The Well Organized Garden

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Getting A Grip On The Garden

Just so you know, this sometimes sorrowful story has a happy ending. Ready? For the first decade or so of my gardening life, my gardens were fairly easy to care for. I was fortunate in learning the exceptional value of mulch very early on, through mentors like Ruth Stout, whose landmark books, How To Have A Green Thumb Without An Aching Back, and Gardening Without Work heavily informed my ideas about gardening. Thanks to Ruth and a hefty collection of old Organic Farming And Gardening magazines, I found edible gardening relatively easy and deeply rewarding.

However, when I was given a copy of Vita Sackville-West’s Garden Book, my world changed again. Her poetic, imaginative plant descriptions reawakened my own childhood fascination with flowers and I dove head first into ornamental gardening. Back in the early 1980s, interest in perennials was starting to boom. I joined every seed exchange I could find, English or otherwise, and collected unfamiliar plants as fast as I could find them.

Surviving The Acquisitive Stage

Suddenly my gardens became utterly transformed. Instead of neat rows or patches of edibles, I filled curving beds with ribbons and sweeps and colonies of color-coordinated, seasonally sequenced perennials. That in itself wasn’t too hard a change to make, especially since mulch still played a major part in my bed-making, but as I accumulated more and more plants, the beds grew fuller and fuller until I couldn’t shoehorn in a single crocus bulb. At the same time, my rather impressive pot ghetto, packed with the unplanted and homeless, required endless watering and weeding. I could not pass up a cool new-to-me plant, even if I had no idea where to put it, and new specialty nurseries were popping up like mushrooms after rain.

The pot ghetto grew, and grew, and grew until I could no longer track what I had or where it was. Sometimes I would find a long-sought treasure and bring it triumphantly home only to discover that I already had the same thing, languishing in a pot. Sometimes I would weed my way through a tangle of overgrown pots and find that the plants had languished too long and were now former plants. Invariably the late lamented plants were extremely expensive, leaving me with an uncomfortable mixture of guilt, grief, and confusion. If I wanted these plants so desperately, why couldn’t I get them in the ground so they could bring glory to the garden? I kept making new beds and packing them full, yet the ghetto never seemed to shrink.

Assessment Before Action

Today, my pot ghetto holds fewer than a dozen plants, and my surprisingly well maintained and not over crowded garden holds both plants I love dearly and some I’m learning more about. In large part, this happy state came about because (frankly) the garden is pretty new, but also because a few years ago, I read an amazing book about organizing. It was not the currently trendy Japanese one. Mine was called When Organization Is Not Enough: SHED your stuff, Change your Life, by Julie Morgenstern. It includes most of the same tips and techniques usual to the genre, but one idea resonated deeply: If you don’t understand why you got and kept a particular object, getting rid of it won’t really help, because you’ll just accumulate more like it.

Thinking back, I realize that my hyper acquisitiveness had several major pieces, one of which was education. At a time when few perennials were available, the only way to learn how unfamiliar ones might fare in my corner of the world was to try to grow them. That was mostly valid back in the day, when I made a living killing off and/or succeeding with the unknowns. By the turn of the new century, the flood of newcomers had slowed to a steady trickle, so truly new-to-me plants didn’t need to pile up like they used to. Sadly, however, the pot ghetto was still with me because having extra plants on hand had become a habit.

Inventory Control

Another piece that played a big part in the mess was my inability to let a seedling or extra division of a valuable plant go. When perennials were rare, such treasures could be swapped for other cool stuff. Now, formerly prized plants like Crocosmia Lucifer can be found in gallons at the grocery store, and fantastic gems like Euphorbia Chameleon may be practically noxious weeds in some areas. In the garden, just like in your clothes closet or garage, part of the process of letting go requires evaluating your stash. What IS all this stuff, anyway? If I don’t really need something myself, where could it be of service?

For me, sorting is an important step toward clutter control. When I actually hauled the entire plant stash into the driveway and started categorizing, I saw that many of the plants were duplicates. I grouped those and figured out where they could usefully go (mostly to public parks or the library gardens). Many other ghetto dwellers were shade plants that no longer fit in my now-sunny garden. These too could be given to new homes where they would be happy and useful.

Open Up And Pass It On

Having now worked this process over and over, I find that passing things on to become useful and valued again is almost as addictive as acquisition once was. These days, a stuffed closet or over-planted garden bed feels like an invitation to divide and distribute. In fact, I now have an uncomfortable sense that stuff packed away is in some sense dead, where stuff in active circulation is connected to life. This feels true about money, books, clothing, tools and toys as well as plants. Today, I feel an not unpleasant need to unclutter every area of my garden, my home, and my life. It’s a new imperative: Open up and let anything stuck in stasis get out into the world and find new life!

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9 Responses to The Well Organized Garden

  1. Deirdre says:

    I loved this blog as it describes the story of my own gardening trajectory to the letter! I’m on the other side of the world in Sydney, Australia, but went through the identical experiences with all the new introductions of perennials and the English cottage garden phase in the 1980s. Very few of them actually did well here in our mild, humid climate, but I had to try them all anyway! In the end, turned to semi-tropical plants and have now worked out what grows well and am divesting my garden of all those that struggle. I love your decluttering philosophy and I agree it is a wonderful feeling to pass things on to others who can use them.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Perhaps it is the exhausted wisdom of age and experience? After we strive o hard and kill so many innocent plants, we finally calm down and settle into doing what we can do well (though that adventurous spirit surely lingers on in design or the occasional plant fling).

  2. Cathy says:

    Wise words, thank you. Wonderful and inspiring, and it just might curb my fall bulb order!

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      My usual method is to make my desperate desire list, then put it in a drawer for a week or two. Then make a new list, without looking at the old one. Then, from memory, make a top ten want list. Keep this up for a while; it’s pretty refining.

  3. Chris Mealy says:

    I thought it was just me who hoarded plants! My private nursery really got out of control when I started propagating plants. I didn’t realize it was so easy and wound up with a ton of plants. Fortunately I discovered the Washington Park Arboretum’s plant donations nursery (What was I going to do with eight mountain ashes and a dozen red flowering currants anyway?) I also used to get a lot of not-available-in-stores plants from the sales at Magnusson Park, but sadly they don’t have those anymore.

  4. Karla Zimmerman says:

    Oh my, oh my. My friends know this is part of my shadow. I will continue to ponder your words.

  5. Wonderful and inspiring. More quite places are needed in this hectic world we live in.

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