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The evolution of a gardener


I can’t say what accounts for it, but I’ve noticed recently that I’m a different gardener than I used to. I’m not talking about knowledge, because all gardeners gain that through years of experience and, well, failure.

It’s my approach to the physical tasks of gardening that I’ve recognized a change in.

I used to garden by task: weed, mulch, plant. I’d force myself to complete one task entirely before moving onto the next, and the planting (my favorite part) was always the reward for plowing through the rest, much like you might save the best bite of a brownie for last (and that bit is obviously the corner and if you say otherwise you are a heathen). The problem with this is that it never was finished. By the time I finished weeding the entire garden, the areas I’d weeded first (as much as two weeks earlier) would be weed covered again, because I hadn’t mulched yet.

Dividing 'Summer Beauty' allium
A few minutes of quite enjoyable dividing yielded a lovely little path of ‘Summer Beauty’ alliums.

The other problem was that no part of the garden ever looked “finished.” Everything was always in a state of doing. That’s sort of the nature of gardens but my flawed method made it a fully unkempt state of doing.

And then I read about Margaret Roach‘s approach to spring cleanup: Finish one area of the garden at a time. It’s so logical it’s rather absurd I needed to read it, but for me Margaret is to gardening what Ina Garten is to cooking. Just do what they say and you’ll be good. 

So this is now the way I approach cleanup, but this year I allowed myself to make on-the-fly decisions as I was going through the bed. No overthinking it (I’m a champion overanalyzer), no putting it on a list to do later, no saving the fun bits for last. 

Case in point: Last weekend I had a couple hours to work in the garden and I started in the bed right next to the patio. As I made my way through it I came across some Allium ‘Summer Beauty’ that I had planted too far apart originally. I dropped my rake, picked up my planting trowel and dug up those alliums and divided them right there on the spot. And then I replanted them with much more appropriate spacing. 

It was immensely satisfying and even fun, and I did it again 10 feet farther down the bed when I spotted a Siberian iris that probably should have been divided years ago. 

'Summer Beauty' allium in the rain

I’m also becoming less patient with underperforming plants (imagine me being less patient). I’d rather have a plant I don’t love than a bare spot, but once I identify a good replacement some plants are getting the heave-ho. I’ve tired of the double apricot daylily that I’ve had almost from the beginning. It’s a lovely plant, it’s just not doing anything special for me. So that plant is on notice. (There’s still a chance it could woo me.)

I’m not suggesting this is a huge shift, but rather an evolution of this gardener. Maybe it just took me this long to realize that I don’t have to earn the fun parts of gardening. And it certainly makes the arduous task of spring cleanup much more pleasant.

Have you noticed your gardening style change?

17 Responses

  1. I too have ousted most of the daylilies from my garden because they need so much grooming and lots of water to look good. I have also yanked all my asters–I can’t be bothered to have to hack back plants midsummer so that they will perform well. Instead I am relying more on cast iron plants that manage to thrive in our heavy clay soil that turns to concrete during summer droughts–lambs ears Helen Von Stein, nepeta, and all kinds of sedums.

  2. I started really gardening in about 2008 with a community veggie patch. I was super into my veggies. Right now I have no vegetable garden to speak of. Then I went through a permaculture phase which taught me a lot but was a bit of a mess. A lot of the ideas laid out in books are just too messy to me to be something that’s going to work long-term. That said, I have been trying to apply more permaculture principles and have really committed to asking A LOT of anything that gets planted in my yard. No one-hit wonders. It can’t just be a pretty flower that requires resources and water. Other than a few important landscape trees, everything in the yard needs to have multiple layers of use. It can be multiple seasons of interest, privacy screen, hedge plant, beloved by pollinators, native plants that support particular species, culinary, medicinal/herbal, nitrogen fixing, bird shelter, etc. And it has to mostly take care of itself. I’ll help everything out the first year and I’ll give important trees extra water for a few years, but everything is otherwise on its own. So, to go in my yard these days, it needs to check multiple boxes. My garden and yard needs to work way, way harder for me than I am working for it. The more I cull anything that doesn’t meet these requirements, the happier I am with both the functional and aesthetic outcome.

  3. My mom always just did what was needed right in front of her in the garden, so that’s what I do. On a side note, I have been looking for a double apricot daylily for quite some time!! Send it to me! I’ll pay the shipping!

  4. I learned long ago in my 40s to not stress when somethings not done in the garden.. I don’t even weed or clear all at once. I clean it up as I plant.. it still gets done. Rewarded with a growing healthy plants in the first beds when you get to the last one. I’m 67 now and not gonna beat myself up or wear myself out over my garden. As long as I’m alive it will be there tomorrow.

  5. After being overwhelmed for about five years, I decided to only work on one section of my garden for an entire year (well, until Give Up day). I weeded that little area constantly, mulched heavily, and made it to Give Up day (that is, the day where everything is so out of control that you just let it all be). It looked almost good. Four years and a baby later, it’s only about half done, but that half is looking stinkin’ good.

    1. I did this the last two years. I committed to two sides around my house and let the rest go feral. Those two sides look great, require wayyyyyy less work this spring, and now I can work on a new chunk. There’s something to be said for focusing on one area!

  6. I always start from the house and work outward. I didn’t always do that but I finally realized it makes me feel more relaxed about the garden. I can appreciate the finished portions as I slowly work outward. I do keep lists but now I don’t worry about chores undone. I finished one chore this spring that has been on the list for at least two summers. It felt good getting it completed and I didn’t feel a bit guilty. I am as pleased as if I put it on the list this spring.

  7. I hate gardening. My hubby did it and loved it but as he died in 2016, it’s now my problem. I do have to make a list of to-do tasks or I will just not do them. After being a haphazard gardener in 2016, 2017, and 2018, I decided this year would be different. So today I went around the yard and picked up sticks so the guy can mow the weeds, um, I mean, grass. Then I cleaned out a bed that has 2 grasses in it to prepare it for two new bushes I fell in love with. I then cleaned up the lavender in the pot and since two nice branches broke off, I planted them in another pot. Then I applied liquid fertilizer to the plants. I’m done. Looked at bed two — not happening today. But I do have a list. Keeps me on task so I have to finish certain tasks before I get my wine.

  8. In my mind I have ten or twelve gardens and I try to complete the spring tasks in one before moving on to the next starting with the ones by the front door and the patio. That way I can enjoy them while the feeling of accomplishment spurs me to start another area. I admit it’s not an easy system to maintain when that pile of mulch is on the driveway.
    My gardening evolution has led me towards more patience – now I give a plant three years to show its stuff while verbally threatening it with removal if it doesn’t shape up. I also experiment a bit more. I’ve been helping a friend who moved to a property with black walnut trees and since the lists of tolerant plants can be incomplete and/or contradictory the current mantra is “let’s try”.

  9. I’m curious about how it will affect the iris to be split in spring? I always thought they should be split after they bloom.

    This is good advice, though – you’re right, we should tackle one area at a time….I think it’s a little less overwhelming, and it’s so nice to see at least one area neat and tidy and ready for spring!

    1. Debbie, I think irises should be divided late July through to early September. That’s when they go into dormancy.

    2. According to Schreiner’s Siberian iris should be divided in the spring. Bearded iris are best divided in late summer.

    3. So this is the perfect example of how I’ve changed as a gardener. In the past I would have stopped, gone inside and looked for a book or gone online to find out when I should divide Siberian irises. I thought I remembered that spring was the right time, but I didn’t bother to check and I decided to just do it while I was there, knowing it probably wouldn’t happen if I waited. If I sacrificed blooms, so be it.

  10. I think one of the big differences is that even though I am still ordering unusual plants, I am really trying to fill in the garden with the tried and true performers, esp. ground covers. And no more buying one of something and then dividing it for years until I have a swath. Even with some of the plants I have a lot of, I am not going to make a hole in them to spread them around. I am just going to buy a few more. The biggest change is that I am more willing to change things, including taking out trees. And I hired a helper last year and trusted her judgement and abilities. Alas, she can’t come too much this year but I will use her as I can. I joined a gym a few years ago mostly to be able to keep gardening and to do it without falling and hurting myself. And I always eat the center of the pan of brownies where they are nice and gooey. But I will eat everybody’s nice crusty pie crust edges if they will let me!

  11. When I first began gardening I yanked every little weed that sprouted. Little did I know that I was pulling up spreading seedlings! Now I’m content to let the “tares grow with the wheat”before a while. No wonder my garden wasn’t filling in!

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