Putting my garden to bed each fall is an undeniably daunting task. I currently have nineteen good-sized perennial flower beds, separated by large swathes of Kentucky bluegrass that rivals Genghis Khan in its territorial ambitions. Then there are “Angela,” one of the largest ash trees in Fort Collins; “Millicent,” a box elder maple that’s racing her older sister to the heights; and “Douglas ,” the elderly but still healthy fir tree that shelters my shade plants. Add in a wild assortment of ancient lilac trees with colonizing ideas of their own, an aspen seedling here and there (and there and there and there), an uninvited-but-welcome hawthorn, various definitely unwelcome volunteers, and you have a big-picture overview of my corner lot.
It’s when you get down to the details that it gets truly interesting—and challenging. When I bought this little-house-with-a-big-yard and began putting in garden beds, I was blissfully unaware of how the passing decades would affect both my garden and its human tender. True, when I moved in I’d already been gardening for over 40 years; you’d think I’d have seen everything by then. But I had never before cultivated the same garden for more than three years. Oh my, I had no idea…
That was nearly 30 years ago, and I have learned many, many lessons from the plot of semi-arid, semi-controlled chaos that surrounds and glorifies my old house. Lessons in gardening, yes; and lessons in living. Here, to entertain you as the cold closes in, are a few of my gleanings.
I’ve learned that:
“Ideal” is a moving target. Early on, I watched a master-gardener neighbor transplant yet another set of plants from one side of her garden to the other. “Why do you do that, Karen?” I asked. “Surely those plants had ideal conditions where they were.” “You’ll find out, if you stay with your garden long enough,” she said.
And I did. Full-sun plants discovered they were now shaded by a fast-growing tree and stopped blooming; they had to move. New arrivals to the yard didn’t wouldn’t thrive alongside certain plant neighbors; I had to find new quarters for them. Older plants, tolerant at first, began to crowd out newcomers as they grew. And then there were the plants that did just fine for several years and then for no visible reason began to fail; something had shifted and they needed to try their luck elsewhere. Now I realize that my garden is always “for now,” its inhabitants not frozen in forever-ideal conditions but constantly in need of updating.
And so it is with my life: old thoughts, beliefs, decisions, dreams, feelings, even old truths, need revisiting, replacing or revising if my inner garden is to stay vibrant and fruitful. Perfection is a static, unreal concept; living is messy, but gloriously so!
Pruning lets in the light. Watching the tree pruners at work used to hurt my heart. Why lop off so many perfectly healthy, happily growing branches? Then I was told that if you don’t thin out a tree regularly, new growth stops because the sunlight can’t reach through the outer leaf canopy to nourish the smaller, younger, branches that hold the tree’s future in their little, er, twigs. Result: a weak “old-branch” tree, shorter-lived and more vulnerable to weather, insects and rot. My heart no longer aches for the lopped-off branches; it rejoices for the liberated tree.
And for me? Losses, accepted as gracefully as possible, have always let in new light eventually. Not always right away, of course. But now I can look forward, even in pain, to a time of growth ahead, fueled by a larger vision of my place in an unfolding design...
Frustration can be a starting point. When a creation to-be is aborted, when I am blocked from achieving what I so confidently set forth to do, I consider my sweet pea bushes. All summer long, I frustrate them almost daily by cutting off the old blooms before the seed pods—their actual end-goal in life—begin to form. If I “kindly” let the plants go through their whole cycle, they happily go to seed and wither away in days. When regularly frustrated, however, they bloom ever more fiercely, from early June right through autumn’s first frosts.
And so also in my life. Whenever I’ve picked myself up, bruised and bleeding, cried “Remember the sweet peas!” and forged ahead despite the disappointments, life has always brought an unexpected blossoming of possibilities.
Weed barriers… aren’t. My first two years in this garden were devoted to fruitless attempts to discourage, root out, dig up, and otherwise rid my garden beds of the rampaging hordes of grasses, bindweed, dandelions, wild harebell, elm seedlings and other undesirables bent on total supremacy. Not believing that poisons belong in gardens, in Year Three I finally resorted to laying down the thick, water-permeable cloth known as weed barrier. My tough Kentucky grass disdained it and grew up through the fabric in wild abandon. Bindweed, harebells and company proliferated on top, as the lovely thick mulch I spread over the barrier broke down into delicious soil. The only thing the barrier discouraged was my flowering plants and bulbs, which found it hard to grow and/or multiply when restricted to the strait-laced individual holes I cut for them. So I went back to weeding, facing the little gangsters head-on—and learned to enjoy it thoroughly.
Is my garden perfectly weed-free? Not on your life. I’ve discovered that as long as I feed my perennials well and give them a little room to expand, once the plants green up they hide most of the weeds anyway, and seem none the worse for the (mild) competition. If I can see it, I pull it (mostly). Otherwise, see Point One above!
The unwanted “weeds” in my life don’t quit either, just because I fight them constantly or try to block them out entirely. Some silly tendencies, persistent temptations, nasty shortcomings and even downright ugly errors in judgment go right on showing up no matter how hard I try to root them out. However, fighting what I don’t want all the time isn’t any more fun than hauling heavy weed barrier onto my garden beds and laboriously cutting holes in it for the “legitimate” plants to poke their little noses through, row on carefully designed row. And just as I’ve learned to prefer the riotous, mostly unplanned semi-chaos of my mature garden, I’ve learned that to be truly human isn’t about sterile, weedless perfection, and to be truly alive isn’t about a never-ending search for inner weeds to pull. Focusing on what I do want and enjoy is a whole lot more fun!
In the end, it all comes down to this:
The best gardeners are facilitators, not dictators. Encouraging plants to grow—but learning to let them do it where they want to, not where I’ve decided they ought to. Pulling some weeds to make room—but focusing mostly on nourishing the flowering plants. Pruning and deadheading to allow more abundance—but not forcing the plants via over-fertilizing. Letting the garden show me how it wants to take shape, then changing a border here, adding a plant there, to enhance what’s already in motion. This, to me, is both the most delightful and the most effective way to enjoy my garden. And if it’s messy at times, disappointing on occasion, often precariously balanced between joyous freedom and complete chaos? Well, that’s life, isn’t it?
In life as in my garden, I’m constantly rediscovering that it’s not all about work, work, working to wrest a desired outcome from the reluctant hands of Fate. Yes, the occasional large weed can need some elbow grease, but over all, gentle coaxing works better than arrogant insistence. I’m learning to stop, to let my eyes feast on the dance of color, my heart expand in the sunlight, my mind delight in the ongoing challenges of my life’s garden plot.
No, I haven’t acquired “all I need to know in life” from working in my garden. But what I have learned has directed my (often dirt-splattered) feet along a path of greater peace, serenity, and joyful understanding. And, to quote my father—my early mentor in both gardening and life—that is an elegant sufficiency.