The Garden in My Mind
by Diane Linsley
I get a lot of funny e-mails. Here's my favorite: "It's November, and my daughter is getting married next June. We're having a garden wedding, but we don't have a garden yet. What seeds can I plant now so I can have a lovely garden in June?"
The only advice I could give this poor woman was to plants lots of annuals. Annuals give instant gratification. They're like a Band-Aid or a quick fix. In a mature garden, annuals are the fillers. It's the perennials, trees and shrubs that give the garden character. But these long-lived plants don't mature overnight. As Tasha Tudor says, "It takes twelve years to make a good garden."
I'd like to change that quote to say, "It takes twelve years to make a good gardener."
I remember the first year that I grew perennials from seed. I closely monitored the moisture level in the seed-starting mix. I thinned them diligently, hardened them off by setting them out in the sun for gradually increasing amounts of time each day, then transplanted them to the garden after the last frost date.
Two weeks later, twenty percent of them had been eaten by bugs. Every time I went out to the garden and noticed another seedling missing, I felt like jumping up and down and screaming! I hadn't felt so frustrated since I was a five-year-old learning to play the piano. It took me three years to get through my first piano book. But then something clicked, and I finished the rest of the beginner books by age twelve. By the time I was twenty-five, I was a piano teacher.
People accuse me of having a green thumb. I have a confession to make. I was a downright lousy gardener for many years. The only talent I actually have is persistence. When I ask "black thumb" gardeners about their gardening history, they say something like, "Well, I tried growing seeds one year, and they died. I realized that I will never be a gardener, so I quit." Hmmm....That sounds like my friend's excuse for why he has no musical talent. When he was a kid, he took piano lessons for three months, decided that he wasn't talented, then quit. He blames his genes, of course.
Do I believe in inborn talent? Not really. I'm pretty sure that my garden is not the result of inborn talent, although I'm sure I was born with a curious and active mind, as most babies are. The important question to ask is, "What is persistence, and how do you develop it?"
Plenty of self-help books tackle this question. A classic is Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. I also recommend taking Bill Harris's Life Principles course. But this is a gardening article, so back to gardening.
My early years as an obsessed gardener consisted of study and experimentation. I read nearly every gardening book at the library - at least the ones with pretty pictures. I managed to kill, either by accident or on purpose, at least half the plants that I grew. For several years, I was obsessed with color schemes, and I moved every plant in the garden at least twice in an effort to make beautiful combinations. This behavior caused the death of many plants. In the end, I downsized my theories about color schemes to a few short rules:
1. Yellow looks good with blue.
2. Blue looks good with everything.
3. Red makes a nice focal point.
4. Orange and lavender-pink look shocking together, but who cares?
5. The more plants you have in the garden, the less you have to worry about color schemes.
The next few years were spent in the collecting phase. I had read a book about plants going extinct, and I became obsessed with trying to save every plant that would grow in zone 5. But I was limited by a low budget. So I focused mainly on plants that I could grow from seed. I'm starting to come out of that phase now. At least, I don't feel compelled to grow things that I don't really like just because they are seed-grown natives.
Another compulsion that I'm giving up is the need to have a perfect garden. Since the beginning, I've held an image in my mind of what my garden should look like. I realized about three years ago that my garden is never going to match the ideal in my mind. Since then, I've fluctuated between the thought that I'm a failure and the idea that it's okay that my garden doesn't match my expectations.
Does that mean that we shouldn't have expectations, dreams, and lofty goals? Of course not. How do you expect to accomplish anything in life without a goal? Before you can do something, you must first form an image in your mind of what you want. Sometimes you do it consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Doing it with conscious awareness is best. Otherwise, you might form images of what you don't want by thinking negative thoughts.
I've always had a picture in my mind of what the garden should look like someday. The fact that it doesn't match that picture is nothing to be alarmed about. It doesn't mean that I'm a failure. It just means that to be happy and peaceful, I have to walk the line between expectations and reality.
The garden is not actually better or worse than I imagined, just different. There are some good things about it that I didn't imagine in advance. In fact, I think I'd be unhappy if it was exactly how I imagined it.
So, what made me give up my perfectionism and the need to control everything? Well, I moved to a new house with a lot more land. After turning one acre of weeds into gardens, I realized that I had reached the limits of what one mortal woman can do alone. So I finally let go. I realized that nobody else cares what my garden looks like. And nobody is going to weed it when I'm gone. So why stress out? I just want to have fun.
I quit pruning my roses, unless they grab me as I walk by. And I don't deadhead the flowers because seeds are money! As my friend Andrea says, "There's nothing like a reformed Type A gardener. When we rebel, we really rebel, and we don't want to do anything!"
People say to me, "Your garden looks like a lot of work." And I reply, "No, it's actually a lot of fun. In fact, it's more fun than I deserve."
The following quote has been credited to many sources, but no one really knows where it originated. You might recognize it from the movie Kung Fu Panda.
Yesterday is history.
Tomorrow is a mystery.
But today is a gift.
That's why it is called the present.
There's one last thing I've learned about being a happy gardener. Don't find fault with people who plant marigolds :)