The suburbs are full of secrets, and my neighbor had one. It was not the stuff of soap operas or PBS documentaries or Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reports, but it was still clandestine in a small way. Sometimes, as she passed my house on her way home from work, she stopped to smell my roses.
I don’t blame her, and when she confessed I encouraged her. I like to smell my roses too, and I do it every chance I get. As inspiring as it is to see a beautiful garden from inside a house, it’s much better to be in the midst of it. A garden is so much more than a pretty sight. It is fragrance, tactile sensations and even, if, you happen to grow edibles, taste. I need to experience all these things on a regular basis to maintain my equilibrium, and I know that I am not alone.
There are times in this life when things get so overwhelming that you want to tear your hair, seek one of the more expensive forms of therapy, or move to another country. For me this feeling is a sure sign that I have not been spending enough time in the garden.
The problem is that most of us have so many competing demands on our time. Guilt becomes a leitmotif in life, and a deterrent to enjoyment. Unfortunately guilt can also spill over into the garden, and once it’s there, it’s harder to eradicate than chickweed.
There are several ways to root guilt out of the garden, and I recommend them. First, take a walk around the garden once a day, every day. You can take an extra ten minutes in the morning or do it when you get home from work (even if you have to do it with a flashlight in hand). This allows you to see the day-to-day changes and plan ways of dealing with things like emergent weeds, plants that don’t seem to be thriving, and plants that seem to be thriving just a bit too much and jeopardizing their better mannered neighbors. I find it hard not to pick a weed here or there as I take my tour, or deadhead a few annuals. After all, doing something is always better than doing nothing, even if the effort only helps one zinnia.
If there are certain garden chores that you hate, find ways of getting them done without direct involvement. Mulch to keep weeding chores to a minimum. Install drip irrigation (which is not all that expensive) or put your sprinklers on a timer to minimize watering chores and save water. If you take the timer option, remember to turn off the system during rainy spells. There is nothing more ridiculous or wasteful than sprinklers going full blast in the middle of a rainstorm.
If groundskeeping chores such as mowing and hedge trimming bring you to grief, you can always hire a lawn and garden service. If that option is too expensive, use whatever form of bribery is necessary to get a spouse, child, neighbor’s child or other willing individual to do some or all of that work. One lovely way of cutting lawn mowing chores is to increase the size of all your garden beds. I know one woman who vows to get her lawn small enough to “mow” with a weed whacker. Obviously she will never feel guilty about lawn mowing.
If you don’t have time to maintain a Gertrude Jekyll-esque mixed perennial border, and don’t want to fuss with a lot of annuals, install or have someone else install flowering shrubs. With a little planning you can have something in bloom or in fruit most of the time and even end up with more winter interest than most of your neighbors.
Figure out what part of the gardening process you like best, and do it as often as possible. If you like putting together spectacular container arrangements, then make them the focal point of your garden. Mulch your beds heavily then group collections of containers on top of the mulch. You can even rig up drip irrigation systems for your container arrays to minimize tedious watering chores.
If you love color, get lots of annuals. If you love color but hate to dig individual holes, plant swathes of the same color or type of plant in relatively shallow trenches. Dig the trench (this allows you to create a swath in any shape that suits you), water it, throw in some compost and arrange your plants. Fill in around the plugs and water again. Mulch around your green fledglings. The annuals will grow and fill the space, the mulch will keep the weeds down, and you will have lots of color with minimal effort. The same kinds of bribery that work for lawn mowing may also work for deadheading annuals, as long as you show your designated deadheader how to do the job properly.
To avoid guilt in the garden you also have to avoid perfectionism. I was on a garden tour recently and saw some wonderful showpiece gardens. All were inspiring, but not one of them was completely weed-free. In fact a couple of the most expensive (professionally landscaped and maintained) had the most problem spots. Not only did I see weeds in the middle of beds, I saw plants in holding areas awaiting installation, and more than a few shrubs in serious need of a haircut. The whole experience made me feel a lot better about my own garden.
We all need a refresher course in avoiding guilt now and again. Go out in your garden as soon as possible. Look carefully at a beautiful rose or bellflower or New Guinea impatien. Do not count the aphids or fret about every dandelion. Life and the gardening season are too short and the sunny days are too few. Remember that those who really deserve to feel guilty about something rarely do, and let your own guilt drift away.
Contact Elizabeth Ginsburg