Monday, February 10, 2014

There's No Terroir There

At some point in my garden blog reading, I began to encounter a fancy French word, terroir.  I quickly realized that “terroir” is what the smart gardeners call what the rest of us explain as “what’s it like where I live”.  Less sardonically, terroir means a sense of place. 

Being a connoisseur of fancy words, I quickly filed this one away.  It went under: Words I Like but Will Never Use in Casual Conversation. 

This is no casual conversation though.  I know that if you’re reading my blog it’s because you are esoteric in your own way, right?  So allow me, if you will, to write about what it’s like where I live.  Allow me to explore the terroir. 

I don’t want to tell you too much about the weather (historically dry until the last week) although that plays a significant role.  And I don’t want to write too much about my neighborhood (old with lots of character). 

My neighborhood is filled with turkeys.
I want to write more about my sense of the place.  I have lived in my house for less than a year.  In fact, it’s been just about a year since I first saw the listing for our house online.  I have probably written several times before, or at least I’ve thought about writing several times, that one of the main draws to this house was the lot itself.  All I saw was potential.  I was so excited to get started with a new garden, a garden that had room to grow, where I could plant more than one tree and not worry that it was the only thing I’d have room for in the entire yard. 

But then I got here, moved my family’s stuff and my personal junk into the house, worked on some projects, and did the unthinkable and hired people to mow my own lawn.  And after some nine or ten months I feel like I don’t have any real understanding of the terroir of my lot. 

My yard is still largely a blank slate.  I have certainly done things since I’ve been here.  I planted most of the Japanese maples that had lived in pots at my old place.  I have created one new garden bed, cut down lots of poorly planted and placed trees, and added some boxwood hedges, patches of ferns, and tackled my vegetable garden.  But it still just feels like small pieces of a larger puzzle - only this puzzle is lacking the box with the big picture on it. 

These pieces (the chair, the potted Japanese maple, the wood lantern) all had a place at my old house.
Now they are grouped together on the island of misfit elements.
The other morning as I drove through the neighborhood and looked at other people’s yards, it struck me how differently people landscape their yards.  I don’t know most of my new neighbors yet, but I can’t help but derive a sense of who they are based on what I sense of their place. 

That got me to thinking about how other people might perceive my landscape and what that says about me.  Can they tell just from looking that I’m still feeling directionless?  Can they sense the influence of too many different voices the way I do?  Do they experience the terroir of my yard the same way I do?   

In the realm of all things that are much less important than life-and-death, one of the worst things to feel is discouragement caused by your lack of progress in an endeavor like art, writing, or gardening.  But I am not as discouraged as I could be.  Although I sense that the terroir of my garden is as muddled as a slow-moving stream with too many kids playing in it, I also know that Spring is just a few warm days away here (the ornamental pear trees in the neighborhood have already bloomed!).  And when the Spring rains come through, this muddy water will be revived and I will have my chance to do a little bit more to fill this place with my voice.

This pincushion flower is already blooming in my front yard.
I am curious to hear from you on this topic if you have a moment.  I would love to hear how long it took you before you started to feel like your garden or yard or home started to feel like something you wanted it to feel like.  Did you have a good sense for the garden right away or did you have to live with it and listen to it for some time before it became clear to you?


  1. Oh, interesting to think about. It took me several years (maybe 5?) to get a sense for my garden, but that was partly because I had just moved to the southwest and had to adjust my northeastern ideas of gardens in general. I think it also took a while because my favorite gardening is responsive. Now that my baby trees have grown and I've fallen in love with them, I have a better sense of which underplantings will let them shine. And now that they've left a bright, sunny circle in the middle of the garden (which I've also fallen in love with), I can envision how to bring out the best in that spot. Blank slates are exciting, but the excitement is all about potential and not yet about passion and character, if that makes sense. I can't imagine it will take you as long as it did me--you have a much clearer sense of your environment to start with and a few things you already love in place. And turkeys. If those don't contribute to the terroir, I don't know what does.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Stacy. I've often thought about what it would be like if I moved back to Washington state . . . it would take me a long time to learn how to garden there I think. Even though I grew up there, I didn't pay attention to what grew. I was, more or less, oblivious. So I totally understand why it would take you five years to adjust.

      And thank you for the reminder that the blank slate is exciting. I knew that, but I haven't felt it lately because of my discouragement overshadowing it.

  2. Terroir. I have felt raw terror when facing our garden before a tour many a time, but I didn't realize there was a fancy word to describe what it's like where I live. Right now with it all buried under four feet of snow, I'm pretty darn happy with the way it looks, but once it melts, ah, that's when the angst starts all over again. Why did we plant those trees? And why are they so close together? And how did they grow so quickly? And what happened to the little boys who used to play in the sand box? Where did the time go?

    We measure our lives by the changes in the garden, remember when we planted that tree, our youngest son was two years old then; it doesn't seem possible. Dad planted the birch tree, was it really 37 years already?
    You're living with your new garden and the possibilities are endless, and I remember having the same problem, we had ten acres of alfalfa field with no end in sight, how do we garden in such a wide open area? And have we succeeded yet? Are we satisfied? Well........some things worked.....and lots of things didn't. But you know that, this isn't your first garden. I think you're off to a fantastic start, siting the Japanese maples had to be difficult. I'm guilty of moving trees all over the yard much to the tree's chagrin, before I find the 'right' spot.

    I look forward to watching your garden grow, Chad. I know it will be fantastic.

    1. Karen, I can hardly imagine what it would be like to tackle 10 acres of alfalfa fields. I have a fraction of that and it's bordered by fence . . . which at least gives me a confine to work within.

      I really appreciate your comments on how we measure our lives by the changes in our garden. It's so true. From season to season we watch things change and it reminds us of the annual cycle of our lives. But there's also that cumulative change that amazes us. You can't see that birch tree growing when you stare at it but somehow it grows from a sapling to a robust fixture in the garden anyway. It's humbling to think about the time it takes for these things and how quickly our lives pass by. I think that's one of the things I like best about gardening. We notice these changes and it practically forces us to examine our lives.

  3. Love the word terroir.....I lived here for a short time to put in the hardscape and some foundation plantings....but I now am re-examining the terroir this year to make needed changes....I may borrow this word and will direct folks to your blog....

  4. Chad, What an interesting question. I lived in my house for a few years without doing much gardening there, and I think I was stopped by the very strong terroir of the mixed pine/hemlock/hardwood forest that surrounds most of the house. It's probably not coincidence that I first started creating flower beds in the front of the house -- the one part not dominated by forest. It took me much longer to think about creating a garden in the back that would work with the surrounding forest. -Jean