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.
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!