A few days ago during a Snapchat exchange about gardening, a friend posed the following question: “How do I make it not a pile of weeds?” She meant it as a joke, of course, but I think I’m gonna take a stab at answering this, because it stirred me up.
How does one become a gardener?
All kidding aside, in my view the way to approach gardening is how you might approach anything else new: Just dive in. Maybe you already know what kind of learner you are (tactile, visual, audible, etc.) but for this I encourage you to just get your hands dirty. Literally and as soon as possible. You won’t hurt anything but your manicure, and in fact if you over think this in the beginning you might stress yourself out of even trying.
Accept that you will have lots of success- maybe even beginner’s luck- and also lots of failures. Sometimes you can do everything correctly and still have bad luck. Remind yourself that the learning curve is part of the adventure. Even experts and taste-makers are constantly seeking to improve, and even Universities have trial gardens.
Also, maybe more than other pursuits, gardening is as much art and miracle as it is science. So leave a little breathing room for surprises and creative interpretation of whatever rules and advice you collect.
Two Beginners’ Stories
When I was 26 or 27 years old and managing my first real home in south Oklahoma City, complete with lawns and a pool and flower beds, a small koi pond and just enough room to grow vegetables with my young daughters, I was equal parts inspired and paralyzed by all the possibilities. (Which, incidentally, is exactly how I feel now living on this farm.)
My life up to that point had been overfilled with beautiful gardens that were maintained by loved ones and my eyes were drawn to public gardens daily, but I was definitely a beginner. I had only a tiny knowledge base and very little experience. So I just kept trying stuff for the fun of it and read every gardening book and website I could find.
One day I read a magazine article by a woman in a similar situation.
She had just moved into a house with overgrown gardens, someone else’s outdoor designs that had once been loved and well tended but were now in a state of disrepair. She knew it was her job to revive or at least clean up the place but had no idea where to begin. She dove in by just mowing the lawn and sweeping the sidewalk. Then one morning she walked outside in her pajamas, cup of coffee in hand, and started casually collecting dried flowers from their stalks. She noticed a medium-sized decorative rock sitting awkwardly between two unidentified shrubs and on a whim decided to heave it to somewhere else in the yard.
“There, that’s better,” she thought, though she didn’t know exactly why it was better. She just liked it. She went on to describe other little changes she made here and there, noting how it felt to be in her garden and actually view it as hers, as an extension of her home, of herself.
Those simple, spontaneous tasks of deadheading spent blooms and rearranging a piece of hardscape (though these terms were not yet in her vernacular) instantly let her identify as a gardener. That morning was a turning point for her. She started replacing limiting thoughts about what she should do outdoors with expansive ideas about what she actually wanted.
I think maybe viewing gardening as an opportunity rather than a job is one of the most powerful adjustments we can make toward our own happiness.
Gardening can be a release and an art form every bit as much as a way to feed your family or increase curb appeal and property values. You can make it laborious, sure, but maybe calling it yard work is unnecessarily daunting. Let’s call it yard play.
Comparison is the Thief of Joy
Fast forward fifteen years and so many gardening adventures later to this past June.
When the Master Gardener tour buses rolled up to our front gate and about 90 people began strolling up our gravel driveway ready to explore the Lazy W, my body was flooded with panic and regret. What in the holy heck was I thinking agreeing to this? All the fun of preparing for this day evaporated. Our farm is no doubt a little piece of paradise for us, but it’s far from conventional and even farther from perfect.
In a quick, sweaty moment I lost my composure and saw through alien eyes every acre, every flower bed, every sagging chain link fence we’ve covered with vines and every painted accessory we’ve collected or crafted over the years. I used harsh, critical words against myself, from imagined perspectives of folks more skilled and experienced than me, voices in my head pointing out every badly pruned tree, every flower bed jam-packed with too many shrubs, every shade garden with plants too far apart, my overuse of zinnias and basil and my careless inattention to copper fungus. I was so focused on flaws that I was blinded to all the beauty and freedom we had cultivated.
That mean conversation with myself was intensely nauseating and I had to quickly choke back actual tears before greeting our first guests, my brilliant and slightly terrifying mentor among them.
My husband was around to help with the tour, as was our friend Meredith and her daughter Maddie, my gardening student at the time. All four of us fielded questions and helped people explore. Thankfully every single MG who spoke to us that morning was only gracious and affectionate. We each heard a lot about how the farm made people feel, and several gardeners asked whether we would ever consider hosting artist retreats. (Yes!) People commented a lot on our unique vibes, the sense of welcome and relaxation they discovered all over. How there was so much to look at and that it all reminded them of childhood on their grandparents’ farms.
I do wonder how many people could tell I was on the verge of throwing up the entire time? And that I was honestly worried whether my MG certification might be revoked once they discovered all the things I was doing wrong?
I continued with my friends on the rest of the garden tour around town that day and was floored by all the perfection we found in all the gorgeous homes and gardens. It was humbling to say the least.
Several weeks passed before I could relax out of that sickly emotion and feel peaceful again, not so ashamed. It was crazy. I let my own harsh comparisons rob me of hard earned joy. What a waste of an amazing life experience.
Now, finally, I am grateful for all of this. The good, the bad, and the ugly. It taught me a lot and helped me distill my own gardening values. Looking back I would rather soak up these responses to our emotional environment and colorful surroundings than hear compliments for technical execution. (Not that there’s anything wrong with technical execution! This is just me sharing my own heart with you.)
My point is that whatever you do “wrong” in your garden, chances are you will be the first to notice. Especially if you are a Creative, you will be your harshest critic. And anyway it’s still your garden. It is a unique expression of your beautiful personality. It is there to meet your needs. And year after year it will be a crescendo representation of your growing knowledge and skill. How cool, right?
So. Take it leave it: My best, most heartfelt advice for anyone wanting to dive into gardening for pleasure, for anyone who is starting with just “making it not a pile of weeds,” is this: Start by adding a bit of you. Most how-to books will assert that a good garden begins with the soil. I say, really, a good garden begins with the soul.
So let’s be soil-soul sisters.
Happy gardening, friends.