10 Things Every Gardener Should Know

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I used to wonder how it was that two people of like intelligence could open a cookbook and follow the same recipe and produce two entirely different results – one heavenly, and one quite leaden. I began to understand it though, when I began to garden. I used the same book others who had beautiful gardens had used – I read it carefully, took notes, drew up plans, shopped carefully and practically used a grid to plant things as they should be planted.

But my garden didn’t look anything like anyone else’s.

Two people, or a thousand people can follow the same basic “recipe” for a good garden – and yet no two gardens will ever come out the same. Some will be quite successful; many will be good first efforts, which will be refined over time – and a few would be utter failures.

So perhaps it is right to warn the new gardeners – or those who have dabbled but are starting to get serious, about the mystique in gardening that few ever really warn us about.

1. Even if you do everything right, things will go wrong.
It’s true. Should you be of the compulsive type who has explored every nuance of gardening, had the soil tested and researched each and every plant you install, you will still not get perfection. A vole will race through his little tunnel, stopping periodically to munch away the roots of your prize delphinium. A hailstorm will punch holes in both leaves and flowers – and what they don’t get the slugs will. You may have drought – of floods. Or you may have purchased a mislabeled plant, so that while the one you meant to buy would have loved your garden, you ended up with a finicky relation that doesn’t like its new home.

These failures are not always your fault. They are tests to see if you really have the kind of character to garden and enjoy it. If you like challenges, you will rise to them.

2. Most of us will NOT do everything right.
It’s not for lack of trying. One thing every passionate gardener soon learns is that the more you know, the more you find that you still don’t know. There are some things about gardening that even the most expert of experts can’t explain. So why should we mere mortals be able to?

Every year you will learn from your mistakes – and every year you will do more and more things that are right. Not everything – but more than in each preceding year.

3. Even the most rank beginner can have undreamed of success with plants that others fail with.
That’s part of what keeps us going. I know I’ve always had splendid success with Heuchera. The owner of the local nursery, who taught me a great deal of what I know about gardening, says he simply can’t grow them. It just so happens that for many reasons peculiar to the history of my property I have quite a different soil than he does. So it isn’t my skill, nor is it a lack of skill on his part. It’s not even experience. It’s the happenstance of our soil.

Part of a gardener’s success might be a green thumb – but much of it is in the soil.

4. Much of your success really IS in the soil.
Many years ago, before I had a real place of my own to garden, my landlord let me plant a small garden in front of the house I was renting. I didn’t read any gardening books because it all seemed so obvious. Get rid of that grass and plant your seeds in the dirt underneath. And that, of course, was why I failed.

It really was DIRT underneath the grass – subsoil, nearly devoid of nutrition. It wasn’t soil of any kind, and it was so compacted that it would have taken a very determined plant to actually spread roots and prosper there. (Actually, a few did. Not many.)

The next time I tried a garden we tilled the soil to make sure it was loose and friable. We added organic matter. And things grew. A lot of those things were weeds – but we also got flowers and vegetables. Nice ones.

Gardening is not wafting through the flowerbeds in floaty dresses clipping perfect rosebuds to add to our dainty baskets. It has a real connection to the earth – and the more we respect that earth and feed it, the more it will give back to us.

Then we can float through the yard with our secateurs and have something worth clipping.

If you don’t like getting your hands dirty – get out of the garden. Except as an admirer. Gardening means getting your hands into the dirt – and loving it.

5. It can be very hard telling the good guys from the bad guys.
I have many horror stories from my early years. The year I carefully fed and nurtured what I thought were newly germinated flower seeds, only to discover that it was all crabgrass. The year I carefully and painstakingly pulled up about a thousand little weeds – which turned out to be the poppies I had planted so hopefully the previous fall. Every year you learn to recognize a few more. Every year, it seems like something new and mysterious presents itself and you have to decide whether to pull it or let it go. Sometimes you will make the right decision. This usually happens more and more often as years go by.

Time and experience are the best teachers. Better than any book; better even than advice from friends. Every garden is different.

6. The garden in your mind will never be the one that grows in your yard.
All of us, I’m sure, have a general picture of what we want our garden to be like. We may not be able to plot that picture, plant by plant, but we usually have an idea that can be filled in by shapes, color and texture of what we call “garden.”

You can make a great stab at it even in a very new garden – but unless you are very rich and can place nothing but mature plants in the yard, you will have spaces, uneven growth rates, and some plants that simply up and die. Some plants have exactly the look that you want but don’t appreciate the accommodations you give them. Others like their new home too well and try to drive everything else out.

The inhabitants of the garden are much like the members of the human race! Only somewhat predictable. Always fascinating.

7. The garden will never be finished.
A garden is a process, rather than an end product. To a real gardener that is its joy. It is never done; it is always changing, it will continue to need us – and we can continue striving to create that garden in our minds.

And if the preceding 6 points are true, we will not want it to be finished. We will want to keep learning, trying to vanquish our foes and rejoice in our triumphs, as well as to keep changing things as our tastes change and our experiences introduce us to a multitude of different plants.

We succeed wonderfully with some, fail with others and have indifferent results with the rest. And that in itself teaches us much about how we must garden.

As we learn more, our tastes adjust.

8. As we age, our tastes change even more, as we learn to love that which our strengths and weaknesses can deal with.

As young gardeners, we may have the energy to try a hundred different new plants – and the mental faculty to keep the differing needs of each separate in our heads. We may find that variety is the essence of our youthful gardens. We may even scorn the usual and mundane.

As older gardeners, we will come to recognize the value of the mundane and be charmed less by the beautiful newcomer. We will begin to expect more of our gardens, to ask them to get by with less attention than we used to be able to give. We may find that we must demand that our gardens ask of us no more than we have to give. Plants that cannot comply will have to leave.

The garden in our minds will change to something less demanding, but even more satisfying.

9. The garden in your mind is always changing; our goals as gardeners are also always changing.
Like our gardens, we are always growing. There is strength in the earth, strength to be gained from failure, and joy and even more strength with each success. And every year we will see our share of both success and failure, and learn from both.

The best we can strive for is to make our gardens, and our lives, an experience of turning failure into triumph.

10. The garden is one of the few things I know of that is never meant to be perfect. Just like humankind.

Like us, the garden is a process of striving toward perfection and learning to deal with setbacks. Every year we start out vowing to try to get it right. Sometimes we come close.

I have these fears that if I ever DO get it right, there will be no reason to garden anymore. If I can look at a garden and say, “It’s done” – then I must also fear that I have ceased to have hopes; ceased to try to improve things. I must fear that I am also done.

Be grateful that your garden will always provide you with an outlet for creativity and caring.