Human Flower Project

Orrington, MAINE USA

flag flower bed

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Princeton, MAINE USA

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Pretty Flowers or Good Bones

A change in standards—toward environmentalism and design—has flower fans grumbling over “France in Bloom.”


Photo: France in Bloom

An intriguing article in the London Times today resurrects an old cultural dispute: the designers v. the ornamentalists—those with a taste for structure and those with a love of color.

Happily for English readers, the furor this time is being played out across the Channel, in France. Adam Sage’s story describes the tumult over shifting values in Le Concours des Villes et Villages Fleuris, the Competition for Flowery Towns and Villages, a.k.a. France in Bloom. Some 11,175 French communities from Marseilles (pop. 1.5 million) to Mandeure (pop. 600) apply to be evaluated by a committee of France’s tourism board. “The maximum four-flower rating is a coveted prize that attracts visitors and money, and sets the local mayor on the path to glory.”

Since the competition began in 1957, it should come as no surprise that styles and, if you will, “flower ethics” have changed. “The judges used to be concerned only with the flowers,” one parks official from Saint-Denis-de-l’Hotel noted. “Now they are concerned about recycling rubbish, graffiti, children’s playgrounds and just about everything except the flowers.”

Is the emphasis on community design over blossoms an advance or a retreat, as some allege, to “political correctness”? It depends on your view of petunia cauldrons.

Our friend Cyndy Clark years ago initiated an entirely unofficial competition in Lexington, Kentucky, “The White Flag Award.” (The award was named in mockery of a certain noted and pricey gardening catalogue and was meant to suggest that gardening was an act of conditional surrender to the horrors of existence.) Ms. Clark and her cohorts would drive through the neighborhoods of Lexington, pretentious and down at the heels, cookie-cutter and geodesically domed, naming winners in any number of sponteneous categories. One we particularly remember was a simple brick house on the northside that featured a large black cauldron crammed with purple petunias in the front yard : winner of “Best Petunias in a Cauldron” from the White Flag officials.


Photo: France in Bloom

Looking over the magnificent website of Le Concours des Villes et Villages Fleuris, we see any number of examples of this ornamentalist aesthetic—though the French clearly prefer wine barrels to iron kettles for folksy container gardening. There have always been and, we can only hope, will always be gardeners who will do everything in the name of living color—the window box afficionados, the sort of gardener who will park a broken bicycle in the soil and grow clematis over the handlebars. We also acknowledge that such gardeners are considered a bit declasses.

Zen gardens, with crunchy gravel walks and stands of clumping (not spreading! never spreading!) bamboo, have the upper hand today. With their “good bones,” xeriscape gardens play Katharine Hepburn against the Mae West aesthetic of marigold beds.

Martine Le Sage, president of France in Bloom, framed the contrast not so much as a difference in taste (which it is) but as something more abstract and political: progress. “There has been an evolution,” she said. “It is important that the flowers don’t conceal a miserable environment. People who go to a four-flower village want to see the flowers, but they also want to see that it is a pleasant place to live. It’s true we’ve become politically correct. We encourage candidates not to have flower beds that consume too much water, for instance, and not to spray them with pesticides. We want flowers, but only in the right conditions.”


Photo: France in Bloom

But what if one’s conditions aren’t “right”? Are, in fact, “miserable”? Are people to be deprived of a rose bush because they can’t afford—or just don’t want—a truckload of white pea gravel?

No matter which side of the petunia cauldron you stand on, the Villes et Villages Fleuris website is an education and a joy. If you’re planning a trip to France, make sure to check it out and “design” your itinerary accordingly. If not, you can delight in splashes of color as well as more subdued environments all across France.

Granted, many if not most gardeners strive for excellent design and luscious color, too. Are we presenting a false dichotemy? Mais non.

“The denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, servile—in a word, natural—enjoyment. which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture,  implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures” (of green reeds, for example) “forever closed to the profane.”

For 500 more pages and insights on the question of taste from a brilliant Frenchman, see Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction. And while you’re getting through that tome, please let us know where you stand (and garden) vis a vis the ornamentalist/designer debate.

Posted by Julie on 02/25 at 11:01 AM
Culture & SocietyEcologyGardening & LandscapeSecular CustomsTravelPermalink