Relax! It’s only a garden

Allan Armitage

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“No doubt this can be a thug, but ‘Lipstick’ trumpet vine is a hummingbird magnet in our garden,” says Allan Armitage. (Photos from his Twitter account)
“No doubt this can be a thug, but ‘Lipstick’ trumpet vine is a hummingbird magnet in our garden,” says Allan Armitage. (Photos from his Twitter account)
“No doubt this can be a thug, but ‘Lipstick’ trumpet vine is a hummingbird magnet in our garden,” says Allan Armitage. (Photos from his Twitter account)

Have you talked with gardeners lately? Not obsessive gardeners, but people who simply enjoy the activity we call gardening. Real people who enjoy receiving real catalogues and actually read them; people who buy gardening books, or even go online every now and then.

I love talking to these gardeners, especially those who are just beginning to dip their big toe in the gardening pond. People like my daughters, Laura and Heather, who are young mothers with small children, no money and no time. People like my students who can listen, learn and take the kernel of gardening knowledge I pass along and later watch it grow. People like my sister-in-law Sandi, whose imagination is only limited by time and money. These are the people I want to talk to; these are the people who must be encouraged.

This love of gardening is wonderful, but I tell my students, daughters and friends to put things in perspective. This is gardening, not brain surgery. If a plant you put in a few years ago dies, it is not the end of the world. It is not your child, not even your dog or cat. I don’t like plants dying on me either. However, if a plant in my garden succumbs, I mourn for a day, then I look at that bare space as an opportunity to plant something new.

Visit any gardener and chances are you will hear complaints about how the garden looked better last week or will so next week. But if there were but one banner that best describes gardeners in general, it would be, “Wait until next year!” Gardeners are an optimistic lot. We garden as if the passing years mean nothing because we are always looking forward. Why else do we plant saplings that will eventually provide shade, but not for 10 years? Why else do we plant bulbs in the fall, if not to look forward to the next spring? Why else do we believe pictures in a catalogue, if not for our faith in future beauty? I learned a lesson that quickly became self-evident. That is, it is impossible to get old when you look forward to the future, and gardeners have much to look forward to. There are sore gardeners, keen gardeners and many broke gardeners, but there is no such thing as an old gardener.

I bet if I asked 500 gardeners today to describe in a single word why they garden, I would hear the same three words gardeners used 20 years ago: gardening is creative, therapeutic and exciting. Wouldn’t you agree? Creativity occurs every time you place a couple of plants in the soil, and playing in that soil is therapeutic, especially when the stress of work, kids and spouse may drive you to drink. And yes, gardening is exciting. Maybe not NASCAR exciting, but we are a simple lot, and prefer to watch plants succeed than to smell cars going around in circles for 500 miles.

Nonetheless, there are a number of gardeners I have found best to avoid. Heaven help you when you meet someone who wants to correct your plant pronunciation. Truly, does it really matter if you say “pan-ic-ew-lay’ ta” or “pan-ic-ew-lah’ ta?” And who really cares if you say “clem’ a-tis” instead of “cle-mat’ is”? Simply tell them Armitage says, “Get the syllables in the right order and fire away!” Such frustrated people have too much time on their hands. They should garden more.

I also run for the hills when plant snobs show up—people who won’t grow annuals or live only for a certain genus, or those who believe that only native plants should be in gardens. There are places for all these plants. Although I dislike rose gardens, I love roses and simply believe they are best combined with other plants. Let’s be gardeners, not associations.

Neither do I have patience with people who advise me that my garden is not well designed. Long ago I learned I don’t have the discipline to stay with any plant or any garden design—there are simply too many things to try. My design philosophy finds me with a plant in one hand and a trowel in the other, looking for a place to plant the sucker. Although I am not capable of practising it, I love good design. Like the famous comment about pornography, “I can’t define it, but I recognize it when I see it,” such are my comments about garden design. And my garden is just fine, thank you.

“Lily time at the Armitage garden. ‘Anastasia’ just keeps getting better,” Allan says.
“Lily time at the Armitage garden. ‘Anastasia’ just keeps getting better,” Allan says.

There is no such thing as the perfect garden or a finished garden. It will always be a work in progress, with some beautiful gems and some blemished rocks. But it is your garden, and if you enjoy it, that’s all that counts. You are all invited to my garden, but if you don’t like it, I really don’t care.

The most important thing about gardening is never to take it seriously. Relax and enjoy yourself. You will never get rid of every weed, so do the best you can and live with it. You will never get rid of every disease or bug, and if some plants are always infected or eaten by something, throw them in the compost heap. There are many other beautiful plants to try. Gardening is frustrating enough when it snows in April or floods in August, so why put in plants that make it even more challenging? Don’t work so hard in the garden that you never have time to enjoy it. Believe it or not, garden benches are not only there for ornamental value. Sit down, enjoy your wine or julep, and take a deep breath.

Lastly, remember that enjoyment is self-sustaining. Like good stem cells, enjoyment multiplies with use. Of course, there will be times when you are tired, frustrated and sore, but overall, the pleasure should always be worth the pain.

Life is good when you can play in the dirt. Get out, have fun and garden with a smile.

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5 thoughts on “Relax! It’s only a garden”

  1. So true so true.I love gardening. Every day is another day to enjoy the roses or whatever is blooming that day.I have a sign in my garden that states gardening is the best therapy and that has never been a more true

  2. I am turning 60 this October (still sends a chill up my spine when I say it) I have been gardening throughout my life and it has been one of the most satisfying and yes thrilling events in my life, that is ageless … I still get as excited as a kid at Xmas when plants work out well or I was able to find new plants that I have dreamed about placing in my garden.
    Allan you have described the true art of gardening in this article .. banish the snobbery and pronunciations, feed the heart of the pure act of beauty we all so love and enjoy !

  3. I want to say thank you for a perfect article after an evening of gardening, of playing with stones and being inspired by the plants. My garden is not everyone’s cup of tea, or designed in the latest fad and I am learning not to care. I sit outside in my small yard with a coffee or glass of wine (and my husband) and smile a lot!
    Thank you, Mr. Armitage. 😊

  4. I would add, accept that you may have put the plant in the wrong spot. As garden’s mature changes may call out at you. Go for it!


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