarily satisfying.

            I am, of course, undeniably biased. Despite that I think it fair to say gardens add vibrancy to any place.

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