Defiant Gardens

One of the most unusual books I have read lately looked at the role of wartime gardens. They are dramatic examples of what landscape architect Kenneth Helphand calls defiant gardens—gardens created in extreme social, political, economic, or cultural conditions. In his book, Defiant Gardens, Making Gardens in Wartime he takes you into the middle of some of the worst periods in our history, where soldiers built gardens behind the trenches of WW I, Polish Jews grew gardens in the Warsaw ghettos, prisoners planted gardens in POW camps of both world wars, Japanese Americans created gardens held at U.S. Internment camps in WWII. Most of us cannot imagine what it is like to live in such desperate times…but they did and in most cases working in the gardens is what saved them.

Why is it that in the midst of a war, one can still find gardens Regardless of the reference, either a Biblical passage or a contemporary tale, the answers are the same. People created gardens as a means of nourishment, as a pursuit of beauty, and an expression of hope…I like that, each seed, each plant represents hope.

The aesthetic value of gardens supports their image as a place of escape and refuge; on the other hand the sustenance value links gardens to the role they play in building hope and preserving one’s values and ideals amid unimaginable horrors. What really caught my attention in reading Defiant Gardens is that no matter the circumstances, while in the gardens, people are “all gardeners”. And, for a time the gardens allowed each individual to put aside their thoughts and difficulties and work together.

In Defiant Gardens, the author also cited recent examples of gardens from soldiers in Iraq who connected with memories of home half way around the globe. “In 2004 soldiers from North Dakota planted gardens with sunflower seeds donated from home. In another story, a Warrant Officer had his wife send him grass seed. He missed the green from home, where he watered the backyard, barefoot, to feel the cool grass and just relax. I thought if I planted grass I could still do that… in a silly kind of way.”

For our soldiers of today, green grass and sunflowers in the middle of a brown desert can be an oasis that brings the peace we all look for… far from home. Gardens surround us with simplicity and grace, easily missed if we don’t take time to look around; a place where time stands still.

What I like most about a garden is the work is never done… because I also know my garden is a work in progress, just like me.

Jerry Patee

2 thoughts on “Defiant Gardens

  1. Kay F Kelly says:

    Jerry, I appreciated reading your remarks about the book, DIFIANT GARDENS.
    I’d like to think that my father, who was a Texas farm boy at heart, saw some of these gardens, before he was killed in WWII.
    Also loved your personal comments about what you liked best about gardening-making the analogy of the work always being unfinished like your own life’s garden. Beautiful thoughts-expressed with deep feeling.


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