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Basic Instincts
updated: Jun 20, 2008, 12:00 AM

Thoughts From the Garden of Ed

Basic Instincts
by Billy Goodnick

Instinctive behaviors have assured our species' survival for millennia. Among them are breeding (natch), eating, and creating focal points in our front yards.

Though records show that garden gnomes didn't appear until the advent of agriculture, there is anthropological evidence supporting the connection between attracting a mate and the placement of a birdbath near the opening of a bachelor's cave.

I believe that these basic instincts that have assured our place at the top of the evolutionary tree survive deep in our brains. Why else do we so orient our living rooms toward the ubiquitous fireplace, then place a portrait of a long-forgotten relative over the mantle? Instinct! Of course, these days you're more likely to mount the 12' x 6' flat screen TV in that sweet spot, but you get the idea. It acts as a visual magnet -- its power pulls our energy to it.

In classic European gardens, focal points are found along a symmetrical axis -- wishing wells, obelisks jutting skyward, gushing fountains (there's something deeply Freudian here). In Japanese gardens, the strong spot might be a composition consisting of a gracefully trained pine tree surrounded by a cloud of azaleas and an outcropping of moss-covered boulders.

In our own gardens, we strive to create a visual punch using everything from fountains to arbors to eye-popping plant compositions.
Nurseries cater to this urge to plunk stuff down with all manner of baubles and whirligigs. It's kinda like when you learn to ride a bike without hands and holler to your friends, "Look at me! Look what I can do!" Crave attention? Plop down a focal point.

Back to the Garden of Ed(en). Upon hearing from Ed that I'd be writing this biweekly feature, me and Biff the Wonder Spaniel headed out on our Upper Eastside walk, my trusty Nikon CoolPix in hand. We generally traverse a sixteen block circuit, anointing various street furnishings, trees, hedges…wait, HE does the anointing; I hold the leash and carry the bag. I snap a lot of garden shots - the good, the bad, and the ugly - so I can pontificate at my blog, use them in client presentations, and as material for my adult Ed lessons.

A block into our walk Biff and I espied a rude collection of lawn objects consisting of an empty aquarium tank, bench, various flower pots and other miscellany.
Now I know this pile wasn't intended as garden ornamentation, but it put my brain in Ed mode. How many focal points would we encounter in people's front yards on our walk? Regrettably, my methodology was instantly compromised by privacy hedges, fences, and walls. Occasionally, I would hear the trickle of water, assuming there was a fountain just out of view. To count or not to count?

Another dilemma: What constitutes a focal point? Does it have to be an object in the garden or could a nice bench and a few flower pots on the porch be counted? Certainly a seasonal wreath on the front door was evidence of the "Psst, hey you with the doggie; check this out" impulse.

What the hell, I'm in charge here, so if I think the owner did it on purpose, I'll click the counter. So the number is… (drum roll, please) THIRTY-ONE!
That's an average of about two per block with each block containing about five houses. That works out to about fifty percent of the homes…not too shabby to support my anthropological thesis.

Are the owners dolling up their front yards to attract a mate? Highly unlikely, since they're either among the statistical group that's already been through one nasty divorce and not ready for the next, or happy with home, hearth and 1.4 kids. Maybe they just like to have their homes look nice for strangers walking their wonder dogs.

Wanna see the collection of pics Biff and I captured? Click over to my Flickr site, but promise you'll come right back to Edhat to continue enriching your world. You'll see fountains, birdbaths, planters in the form of famous classical composers and the occasional grouping of lovely pots.

Next up - what's hot at the local nurseries this season? I'll be doing a little survey work at a few greeneries around town.

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Billy Goodnick is a real character who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.


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