The Patience of a Gardener

Recently we’ve hosted lively discussions here at Garden Rant about spending gobs of money on our gardens, choosing native over non-native plants, and to what extent gardens are art. To me, there is a more personal and pertinent issue at stake with regard to America’s current horticultural practices: how they affect our daily experience of nature.

A garden may be expensive or not, it may qualify as art or not, and it may host plants from all corners of the globe or from within a 5-mile radius of its location; regardless, it is an intersection between person and place. Ideally, it could be not just a community of plants or a series of outdoor living spaces, but a mutually beneficial relationship.

Part of the fun of creating a garden is trying unfamiliar plants, like this silver-leaved horehound (Marrubium rotundifolium) mingling with winecups (the red-purple blooming Callirhoe involucrata, an old favorite) in my new courtyard garden.

Unfortunately, the emotional and spiritual rewards of gardening are diminished by our reluctance to allow gardens to develop slowly, over time, in response to climatic and geologic factors as well as a gardener’s growing familiarity with his/her land.

Affluent gardeners tend to want results right away. So do their neighbors. Gardeners and garden designers in certain locales may be pressured to have a garden looking fairly settled soon after it is planted (or “installed,” a term that underlines this bias).

We are not tolerant of someone’s newly created garden, tending to judge its current look without exerting ourselves to see their potential landscape as they envision it. But dreaming and anticipating are key parts of the gardening process. For some, they are the most rewarding parts.

Creating a place at a pace limited by one human’s physical abilities can be satisfying and meaningful. Even if the visible results seem miniscule to outsiders, less visible results might include a growing pride, a deepening sense of rootedness, new understanding of local plants/animals/climate/geology.

Like many, I enjoy learning about and growing plants native to my region. Growing native plants can test your patience. Depending on where you live, they may be hard to source. If you are lucky enough to find a grower, the plants may be small and require several years to produce blooms or fruits. If you cannot find a local grower, you may opt to start seeds, which further lengthens the timeline.

One of my most rewarding gardening experiences so far was growing New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) from seed in my Minnesota prairie. Over the years, these asters spread through my garden, producing a delightful variety of flower colors from shell pink to deep purple. Seeing its natural variations, I felt I was getting to know New England aster as a species rather than as one plant. When I think of this aster now, my mind supplies not one image but a diverse array of them.

Seeded New England aster variations in my Minnesota prairie garden.

It takes patience to find the right plants for a site. Sure, a knowledgeable local gardener (or grower or designer) might be able to give you a head start by recommending plants that have a good chance of succeeding in your new garden, but it may still take years of experimenting with different plants and locations, spreading (or letting spread) the successful ones, to arrive at a healthy landscape.

In this culture of instant gratification, where a landscape that does not meet neighborhood standards can invite public reprimands, fines, and even destruction by the authorities, what’s a patient gardener to do? Where’s the fascination in a picture-perfect garden? Where’s the personal growth? Where’s the relationship?

Posted by

Evelyn Hadden
on August 6, 2014 at 12:34 pm, in the category Everybody’s a Critic, Lawn Reform, Real Gardens.

Comment List

  • admin 18 / 10 / 2015

    Hear, hear. Nongardeners don’t have long-range-vision glasses on when they’re seeing my new garden, so my favorite visitors are people like you, who see the potential, the vision, the process, and appreciate my garden for where it is today.

  • Benjamin Vogt 09 / 02 / 2016

    Lovely piece, Evelyn. Just perfectly said.

  • Teri 17 / 08 / 2016

    Well said!

  • Deborah 17 / 10 / 2016

    Definitely the most satisfying way to have a garden. Otherwise it is just another job– like housework–which also requires patience to figure out the best place for things.

  • John 21 / 10 / 2016

    Well said and well written. I was on a garden tour recently and notice the huge difference between the professionally “installed” gardens and the blood/sweat/tears/pride gardens that took years to develop. The professional gardens just didn’t seem to have a soul.

  • Australian gardener 15 / 11 / 2016

    Nicely written, Evelyn. Even though I work for a gardening company, I certainly enjoy developing my own garden, at home. The satisfaction you get after the months/years of patience is priceless and wouldn’t trade it for anything!

  • admin 19 / 11 / 2016

    Thank you for validating “slow gardening”. As a recent homeowner, I’ve returned to gardening after many years of apartment living. I’m learning that the implementation of my plans is so much slower than my thoughts that went into them. But I am learning also to appreciate that slowness, as it allows me to really find out if that plant was really right for that spot or not and to change accordingly. Just being out in the yard pulling weeds or snipping deadheads is pure joy.

  • Sandra Knauf 20 / 11 / 2016

    Your Minnesota prairie garden is Van Gogh worthy. Just beautiful. There are many instant delights in the garden but, as you’ve stated, the most profound is watching its (and the gardener’s) development over time.

  • Allen Bush 21 / 11 / 2016

    It takes years to learn the nuances of a place. Thanks for your essay and the reminder to take it easy.

  • Carolyn 21 / 11 / 2016

    Yep. No gardeners in my neighborhood, so they don’t see the potential in my “work in progress”, but they LOVE my couple of beds that are established already and doing well. They don’t understand that it’s already been a couple of years of hard work to get those beds established, and the other beds need that kind of time too! I keep telling my neighbors: “there’s a plan”.

  • Mischelle 22 / 11 / 2016

    Thank you for eloquently describing the thoughts I have had in my head for years and haven’t had a way to diplomatically share with those around me. I typically spout out, “That’s not a garden – that’s a landscape!” “No soul!” to my companions and walk away while on local garden tours in typically more affluent neighborhoods. They bore me.

  • admin 22 / 11 / 2016

    Damn, I wish you were my neighbor!
    And what glorious New England asters!

  • BooksInGarden 22 / 11 / 2016

    Damn, but this may be my favorite post ever. I garden in Southern CA, I grew up in England. In some ways I garden just the way that I remember gardens in the fifties in England: slowly evolving, trying new things and discarding them if they don’t work out, getting free plants and relocating them once they show what they can do. After finding a great plant, using it freely in other places in the garden. Discarding plants that are prima donnas and embracing those who are happy with my conditions. Planting trees is part of this. They take time to grow, they change microclimate and sun/shade environment. Gardening is a process, a moving meditation (credit Margaret Roach), a lifetime endeavor, not a designer showcase. Understanding that (almost) all of the critters that come into the garden have their place.
    Thank you Evelyn!

  • Fred Karp 22 / 11 / 2016

    My callirhoe hold on just long enough to blend beautifully with plumbago.

  • pg diaz 22 / 11 / 2016

    absolutely agree= when we had been in our new home only about 2years, my follow members of the local garden club came for a ‘tour’ — I called it my Tomorrow garden and wrote about balancing my love of gardening and family time when kids were younger. and now my garden is overflowing!

  • Mark Lozier 22 / 11 / 2016

    I loved your post about patience.  Reading it triggered a memory from my early days living in New York City, long before I even contemplated starting a garden of my own.
    It was 1978 when I first encountered the garden of indigenous plants from pre-colonial times created by the artist Alan Sonfist.
    Titled “Time Landscape”, See This tiny (25′ x40′) oasis of native grasses, flowers, scrubs, and trees became a very special place, drawing me close whenever I passed by.  At the time I didn’t know why.  In retrospect, it was a particularly lonely and lost time of my life.  I was in my late twenties and had not yet come close to finding my own “garden”. It was a time spent in my own wilderness before therapy or love entered my life.
    Looking back, I’m quite sure that by gazing deep into the shadows of that green space so rich in
    history, memory, and mystery, I was looking deeper into the self I had yet to discover.
    It’s a strange that the garden I only recently started nurturing behind my NYC home is similar in size to Sonfist’s.
    I can honestly say (to myself at least) that it’s been 36 patient years in the making.

  • Elizabeth 23 / 11 / 2016

    I really appreciative the authenticity and respectfulness of the comments at Garden Rant. Great conversations happen that I mull over when I am back outside in my garden oasis in a small city. I’m just a country mouse who happens to live in the city. Allen Bush your comment about getting to know a piece of land over time reflects my relationship with my gardens, the soil, the weather and the critters which help create what you mention Evelyn – a symbiotic relationship. This relationship teaches us about cycles and patience. Whether our gardens grow over years or roll out of a truck in a week may everyone be open to the mysteries, the wonders and the lessons they have for us.

  • Bill 23 / 11 / 2016

    You’ve said it so well. I’ve been gardening for only about 10 years and I now have some areas which are establishing in ways I really love. But I have loved the whole process. I remember having garden visitors some years ago, before things were really established. I was so excited to show them things I found to be fantastic but as we walked around I realized how my ‘garden’ must look to a non-gardener. Some of the plants I was most enthralled by were not even noticed. My gardening friends appreciate, knowing what it takes.

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