Warning: This is the humor section of larger site devoted to seed methodology and practice. If you are wandering about without your sense of humor, you are likely to find some of this material objectionable. It is just weedy herbiage, after all.
Afraid that you have a black thumb? Aphids and moles getting you down, bunky? Seedlings mysteriously pulled out of the ground? Seeds not sprouting? Those expensive perennials you bought last spring didn't make it through the winter? Crabgrass and Creeping Charlie seem to be taking over? Martha Stewart starting to get on your nerves? You say that you can't afford to hire a caretaker? Is that what's eating you, pal? Well, your troubles are over now because here is Tom's refresher course in living with your plants.
I think that most people want the word garden to be a noun which describes a place that you have set aside for your plants, so that the word gardening would be a verb that describes what you are doing when you work in your 'garden.' In my philosophy, garden is a verb; it is what you do. And, gardening is a noun that describes not what you did, but what you got when you gardened.
So, if gardening is the therapeutic benefit that you receive when you garden, your goal should be to get as much gardening as you can, and with luck, as much as anyone. To garden, you open your personal space to admit a few, a great many, or thousands of plants which exude charm, pleasure, beauty, oxygen, conversation, friendship, confidence, and other rewards should you succeed in meeting their basic needs. This is why people garden. It can be easy but challenging, and the rewards are priceless. If you garden out of doors, you also open that bit of personal space to the vagaries of weather, neighbors, transient children and other wild animals, not to mention your own pets, and perhaps your non-participating spouse. Lack of patience is why some people give up.
How can you be philosophic about damage and destruction given the investment of your limited quantities of energy, money, and time? Here are the basic rules that I follow:
1. Grow something that likes you -- if it does well for you, put in some more of the same. Search for more of the same kind of plant (genus) in different shapes, forms, and habits (species) in a variety of colors and heights (varieties/cultivars). Always begin to garden with success and for success. When you are ready to expand, look for plants of a different genus within the same family of plants that will also do well in your zone. If these plants are doing well for you, it means that you are learning to solve the problems of soil, siting, environment, and the infinite little disasters caused by pests of every kind.
2. Learn something -- join the local garden club, take out gardening books from your lending library, and look for interesting postings to the rec.gardens newsgroup and the many garden-related mailing lists. Keep records that help you relate failures and successes to inadequate technique or excellent strategies.
3. Make a bargain with Nature -- observe how Nature abhors any system which is out of balance. Make a promise to preserve Nature's order and balance on your own property. Search for techniques and strategies for dealing with pests that do not require the use of chemicals. Put in plantings to attract beneficial insects and birds. Let them do the work of controlling pests. Nature will protect the plants that grow well for you.
4. Experiment - success can only lead to more success. Try different plants and alternate techniques in test quantities only. Use what you know. Having achieved success with some plants, all other setbacks are just little things. Never sweat the small stuff. Start growing from seed. Rejoice in the part you play in harvesting your own seed and then watching the miracle of germination to complete the cycle of renewal.
5. Make a long-range plan - not too ambitious, but just dreams about what your property could look like under ideal circumstances. Think about how the landscape you govern represents the footprint that you leave behind you on this earth.
Gardening magazines overplay the need for planning. The constant barrage of articles about landscape design, gardening with color and shape, and gardening for display are intimidating. Some plant collectors travel the world searching for perfect specimens which compliment their design. To answer the question, gardening is not art. Art and gardening can be combined to any degree which you find pleasing, or not at all if you find that pleasing. They will never be more closely related than complimentary. A collection of plants is quite sufficient for a garden to exist, even if it consists of only one species. All of the rewards of gardening are available in a garden without a single element of artistic design. Suppose that you require formal artistic expression to be satisfied in your garden. Here are two examples of the extremes to which you might aspire:
Landscape architecture: If you envision your landscape as an n-dimensional matrix in which some elements are joined together to create pleasing paths, spaces, and shapes; if you then search out statuary, trees, shrubs, and plants to fill out those shapes in complimentary colors like a three dimensional painting; then you are an architect of the outdoors. You will have spent long hours in study and planning, and many weeks and months in acquiring the objects and setting them into their proper place, and you will have spent a small fortune. With perseverance and some luck, you will be pleased to spend the rest of your days maintaining your dream landscape. You will be trimming and pruning from time to time, and you might even have to replace something that was damaged by the weather. Note that in landscape architecture, plants are objects -- is that what you want? Did you end up with architorture instead of architecture? Keep in mind that each architectural element installed today can become a severe limitation upon changes that you might want to make in the future.
Landscape painting: If you envision your landscape as a canvas on which you draw an outline of pleasing shapes to be colored with shrubs and flowers, and perhaps some non-flowering plants with pleasing foliage or textures; if you then study and draw up lists of plants that bloom in the proper weeks with the proper hues and tints; then you are a painter of the outdoors. You will have spent long weeks and months searching for the cultivars in the colors you need; you will have 500 catalogs at your disposal; yet some travel will be necessary in order to complete the search. More weeks and months will be spent in arrangements and countless rearrangements of living plants and shrubs, and you will have spent a small fortune. But, you can count on endless summers of enjoying and fine-tuning your painting. Every year you can make new acquisitions to fill in those troublesome spots that seem to come into bloom a week earlier or later than you planned. Your painting comes to life in living color several times each summer. Note that in landscape painting, plants are just colors and shapes -- is that what you want?
The first two examples are extreme in the sense that only experienced gardeners adopt these design styles, partly because that is what gardening authors like to write about. These are supposed to be the goals of every would be master gardener. In other words, garden writers seem to be saying that our gardens are not worthy unless they pass the "display garden" test. The examples I gave are also rather shallow in that a gardener's work is never done, and the perfect finished landscape design needs a full time gardener to keep it that way. I think those goals are out of reach of the average gardener because of the tremendous investment in time and money, along with the future commitment of time and money for maintenance. Design for recreational gardeners should be simple, should concentrate on making what you have look good to you, and should provide spaces for creativity, learning, growing food, providing color, having fun, and a satisfying interest in the plants themselves. Those books on landscaping and garden design will serve you best if used to hold down the coffee table during windstorms.
Take stock of your landscape. You have foundation plantings around your home, windbreaks, living fences, accent shrubs and trees, shade trees, lawns, gardens, walkways, outbuildings, and waste areas. You don't need someone to tell you what your property should look like or if it does or doesn't look good. As you look at the property from different angles, you will see things that could look better. You can move things around. If a shrub doesn't look good anywhere, toss it out. Everything should have a function which needs only unconscious acceptance, and either it does perform that function well, or it doesn't. You can accept what is there, you can replace it with something that works better, or you can open up the space altogether. Space is an element too, and in some situations, it can look and work better than anything else. Your local nursery will suggest plants, trees, and shrubs that will work for any condition that you can adequately describe. Change what you will, accept what will not be changed, and move on. Overall design of your outdoor space is important, but only to resolve the question of where to start. Before moving on to the next phase of garden planning, two principles must be observed: First, take care of what you have; clear the dead wood, do the pruning and trimming, make the repairs, tend to the sick. Second, do not try to accomplish too much too fast. To avoid being overwhelmed, limit the number of active gardening projects to three at any one time, and before beginning each day, look around your outdoor space. Develop the habit of saying out loud "take care of what you have" as you go outdoors each morning.
The twenty-five year landscaping plan for my two acres is basically a search for plants which do well here, and which add to my enjoyment. Each year, I start 250 to 450 packets of seed for the purpose of expanding my collection of plants. Each year, I place each plant in the next available open space in the hopes that it is sited to best advantage for success. Each year, I move those plants that were not sited correctly to what I hope will be a better environment. Each year, I create new beds for plants. Each year, I add as many plants for restoring or maintaining Nature's balance as I add purely for ornament. My computations indicate that my two acres will be completely filled with plants that do well for me during the 24th year of the plan. There will be no grass left save that necessary to transport materials and escort visitors. Then, during that year, when I am no longer able to maintain the property anyway, I plan to win the Illinois lottery. I will immediately hire a professional landscaper who will take stock of my thousands and thousands of plants. He or she will then move each one to its proper place in the grand scheme of things. Colors will be complimentary and appear in waves as the season passes. Better Homes & Gardens and Architecture Digest will be calling every day for an appointment. Martha Stewart will stop by for a chat, carrying a fruitcake made from recycled tires. I will tell everyone that I have been at work here for twenty-five long years. People will refer to my place as a "botanic wonderland." Every visitor will be required to take home two or three potted plants or seedlings. They will be glad -- and I won't tell them that by giving plants away, it is one of my strategies for dealing with pillbugs -- I deport them.
1997 was the eleventh successful year of my plan.
In summary -- stop fussing about, but don't stop dreaming of what could be. The rewards of gardening are actually increased by hosting more plants than you can properly take care of -- it makes the occasional losses seem smaller. You cannot have any more control over your plants than you have over any of the other elements of your life, or your computer, but keep in mind that there is no employer so benevolent as Nature.
There is no other book that illustrates the purpose of this philosophy course for the beginning gardener quite as well. And, once purchased, there won't be much money left for architecture and painting anyway.
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