A Year of Progress in the Garden

The other day I posted the above image, a photo of the garden as it was at that very moment. I’ve been swinging back and forth lately between satisfaction with the garden’s progress, and frustration with the weather and the feeling of being behind. Or if it’s not that it’s a nagging dissatisfaction that it hasn’t come far enough and is not enough… yet. And then I find joy in a new flowering bulb that emerges, that fresh look that the soil has after it rains, and the relief in finally having laid down a new layer of mulch and I come back full circle to satisfied again.

It was that seesaw of ambivalence that held me back from pressing the post button for a minute before I got over it and let the image go live. Despite my own uncertainty and/or insecurities I am not Better Homes & Gardens and I have never aspired to be. We’ll leave that to those who are better suited to it. I have intentionally rejected that path as a gardener, and thwarted that role as a garden writer for all sorts of reasons, the most basic being that it’s not me. As a result, I feel a commitment to showing my gardens as they are, as never-ending projects that are always in progress. I don’t stage them for photos or wait for that final moment of “doneness” because in truth that moment will never come.

My gardens are working spaces where I grow food, test plants, experiment, and satisfy my botanical whims. The moment the garden feels done is the moment that I dig it all up and start again. When it comes to design, I know that growing in groupings of three or five is more aesthetically pleasing, but I tend to grow only one of many things because that’s either all I need, or because I am saving the space for something else that I must have OMG YES PLEASE! I’ll start gardening the “right way” when I give up on life in the city and move out to that multi-acre farm (never).


The garden in late April 2011. One year ago exactly. All we had at that point was a compost bin that we built from a futon frame that was left behind by former residents. There was also the patch on the right that we had dug up a few months prior for spring bulbs and a few others for garlic that I had covered with straw. There is also the pear tree that we moved to the back of the garden and a small area on the left that I had haphazardly dug when we moved in to overwinter my Japanese maple and a few other perennials. Everything else was as it was when we moved in.

Shortly after posting that picture I took a quick look through old photos to remind myself of where the garden was at exactly one year ago. Thank god for photo documentation because when it comes to my work my memory is not always as kind as the truth. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There was no garden at this time last year. We had only just returned from Thailand, were thrust back into full throttle producing the last book, and I had to learn how to sleep again like a thirtysomething infant (I know I harp on about this but my god, I will never forget that experience) all the while trying to get some sleep so that I could speak in full sentence on camera for a demo that was being shot. I never did get that sleep and I swear to you I am still catching up a year later.

Somewhere in there I managed to sneak in time to dig up the yard, piece-by-piece, using a shovel and any remaining strength that I had left in my body. As I’ve said before, I’m on the fence about tillers and I was stubbornly determined to do it without a machine. When I have the full picture in my mind and I look back at the photographic evidence and see how far the garden has come in a year, on a non-existant budget, with the labor of just two people… I can’t believe it.

Will this garden be featured in Better Homes & Gardens? Not likely, but since that has never been the goal it’s not exactly a standard worth holding it up against. Is it something to be proud of? Is it enough? Hell, yes!

More on the Evolution of the Orto Garden Thus Far:

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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18 thoughts on “A Year of Progress in the Garden

  1. It looks fantastic! I don’t read Better Homes & Gardens because, while it’s fun to look at that stuff sometimes, “good” design can be really boring. I come here because you have an artistic eye, and that is so much more exciting to me. What you’ve done in one year is dynamic and inspiring… Thanks for posting the pics.

  2. I often feel the same way. My garden will never be featured in BHG, nor would I want it to be. My garden is REAL. My garden is full of bugs, weeds, and in constant need of tweaking (in my mind). But since there are no rules other than that imposed by mother nature herself I’m willing to roll with the punches. Now I’m feeling the need to pull my last years photos, maybe I’ll be as accomplished in my progress as you have been :)

  3. Thank god for photo documentation because when it comes to my work my memory is not always as kind as the truth.

    Amen.

    3 years ago we started our permaculture in a block that was still full of buried builder’s rubble. It took close to a year to clear the space and bring life back to the soil.

    Still have a long way to go, but when ever we get frustrated or discouraged looking back at those pics reminds us that we have come a long way already, and inspires us to take the next step.

    Can’t imagine what your space will look like in 3 years time Gayla! ; )

    • Oh wow. Just clearing the rubble and bringing the soil back would be such a big feat alone. It’s so easy to forget how much work can go into making a healthy, habitable space for plants in the first place.

  4. Brava for showing your gardens when they aren’t quite “perfect”. I don’t mean it as a slight, but Better HOmes and Gardens type gardens are usually cared for by a maintenance team (with plants swapped out for better/greenhouse grown specimens right before the shoot). For those of us actually slinging it out in the mud, beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

  5. Better Homes and Gardens would do well to devote an entire section of their magazine to your garden (I’m sure tons of people would be totally appreciative) … I can’t believe it’s just been a year … soOoo much has gone on in there … can’t wait to see what happens this year! CrAzy GoOd STuFf!

  6. I appreciate so entirely that you show us how it all begins and that it does take time to grow a garden up from the ground. This why I am so attracted to blogs that are written in the real world where most of us exist. Patience, mistakes, and sweet success.

    Thank you for being real.

  7. I agree with you growgirl!, at work the wemoon are all bitching
    About the work they have to do in the garden, adding yet
    Another thing on their huge to do lists- but i say gardening
    Is for my soul, my love of doing- love of the act of gardening!
    Maybe BHG is providing alot of pressure on our
    Culture (wemoon) to have this ” perfect garden” or “perfect yard” just
    Like ol’ martha stewart of the 90′s freaked everyone out
    By showing perfect houses or perfect decorating ideas!
    Lets just breathe and enjoy the process! Love your gardening!
    Ps-love ur site- keep it up!

  8. Gayla, I can relate to your style of gardening. Bravo on being true to who you are! Gardening magazines can be inspiring, but they can also be discouraging (also, home decor magazines, fashion magazines…) Thanks for not staging your photos!

  9. This is an encouraging reminder to enjoy the progress. Last year was my first garden in my new home. I’m hoping to add more raised beds this year. I’m also adding a coop and chickens so thats taking quite a bit of time right now. It will come together as I can see from your garden.

  10. Thanks so much for this post, and for being kind to yourself! I see those beds and all that organization and immediately FEEL the hard work that you guys have done on the garden. Planning a garden is a huge feat, but doing all of that work with a shovel?! So impressive.

    I just looked back at my garden from a year ago — we were in a similar state with a complete blank slate, ugly to the bone, just moved into the new house. And thinking about how great it’s looking even yet this year is such a comfort. Sure, there’s ALWAYS something new to do (and I totally agree with you that the moment there isn’t — time to tear it down!).

    But it’s so nice to have pictures like this to look back on and feel a huge sense of accomplishment. Can’t wait to see what you do this year!

  11. This year, I started posting photos of my garden in all states — utter mess, barren, just sprouting, and now: starting to look OK again. I know I was inspired to do so (i.e., not just wait until it looked filled in/”awesome”) because of your photos, Gayla. Honesty is so refreshing. I love the process of gardening and (re-)building a space, so why not share all of it?

  12. Amazing progress in just one year.

    I hope these deep thoughts, or similar ones, make it into your next book. Honest, inspirational and encouraging.

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