The Perfect Garden

Or “How I Learned to Relax and Start Enjoying My Garden”

This year, so far, has marked my ‘best gardening year’ ever. The amount of energy that has been placed on all things plant related has increased exponentially with every year–with this year being the biggest increase yet. It’s not just energy and effort. While I have put a lot of money into small things in past years, this year I’ve placed more emphasis on the big things; I built a planter box and restocked a garden that I had lifted in the fall because I was told the land was going to be used by the City for of all things–a garden. The irony of that situation hasn’t escaped me.

It’s no surprise that my effort has increased. The more knowledge I gain, the more I want to do. I spend the entire off-season planning my actions in anticipation of the growing season.

I edit the presentation of my garden

This year has marked the first year that I’ve really been able to stand back and feel good about what I’ve accomplished. And yet I’ve realized that while I am excited about certain contained elements, I still have insecurity about the whole in its entirety. Despite the fact that I am having my ‘best gardening year’ ever, I can’t help but feel like what I’ve done is still second rate. I’ve already begun to feel the dread, shame and guilt that comes with the inevitable wilting and plant death that arises as the intolerable heat of summer presses on.

When I take pictures of the garden, I take pictures from certain angles or get in on close-ups of specific plants sometimes even specific portions of plants are dissected within the frame instead of showing things as they are. In short, I edit the presentation of my garden. In my proudest moments I talk up my accomplishments, and yet when confronted with a real live audience I’m afraid that I’ll finally be exposed for the fraud that I am. I spend the entire visit apologizing for the wilted sweet basil or the lemon balm with rust disease. I point out my short-comings for fear that they’ll be quietly detected, observed and noted by the visitor. I feel obligated to explain in detail the circumstances surrounding my failures with specific plants. It’s worse when other plant people are around because I know that they know exactly where I’ve gone wrong.

Here I am, a person who admires imperfection in everything–natural or otherwise, and yet I feel insecure when it happens in my home, my created environment. I love walking through a fallow field or alongside the railroad tracks discovering weeds and wildflowers. I am mesmerized by the plant life that exists amongst urban decay. Where only the toughest, most resilient plants push their way through the cracks and crevices of broken pavement and gravel. So why can’t I see the beauty in my own natural inclination towards messiness?

Garden magazines are like porn for plant lovers

Recently a fellow gardener and friend voiced the same concerns and insecurities about her own garden. Frustrations with her own garden had left her with the feeling that the more she learned about gardening, the more she screwed up. That gardening is really only for the rich who have the time or money to create perfection. She announced that she wasn’t going to read gardening magazines anymore because she couldn’t live up to the standards of flawlessness they present.

At that moment it dawned on me just how similar gardening magazines are to fashion magazines. They show us perfection in order to inspire us to covet what we can’t have simply, cheaply or naturally. Everyone knows that they take photos under certain lighting conditions and from specific angles in order to hide the flaws. Anyone who has ever been to a gardening centre knows that plants don’t come cheap and neither do the tools and endless gadgets that we’re convinced are required to maintain those plants. Yet we all buy into it and want it for ourselves no matter how crazy it makes us. Garden magazines are like porn for plant lovers. They inspire us, but they also present a hyper reality that messes up our perspective. Before we know it gardening isn’t about spontaneity and experimentation but about setting up fantastical situations, using the natural world to create unnatural settings.

It’s not just the magazines. It’s the whole culture. The TV shows, the books, the pressure among neighbours to keep up with the Joneses and conform within the standards set by the rest of the block. Who sets those standards? Who decides what is a weed and what is a rarity? People who allow natural, indigenous weeds to grow in their gardens are reprimanded by their city for allowing the noxious plants to thrive, as if they were aiding and abetting a criminal.

Is my garden just a glorified ego trip?

Maybe I’m just giving in to my own neurosis. I wonder if I’m subconsciously contributing to this problem when I practice horticulture. Do I in turn make other people insecure with my super close-up photos and edited presentations of my own reality? Am I improving anything by cleaning up the garbage and digging out the weeds? Do I even have a right to be pissed off when dogs trample over my garden and mess up my efforts? Or am I only projecting my own insecurities onto what was once just an empty space, ignored, taken for granted but also enjoyed because it was free of status or the preciousness that makes a garden special and a vacant space just a pile of dirt.

To some extent I’ve realised that I want people to enjoy my garden, but only from a distance. Look but don’t touch. Admire it, but if I catch you in the act of chopping off my flowers, I’ll bite your head off. What does that say about me? I put my stamp on public property and now I’ve got some sense of entitlement to it. Is my garden just the physical manifestation of a glorified ego trip?

I don’t think I’m going to stop gardening anytime soon. I haven’t lost the fun and excitement that comes with learning new things and messing about. I just have to stop and check myself once and a while–make sure that I’m not turning into too much of an “adult” and making a fun part of life into a distorted reflection of my own self.

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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