I’ve mentioned that I struggle with tulips, but the truth is I struggle with almost everything in the garden. If a writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, as Thomas Mann claimed, then I must be a gardener, because I find gardening hard!
Don’t get me wrong. I love gardening. Few things make me happier, in fact. I love designing and digging beds, planting, seeding, deadheading, and weeding. I even get a certain cavewoman satisfaction from wrestling roots and stumps into submission.
But why is everything such a struggle?
I spend hours deciding which plants I want to use in my beds, and then I struggle to find them. That’s one of the (very few) drawbacks of life in the north, and it bites hardest for gardeners who’ve moved here from the City of Gardens, where you can buy (or better still, beg from a friend) virtually any plant you could ever want.
I deliberate over plant placement endlessly. Then, no sooner do I tread around a plant to pack it firmly into place than I change my mind, dig it up, and plant it somewhere else. The Russian lilac in the photo below is the first plant I bought for this garden, in 2004. It should be ten feet tall by now, and it no doubt would be—if I hadn’t moved it 47 times.
Perhaps I exaggerate. But not by much.
I aim to plant in casual groupings, but when I step back to admire my informal drifts, I discover I’ve managed to line the plants up like dutiful soldiers.
The problem starts in other people’s gardens. When I have the opportunity, I love to visit gardens. When I don’t, I study pictures of them in books or online. Gardens like Tasha Tudor’s or Pensthorpe or Des Kennedy’s Denman Island sanctuary inspire me and make me want to surround myself in beauty. Not that our farm is not already surrounded in beauty.
But as much as I love our natural environment of mountains, forest and river, something compels me to create a garden—one that flows naturally into the surrounding beauty. This one in West Cork, Ireland, designed by Piet Oudolf, is my gold standard.
And so I attempt to emulate. My goal is to create a garden that makes me feel the way the West Cork garden makes me feel: peaceful, content, yet alive and expansive.
My impatience works against me, though. Bare spots in a bed grate my nerves, so I crowd too many small plants together and then hate the result . . .
. . . especially when everything blooms at once—and it’s all the same colour.
Part of the problem is that I’m learning as I go. I don’t always know what a plant is going to do—how big it will grow, exactly when it will bloom, how well it will compete with, or complement, its neighbour. And sometimes a plant combination I loved in a photo jars my senses when I see it in my garden.
Furthermore, I’m impulsive. I’ll get a brilliant design idea, spend a whole day dismantling a bed that was perfectly fine the way it was, and then realize I don’t have all the plants I need to make my vision work. (That’s about the time I uproot the Russian lilac yet again.)
Here is where the lilac started its whirlwind tour of the garden: four feet from where it’s located today. Note that in ten years it’s only gained a couple of inches.
Nancy Ondra has a great strategy for dealing with bare spots: she used annuals and edibles to fill in her Hayefield flowerbeds until the grasses, shrubs, and perennials matured. I’ve done the same, but my results weren’t quite as attractive as hers.
If nothing else, my garden is teaching me patience. I’m learning to give plants room to grow, and to embrace the sometimes ugly mess of experimentation. I’m learning that it’s sometimes best to leave a plant where it is, even if it jars my nerves at first.
We’ll see how long the Russian lilac stays put.