Non –> Stop –> Starting –>

The starting never stops.

This has been our mantra from the moment we plunged our shovels into the earth and began the arduous process of digging up the bumpy, grassy backyard. Each new session in the garden feels more like a step towards another beginning than a real step forward.

  • First raised bed built: The beginning of our salad greens garden.
  • Second bed built: Followed by several starts and stops as I pull out things I’ve planted to reposition them elsewhere.
  • Plant the lavender I overwintered in the greenhouse: Dig them back up and move them into the big long bed as I re-envision the third raised bed as a sweet pepper domain.
  • Dig up a bed of 10 year old irises from the Street Garden and watch as they suffer through being moved at the wrong time of year. I know what to do to bring them back for next year, but for now they are a gaggle of sad looking plants.

Starting over again in a brand new space is reteaching me old lessons all over again. Sure there are some new lessons in dealing with the challenges of this particular space, but they aren’t exactly lessons in how to garden — this is not my first time out. I have learned a thing or two in the years that I’ve been doing this.

No, what I am learning now has more to do with the emotional life of a new gardener. I am remembering all over again the frustrations, joys, and the little ego trips. I am recalling in vivid detail what it is like when everything is exactly the same size.


I don’t have a budget for the garden. My budget is not: We have x number of dollars to make this garden. How can we make our vision happen within those parameter? It is more like: Can I pay the bills AND purchase this plant or these materials? This means that I have to limit what I can accomplish on a weekly basis. It also means that I have to buy teeny, tiny, immature perennials. Annuals are easy. Most of mine were started from seed or will be direct sown in the coming days and weeks. The big plants will put on size within the next month and should be filling out space soon enough. I know this in theory and in practice, but my impatience is killing me.

The bigger problem is with the perennials. They take time to come into their own. Small perennials can take a year, sometimes five years before they hit their stride. Most of mine are at about the same size as the tomato transplants and I know from experience that some of them aren’t going to get much bigger before the growing season is through. Good garden design takes three dimensional space into consideration. My garden has no height and my plants lack lushness. All of the action is happening underneath the soil where the plants are hard at work setting in roots and getting themselves established in their new home. Above ground they are like a sea of same-sized dots. Each demands the same visual attention. The current effect is a garden that is both wild and trippy like a bowl of Fruit Loops, but also flat and boring like an oatmeal soup. Too much sameness.

You keep asking me to post more updates, but my ego won’t allow it. My impatience screams at me to wait until the tomatoes have filled out their stakes, the climbing rose has gained some height, and those big empty spaces have grown in just a little bit more. Then, and only then can I reveal the progress we have made. Although by then my ego will be unhappy with the placement of this and that and I will find more excuses to withhold. It will never be right. It might be good enough sometime next year. It will be even better in five years.

Let’s wait until then.

My rational, intellectual and experienced mind knows that this is the reality of starting a new garden on a shoestring. One has to wait. It will happen, but it takes time. You can’t make plants grow, and even when they do it doesn’t always turn out as you had hoped and so you move things around in a quest for a better combination or a new idea realized.

As a garden writer I have strived to be honest about my experiences and to show things as they are without the obsessive fluffing and fakery you find in most mainstream publications. And yet here I am: on the one hand finding a continuous stream of joy and pleasure in the daily changes and discoveries I am making in my new space, all the while holding onto a strong desire to hide it, and hide out in it. I love my new garden, but I am paralyzed by the thought of putting it out into the world for unfair judgment.

I will post my next garden update in five years or possibly later this week, depending on when I am able to get past this stupid slump. But not before then.

p.s. Apologies for the terrible cellphone photo. Davin erased the drawing from our chalkboard wall before I could take a proper photo.

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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24 thoughts on “Non –> Stop –> Starting –>

  1. The sense of never being finished and the endless possibilities is what places gardening among the most rewarding pursuits. Definable goals are necessary for many things, but in your garden you never have to say “it’s done. What now?” Excellent piece!

  2. Excellent commentary! I bought a new house 3 years ago and the yard was in such awful shape, I didn’t even know I had a fenced-in back yard when I bought the place. I, too, have struggled with the “sameness” problem and lack of dimension. Rationally, I know that it will work itself out – at some point in the future. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling like the whole thing is an exercise in futility some days. So to keep my spirits up, I focus on one plant at a time, or maybe one small 18×18″ square of the yard that happens to look lovely at the moment. It’s fleeting, but it seems to get me through for now.

  3. My vegetable garden is just like that…dots in a sea of straw. I don’t think your readers want to judge your space so much as join you in it. And, as always, we appreciate your honesty!

  4. I have a hunch you will thank yourself for taking (and showing) lots of ‘before’ / garden baby photos. I’m also starting over from scratch with very limited means. My last garden was mature and luscious. The new one is barren and very boring in its young state. But lots of people get encouragement from seeing the process, the choices you make for plants and where to place them and so on.

  5. I am in the same boat – I have a boring, blank slate with little bitty babies, stressed newly transplanted shrubs, over crowded hostas trying to survive the temporary holding placy they were recently moved to, two 4×8 foot vegetable boxes trying to figure out how to grow inpite of the extreme temperature changes last week (80 to 103 to 59 degrees all within 48 hours), to a crispy lawn thanks again to the extreme heat followed by no rain. My yard is a mess. However, I’m choosing to look at it from the perspective of “possibilities” rather than the perspective of “oh, crap!” You’re a seasoned gardener, and you’ll persevere! I’m a new follower to YGG, and am LOVING what I have seen so far. Can’t wait for the updates on your new adventure, whenever those may come. :)

  6. I am with you sister! When we bought our house 2.5 years ago, we had a “yard” of knap weed and dirt, a sad perennial strip of garden that held only bind weed, and nary a vegetable in sight. This year the grass has finally filled most of the bare patches and in one section there is even some strange broadleaf weed that is taking over, but I don’t care because it’s green and no longer a mud hole for the dogs to roll in. The perennial bed has been expanded and added to using free and cheap plants scored off of craigslist and freecycle. This is the first year that everything planted in the last 2 summers has really filled in and it finally looks good.

    This year I moved the vegetable garden to a new, sunnier, chicken-free spot and that has become the focus of my impatience. Everything got started late because of a cold, wet spring and all I want is lush and green instead of small green patches in a sea of dirt and straw.

  7. This is good for me to keep in mind! I too have forgotten how easily I crammed too much stuff into the garden before I learned how important proper spacing is. In just 5 more months I will be leaving my 12 month growing season in Sydney Australia and going back to the US. Then we will begin the hunt for our paradise in the mountains of Kentucky. Striving for lots and lots of room and peace to be creative and become sustainable! As always I loved your writing and it inspires me to do so as well :-)

  8. The first year in my new home, I did nothing in my garden–moved in July, 2 small kids, too overwhelmed. Second year I rehabbed the deep shade area by my front entrance with teeny perenials found floundering on the sale rack at the end of the season. Third year I stuck a few more things in the shade garden, started the veggie beds in pitiful soil, & shuffled things around in the neglected perennial flower bed out back. Finally now, at growing season #4, my shade garden is resplendent in coral bells, columbines & dead nettle, the veggie & herb beds are cranking out great food, and the perennial flower bed will have enough echinadia to feed the goldfinches all winter. And i still have tons of brambles and unwanted sapplings to confront. Patience. Your garden may not meet your criteria for a photoshoot, but we’d love to see some snapshots & cheer you on.

  9. Stick with it – I definitely want to see the before shots, because in 4 years, maybe 5, it’ll be gorgeous! I have SO many plants coming up now that I would have sworn died three years ago. They tend to SINK into my soil and lurk for a few years and then pop back up to surprise me. I love my garden every day this year, but this is the first year (after 5 years in our house) that I’ve considered it even slightly a “real” garden.

  10. Your honesty is refreshing. But just little pictures of things, not the entire garden all at once. Maybe sharing your daily discoveries in your garden.

  11. It’s taken me another 2 apish weed yanking months to get to the little polka dot garden stage again this year … Phew – I’m happy – that’s my story & I’m sticking to it!

  12. The first year it sleeps, second it creeps, third it leaps!

    I started a Biblical garden at church this year and realized that the prep. wasn’t sufficient for the drainage situation there. Poor spindly little plants with wet feet! It’s a challenge, and you’ve inspired me to take pictures.

  13. what about shooting some macro stuff to show the baby stuff in its glory? you don’t have to get super super close, but showing things up close may make them feel larger than life as your ego hopes ;)

  14. I’m starting into summer #4 & things are still not growing vertical – the deer really did a number on them last year. I also lack the patience to wait for things to fill in.

    While I appreciate people’s compliments on how far the gardens have come, I get frustrated because it’s no where near to what it WILL be or what it SHOULD be, but I am the only one who seems to see that.

    I grin painfully & hope that maybe next year the lilacs will bloom…

  15. Well this is the struggle isn’t it? I had to laugh at your moving things at the wrong time of year–something I am contemplating doing now as well. My border is just too small and crowded, but the plants will suffer being moved in the heat–and I will suffer digging!
    Please do not deprive anyone of seeing the progress, even if slow at times. This is how a garden is built from scratch, and so many don’t even start because it is a daunting and overwhelming task. But it is so worth it–and you the only way to see progress is to start!

  16. I can totally relate! We are 2 years in at our place, and while I AM a new gardener, I do know a few things about growing plants. It is a challenge, but an exhilarating one, to start from overgrown grassy, ivy, weedy scratch. And even if each step is a step toward another step, my gosh each of those steps is starting to look like something. I try to put the frustrations aside and appreciate the progress. It’s a lot of work digging up grass, moving plants around, and keeping up with the weed seeds that have nestled in everywhere -and then there are the deer and slugs and the bizarre raccoon behavior in the night… but seeing something new take shape is the real reward. Love your honesty here. Keep up the great work! I think a lot of us would appreciate seeing your progress, rather than judge harshly :) Anyone who has done it themselves, can surely relate!

  17. Good post. It’s good to mention the frustrating parts as well the successes in the garden.
    I’ve been gardening intensely for 12 years and still find myself making mistakes. Still, I love working in the garden and any little chore puts you close to the plants, where you see everything close-up, relax and enjoy the work. Anticipation is apart of the fun.

    The photos are good, too. I photograph everything in the garden and cry when I miss something really important like wild turkeys walking through the garden!

  18. Hi Gayla,

    I’d love to see pictures of your garden-in-development, exactly as it is. In fact, I would treasure such images. I’m always faintly discouraged by photos of lush plants in gardening books and websites (which always seem to be taken in May/June before the pests and heat hit). My garden NEVER looks like the ones in books, no matter how faithfully I water, fertilize and companion-plant. It’s much more messy and unpredictable, with no colour scheme to speak of. The various ugl-O-riffic recycling bin planters that adorn my balcony would induce a fainting fit in even bravest decorator. Still, it’s mine. It’s frankly a relief to see what plants really look like at various stages of development, or even when they’re not doing as well as we would hope. I want to see your garden now…exactly as it is. That is inspiration of another sort.

  19. Well, for what it’s worth, I love “in progress” pictures, and would love to see some of your garden. I am a longtime ‘houseplant gardener’, tackling my first serious outside garden this year. The few in-progress pictures I find on garden blogs are incredibly encouraging to me. They help me bridge the depressing gap between the beautiful gardens I find on the internet and my own meager reality.

    Also, a garden just seems more real when you watch it grow. I think a few pictures of the first season of your new garden should be a big ego boost, not an embarrassment, right? After all, anybody can move into a beautiful yard. Only a gardener can create one.

  20. THANK YOU! I am SO glad I found your website this morning as I was trying to motivate myself to once again start the backbreaking work of digging in hardpan. We are replacing all of the “dirt” in our 2,000 sf courtyard with rich, loamy soil and it’s freakin’ hard! We garden at 6,500 feet in the mountains of northern New Mexico and have not had rain since October of 2010, so we have to use an allotment of our precious water supply just to moisten the dirt and let it soak in so we can then dig it up and haul it away. In the areas where we have replaced the soil, we have planted new baby perennials with a lovely drip system that allows us to have a midwest-style perennial garden here in the high desert with little water usage.

    I can’t wait until next spring when our new beds start to fill in and there are fewer bare spots. But in the meantime, we will keep digging, replacing, planting and praying for rain.

    Gardeners are forever optimistic. If you can do it in Toronto, I can do here in New Mexico. Thanks again for the kick-in-the-rear I needed this morning!

  21. I am so excited for you. I know this seems corny, but from your first Orto post I have been anxiously waiting to see the progress of your garden (even the frustrating bits), what you would place first and dig up later. It is my dream to grow my own food and watching yours grow is a bit like peeking at a blueprint. Thank you for sharing, I visit your blog to watch and learn and you never disappoint. Enjoy your season, there will be others, your garden will always begin again, and you along with it. Congratulations!

  22. wonderfulll post! more of us should start garden blogs w/ pics since we all seem to want to see pics for inspiration. This is my first year gardening..EVER! I’m 30 & thought I would hate it, started it 3 months ago & am obsessed! so far mostly seeds, im on a major budget, but oh how i long to be one of those ppl I see spending massive $ at the garden store while i clutch my measly seeds ;) play the lottery & pray I guess ;) anywhoo great website, LOVE!

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