Grow Write Guild: From Fantasy to Nightmare


This was a tough one. Even now, as I force myself to sit down and write this thing more than a week after it is due, I am still fidgeting, still looking for a way out. Hoping for some little task of not so great importance to divert my attention.

I should really clean my desk!

Are there any aphids on this pepper plant?

You know, the rug could do with a quick vacuuming.

Grow Write Guild Prompt #2: Describe your fantasy garden.

I am blocked. The brain does not want to think about a dream garden. The brain really doesn’t want to put it into sentences and paragraphs. As time passes, it is getting harder and harder to do. I have noticed that the block is seeping into other writing assignments. I am growing unsure again about the words that I allow to come out of my fingers. So now it’s not just that I haven’t done this assignment that I assigned (you see, I do not write these prompts with my own ease in mind), or the feeling that I am asking others to step outside of their comfort zones and that I must do the same. Now it is like an infection or a poison that must be drawn out.

I could not understand why it was so hard for me to do this so I talked about it in therapy. So now my therapist asks about it, too. “Did you write that thing yet?

Even now I am avoiding writing about it by writing about how I keep avoiding writing about it.

[And then I picked up a book that was sitting on my desk and procrastinated further by underlining passages.]

The book I picked up was “There is a Season: A Memoir” by Patrick Lane. I picked it up at the thrift store last week and have only just begun to read it. The passage I underlined was something that I read the other night that stuck out. I didn’t have a pen nearby at the time, but had kept it in my head that I needed to go back and revisit it.

“Horace, that old Roman poet and philosopher, prayed for a garden. He said, “This was among my prayers: a piece of land not so very large, where a garden should be and a spring of ever-flowing water near the house, and a bit of woodland as well as these.” And I might pray for such a place though I know I will never have a stream or spring or a bit of woodland to call my own and even if I had them how could I call them mine? Gardens belong to no one. A garden is a real place imagined and, with time and care, an imagined place made real.” – pages 12-13

Where to begin with this? First, with the portion about a garden belonging to no one as this fits with my block. When I wrote the prompt I asked you to imagine what you would do in your wildest fantasies, were there no limits. Little did I know how horribly this would stump me. I began the exercise by searching in brain. What are the sort of plants that I like best? Which ecosystems intrigue me most? The answer is all of it. I am interested in everything. Without boundaries, my brain is free to wander everywhere. And so it does. Without real world parameters, my natural inclination is to imagine a garden that already exists: we call it planet Earth.

This lead me into philosophical discussions in my own head about ownership versus stewardship and my own covetous nature. It made me ask questions about the plants I choose to grow and why I choose them. What do I gain by putting a plant into soil where I can see it everyday and play a hand in its lifecycle? I had imagined a garden broken down into “rooms” with each room representing a different geographical location that intrigues me. As I thought of it more, it began to take a form (in my mind) that reminded me a lot of a garden we visited in Thailand. And you know what? I hated that garden. That garden made me angry.


In a moment that I am not particularly proud of, I recall stomping away from the group in a rage. “I did fly around the world to see masses of marigolds shaped into a floral clock!

To be fair, it wasn’t the marigolds. It was that we had been pulled away from a learning garden to witness what I felt was saccharine and shallow. It was as if I had stepped into Candy Land, a board game come to life. A place that reduced plants, gardens… the world… down to mere decoration. And yes, gardens are in part about decoration, but they are also capable of being so much more than that.


A garden with a little bit of everything sounds amazing, but when I start to think about what that would entail on a real world level, it begins to morph into something grotesque. Here is a place so large that I would not be able to care for it myself. I would need help. Lots and lots and lots of help. So now I have lost the sense of accomplishment and intimacy with the plants and the space that, in my opinion, are two of gardening’s great rewards. Yes there would be a challenge, but the challenge would be so impossible that it would be unattainable single-handedly.

If I’m not caring for my own garden, whose garden does it become? And now we’re back to ownership again, and who can own a garden anyway?

A garden that big would be a terrible draw on natural resources, and let’s not even talk about what it means to recreate ecosystems for one’s own amusement. So now I am an over-entitled, greedy jackass, plundering the earth for my own delight.

When I thought on it more, this place so monstrous that it can hold a little of everything, I began to imagine the practical challenges in moving around such a space. So now I find myself cruising around this glorious Eden of my mind in a golf cart or a garishly painted tram. I suppose I am wearing white (I hate wearing white). Here I am, a small ruler wearing a large hat, lurching about in a vehicle that moves no faster than someone on foot, ordering my hired minions to keep on top of this crass and superficial miniature world that I’ve created. Because I like things!

Somehow, it did not take long for the dream to become a nightmare, a grotesque exercise in excess. Without limits, the fantasy spoils itself by being too fantastic.

So now I am back at the start again, but this time there are limits. This takes me back again to the passage from Patrick Lane’s book (above) and Horace’s description. I have been thinking a lot over the years (little by little) about just such a place. A little piece of land out in the countryside (because, let’s face it, I will never be able to afford more in the city on a freelance writer’s living). Like Patrick, I dare not dream for a spring of water near the house, but within walking distance would be fine. Same goes for the woodland. I can’t leave the city. I like it here. But I also want more nature in my life, and as a gardener, I want to find out what I can achieve given more space to stretch out. I have been working with limits and living within confined spaces my whole life, and while I have become adept at it, and I respect the importance of limitations… [I am finding it difficult to form the words here] …there is, somewhere in my subconscious, an imagined place that I would like to try to make real.

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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13 thoughts on “Grow Write Guild: From Fantasy to Nightmare

  1. Wow, that garden in Thailand does look like the Candy Land board game, crazy! I felt a little blocked at first too. But once the idea of no limits sunk in, my brain started flowing with ideas. It is kinda funny that you were blocked by your own prompt. I guess you left yourself too much time to think about it. :-) I decided not to read prompt #3 until I am ready to sit down and write whatever pops into my head.


  2. I guess I cheated on this prompt. I did not remove all limits in my imagination, only the limits of my bank account. I still stayed true to my climate zone and available space, I didn’t even realize this until I read your post. I guess I am not good at truly thinking outside the box.

  3. Well put! As for the garden in Thailand – wow. More Disneyland than Thailand. I’m sorry you’re feeling blocked by your own prompt as I was really curious to read about the kind of garden you’d have.

    I had a hard time getting my dream garden post together, mostly because of the anxiety experienced upon thinking about the size and scope of a garden with no limitations. Maybe that’s why I added that the bit about never running out of time. I’m beginning to see that (for me, at least) my dream garden is whatever space I have to weed and water, because of the sense of peace I always come away with.

  4. Wow. This was a tough topic and I couldn’t bring myself to write anything down. You went in the direction I was headed and did so so eloquently. Thank you. I’ve decided to enjoy both the little patch of containers I have this year and the crazy, always changing garden(s) in my imagination and not worry about quantifying or rationalizing the latter. Imagination is for play.

  5. That garden in Thailand is hilarious! But to be fair, the appreciation or distaste for unnatural manicured gardens is personal and heavily cultural. Without our backgrounds, we might have found that sort of thing awesome. We dont know how many Thai visitors to that garden never played Candyland.

  6. Hi

    I did laugh at the image of you stomping around in Thailand. That garden is my idea of hell, I remember a similar reaction to seeing a beautiful potager in France on television where the gardeners grow lots of salads but they are only for the visual effect not for eating. I was surprised at my reaction since why shouldnt salad be used for ornamentation but there was just something about the garden that jarred.
    When I started to think about my post I had the most weird dreams that turned into nightmares with vast veins and thorns everywhere. I then came back to thinking about what I liked in a garden space, what made me happy. I looked through lots of photos to see which gardens I had really enjoyed and felt a connection to. Every time it came back to a cottage style garden and this is where my heart truely is. There are lots of gardening agendas and things we feel we should have and not do etc but I think you need to think about what really truely makes you happy and where you want to sit at the end of the day to relax

  7. Caught sight of your Grow Write Guild posts on Twitter and love the idea! Going to catch up on your posts about it to date and then join in. This couldn’t have come at a better time for me and my writing! Thanks so much for starting this.

  8. Your post perfectly encapsulates why this prompt was too difficult for me. I can never leave the practical behind–after all, the beauty of gardening is working with what’s there. I have a wonderful plot of suburban land in sight (walking distance even) of a city, but my “fantasy garden” is really no garden at all–it is the pure bliss of a Mediterranean seaside. I just pick the figs. I guess I don’t really want to ponder that it is likely out of reach.

  9. i haven’t written this prompt except in my head yet, but basically i abandoned all laws of science for my dream garden and had all the plants i wanted, thriving, regardless of climate needs, and none of them need to ever be watered or amended or tended. there are no weeds but the ones i like to pull!

  10. I finally finished writing and publishing my (very, very late) response this afternoon and then came and read your response, Gayla. I went through similar angst, the details of which I noted in unpublished versions 1.0 and 1.1.

    I do not want an elaborate, ornamental garden. I simply want to garden sustainably. And be happy in whatever garden I find myself. And, if I wish, garden from dawn to dark (with some pauses for cooking, photography, nature walks, and writing).

    Thank you for: #1) this prompt (despite the angst it caused) #2) sharing the excerpt from Patrick Lane’s book and #3) the honesty and insights in your response.

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