What Makes a Good Gardener?

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved

This year, more than any other year in the last decade, I have heard from more burgeoning or wanna be gardeners admonishing themselves or simply stating, “I can’t garden; I kill plants.

Statistically, a huge number of people have taken up gardening for the first time over the last few growing seasons (hooray!) so it stands to reason that this rise in self-proclaimed Black Thumbs is a result of a large population of beginners trying to find their footing and getting a bit lost along the way.

Gardening is intimidating. It is an active pursuit and there are choices to be made everyday in the garden that can have an effect on that little piece of earth we’ve inherited for a time. At the same time, our actions in the garden feel like they carry a heavier weight than they actually do. Just so you know, being responsible for the death of a plant by neglect, a lack of knowledge, or improper placement is not a big deal. A basil plant is not a hamster.

And then we look around at magazines and books and all we see are beautiful, organized, tidy, well-appointed gardens. The fantasy is nice inspiration but it also serves to give beginners a false perspective on what is achievable as a beginner and what is expected of them.

When I started taking gardening on my roof seriously, I was excited about treading into new terrain but I also felt a lot of shame and anxiety around my mistakes. Over subsequent seasons I enjoyed the garden when I was alone, but still found myself feeling guilty or ashamed when people came to visit. I often pointed out the plants that weren’t thriving or the sections that looked terrible the second my visitor walked into the space. By calling out my garden’s faults, I was saying, “Hey, I know you’re judging me and I’m on board.” I was getting the judging out in the open before they could as a strategy to avoid added embarrassment and shame. And you know what? A lot of that judgment was in my own head. I very much doubt most of those people even noticed half of the so-called transgressions I pointed out to them, or cared for that matter. They were seeing what looked good. I was the one fixating on what didn’t.

A while back, I started adding a section on what makes a good gardener to some of the presentations I give. I think it’s about time that I write about some of these ideas and start a wider discussion about it here. A dialogue around this kind of gardener’s anxiety would have gone a long way to alleviate my own anxieties sooner and allowed me to enjoy my garden more back then, as I do now. It might also help me kick lingering feelings of shame in the ass that sometimes rear their head. After all, often times the topics we write about are those we need to hear most ourselves.

Since it is clear that most people are defining a Black Thumb as a “killer of plants,” and a Green Thumb as someone who keeps plants alive, I think it will help to begin this conversation by stating matter of fact that even so-called Green Thumbs do not keep every single plant they tend to alive. I kill plants. Every single gardener I have ever met, regardless of their experience level has admitted that they kill plants. I am yet to meet this mythical creature, the E.T of gardeners, who has the power to nurture fried marigolds back to the land of the living or perhaps less dramatically (but still unrealistically) manages to make every plant that comes under their care flourish.

Photo by Gayla Trail  All Rights Reserved
This is my roof garden in July 2007. Last year, while showing this photo during a presentation, I suddenly became embarrassed about that top-sided orange watering can and quickly launched into a ramble about how embarrassed I was about the stupid can until someone in the audience snapped me out of it by telling me to shut up and get on with the presentation. Sometimes we need other people to tell us when our perspective has gone askew and bring us back into reality.

What Makes a Good Gardener?

1. Experience: Gardening makes you a better gardener. Nobody magically wakes up one day knowing exactly what to do in the garden. You learn by doing it and a great deal of that doing is in screwing it up [see Failure, below]. The good news is that you’ve got your entire life to become a better gardener and every new season is another opportunity to get some of the stuff that went wrong right, and reapply some of went right.

2. Consistency and Persistence: Plants need regular care. Unfortunately, growing a garden isn’t like learning to crochet. You can’t put it down and take it back up three months later and expect everything to be right where you left off. Developing a habit of going out there on a regular basis is important. Some of us can’t make it out there everyday, especially when we are growing at community gardens that aren’t right in our own backyards so it is important to give yourself a break when you can’t make it. That said, being in your garden on a regular basis means your plants are more likely to get the care they require. Consistency and persistence also offers you the chance to catch problems and observe changes.

3. Observation & Adaptation: Good gardeners are great observers. They watch for signs of distress so they can catch problems before they get out of hand. Fortunately, the act of gardening teaches us to be better observers so as you spend more time gardening, chances are good that you will naturally pick up all sorts of observations along the way. Give yourself time and space to meander in your garden and just look around and enjoy the little things as they unfold.

As an observer, you will naturally find yourself noticing changes in your plants and the climate. Given more time and experience, you will be able to predict some of the issues that occur with your plants before they happen. This will eventually lead you to a better ability to adapt to whatever the weather or nature throws at you.

The fact is that a lot happens in the garden that is out of our control. You can’t predict a cool, wet season like the one we had last year on the East Coast. There is no way of knowing that all that basil you put in is going to suffer through a wet summer. But you will come to understand the kind of weather that makes basil plants unhappy and be able to adapt to changes in weather that will allow you to do what you can to make the plants more comfortable before they reach the point of rotting in the soil.

No two years are alike so having A WAY TO DO THINGS year in and year out is nearly useless. As conditions change, you will likely need to change and adapt some of your strategies with them. The best gardeners can be flexible and aren’t rigidly locked into a specific way of doing things that is unchanging.

4. Failure: Perfectionism is dead. I should put that in all caps, bold, and then underline it for emphasis. Here you go: PERFECTIONISM IS DEAD. In the real world gardeners kill plants and gardens get pests and diseases. Sometimes life gets in the way and we don’t have the money to buy something we want or the time to commit to making our garden the showpiece we would like it to be. This is not evidence that you have a Black Thumb. More importantly, you learn more when you are willing to take chances & give yourself space to screw up. It’s often in those failures that we have the biggest AHA! moments.

And yes, unfortunately, there’s always going to be that one know-it-all neighbour who’s got a wagging finger and something to say about what they think you are doing wrong in your garden. The only thing I can say to that is that it’s their problem, not yours. There’s a difference between sharing knowledge and shaming others into doing things the way we see fit. It’s a mistake to assume that our way is the only right way.

The act of gardening serves as an excellent life lesson in accepting one’s failures that extends beyond the garden. Over the years, gardening, and later writing about gardening, has helped me to recognize and confront my own feelings of inadequacy, shame and guilt: shame about class, not having enough, not being good enough, not being enough period, and sometimes being too much. It has invited me to indulge and delight in my desires freely, while asking (and sometimes forcing) me to have patience, take things slowly and look for frugal alternatives. Every minute in the garden is about relearning patience and reveling in the moment. Spending hours upon hours nurturing and observing plants has brought joy into parts of my life that I thought were irreparably scarred. It has provided a safe place for that long buried, hurt little kid inside me to play freely and to live the moments of wonder, discovery and self love she had to hide from angry adults.

My gardens have given me permission to experiment, break rules, and foster a rebellious streak that is an important but often pushed aside part of who I am.

Our gardens should be a free space where each of us can find joy, make discoveries, and feel whole. Guilt, shame, and feelings of insecurity have no place there.

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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53 thoughts on “What Makes a Good Gardener?

  1. This is a fantastic post, Gayla, and really encapsulates so much of what I’ve thought about gardening. Gardening is like life — it has its seasons; you do your best; you try to be in the present (observe) — which means, ultimately, you’re not in control. But that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable and deeply fulfilling. Sure, a few plants die along the way (and I definitely feel plenty of guilt about it), but what we’re tending, and bringing to life, more than makes up for the “mistakes.”

  2. I’m rather fond of the Gardener’s Manifesto on Garden Rant: http://www.gardenrant.com/. Some good reminders there.

    I figure, if I can give up (mostly, anyway!) using fashion magazines as the ideal for what I’m supposed to look like, I don’t have to use overpolished gardening magazine layouts for how my yard should look either. It’s worked out rather well!

    As for my friends coming over to see my garden – I’ve discovered very few of my friends do much gardening at all, so they’re dazzled by pretty much everything (“who grows their own horseradish?”). No need to point out the ‘failures’ in my garden. I can enjoy it for what it is.

  3. I loved this post, Gayla. We’ve been discussing a lot of these issues of late, obviously, and you said so much of what I believe about gardening and its value in our lives.

    What you said about gardening teaching patience is absolutely true for me. I’m one of those people whose mind never stops, who has a bad habit of not focusing on what I’m doing (or doing too many things at one time) and missing out on half of the experiences I’m living, because I’m not present. Gardening has shown me how to slow down, be patient, and be present in my life.

    Regarding giving the hurt little girl inside some space to play and learn — oh yes. I started gardening as a way to avoid hurtful adults in my life. That connection is huge for me.

    This was a wonderful post — thanks for writing it.

  4. I’m working very hard at getting to this point. I’ve got a history of disappointed garden expectations, but I’m starting to come round to both laughing at them and learning from them. I love gardening, but what good is it if I just feel miserable about it? Des Kennedy has one of my new favourite quotes on the subject: “if there’s one thing gardeners are good at, it’s the sustained and systematic killing of plants.”

  5. Gayla – I really got a laugh out of you going on and on over the orange can in the picture. Good stuff.

    No matter where you grow up, it seems like were all just saturated with images that leave us feeling inadequate, whether it is about our bodies, or our gardens. Thanks for bringing us back to reality with this great post.

  6. Wow.
    A great, big thank you!
    What a fantastic post. This should be required reading whether someone is just thinking about starting a few plants or been gardening for a hundred years.

  7. “A basil plant is not a hampster.” I love it! I don’t worry so much when one of my plants wither, because I know I’m learning something from them… and I can just take another cutting from the original plant and do things differently next time. (My slight ambivalence could also spring from the fact that I was blamed for the death of a family pet when I was young… so as much as I love plants, they’re will never be another Bubba the bunny.) (That sounds worse than it is, but it is taboo to mention Bubba in the presence of my family.) (Also, know that I’ve since managed to keep my cat alive for the past 8 1/2 years.)

    (I love your book and your blog, Gayla!)

  8. Right on!
    I would add a few practical pieces of advice:
    - Give plants enough space
    - Don’t plant seeds too deep
    - Don’t water plants too much
    - If your lettuce or coriander bolt, it doesn’t make you a bad gardener. This is just what these plants do.

  9. This is great post! I especially like the bit about pointing out your mistakes and the worry that you are just not good enough. It struck me that a lot of what you said could apply to any creative endeavor, not just gardening. A very nurturing post.

  10. Nevertheless, not all failures are self-imposed, the result of ignorance, carelessness or inexperience. It takes a while to grasp that a garden isn’t a testing ground for character and to stop It takes a while to grasp that not all failures are self-imposed, the asking, what did I do wrong? Maybe nothing. Eleanor Perényi, Green Thoughts, 1981

    Eleanor Perenyi has a whole chapter on Failure in her wonderful book ‘Green Thoughts’. It is unfortunately her only garden book and still almost 30 years later, my favourite.

  11. Another Failure! Let me correct that.
    Eleanor Pernyi actually put it this way:
    “Nevertheless, not all failures are self-imposed, the result of ignorance, carelessness or inexperience. It takes a while to grasp that a garden isn’t a testing ground for character and to stop asking, what did I do wrong? Maybe nothing.”

  12. Every dead plant is more fuel for the compost, so is not a waste :)

    Awesome post! All of this garden talk going on lately has me vibrating with anticipation of this year’s season.

  13. Makes me think of the old adage “Success in life is the result of good judgement. Good judgement is usually the result of experience. Experience is the result of bad judgement.”

    Maybe it could be adapted to “Success in the garden is the result of experience. Experience is the result of Failure in the garden.”

  14. Fantastic post! Should be given out at all garden centres and stuck in all the “Gardening for Beginner” type books.

  15. Ciao Gayla-

    Bravo! I’m printing this out and putting it on the wall in our laundry room where we do our seed-starting. I’m going to show it to Munchkin. At almost 11 years, he waffles between thinking he’s all that and knows everything and is awesome at anything he touches to falling apart in misery when he makes a teensy mistake. It’s good to have some perspective and maintain a sense of balance.

    There’s that old adage, “The more we learn, the more we realize we have much to learn.”

  16. Amen, sistah. I’d hate to actually tally the number of plants I’ve killed over the years. It’s a wonder my current plants aren’t terrified for their lives!

    Really great post!

  17. Gayla, Thank you for this post! You’ve hit the nail on the head! I work for the Children’s Garden in High Park and I have this conversation with people all the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “just give it a try. It’s a learning process.”

    I’ve worked at a nursary and killed plants, we often have plants that are “experiments” at the Children’s Garden that die, we have plants here in our office (crammed in from floor to ceiling right now) from our Canada Blooms display that are just not going to make it because of the light and tempurature change they went through.

    We try to keep everything alive but sometimes it just doesn’t work – like our basil and lemon cucumbers that drowned at the show :)(or the poor christmas cactus behind the computer that was completely forgotten!) . . . The point is practice, practice, practice!

    I remember my Grandma being the best gardener ever, greenest thumb (was one of those “little old ladies” that would “appropriate” an african violet leaf and grow the most amazing plant) but I’ll bet you even she had a few crispy plant issues.

    Just keep trying, learning and of course keep in mind that dead plant = nutritious compost for next attempt!

    Happy growing season to all!

  18. Oh and I just killed a sweet little cyclamen because I’m in complete denial of how little light I have in my appartment . . .

    I mean miniscule! Nada, zip, zilch . . . But I have to keep trying. I can’t help myself (and am really lacking for space here in the office!)!

  19. so true! i’m a perfectionist, but in the garden, you just can’t be. there’s no room for perfectionism when it comes to plants.

  20. Great post. I agree with you that there is no such thing as a black thumb. I don’t even believe there are people who are green thumbs. I think we all fall into the middle (maybe a brown? ha!) if we are honest with ourselves.

    People who think they are black thumbs just haven’t met the right plants yet.

  21. This is exactly what I needed to hear as a year two gardener watching over my drooping seedlings (what did I do wrong?). My main purpose in troubling with seedlings anyway was to share the thrill with my toddler – and it worked! I can always splurge on a few transplants to supplement. Thank you for putting it into perspective.

  22. Have to agree with all the above comments. So many people are becoming excited about growing food and are new to all of the variables (weather and otherwise) that influence plant growth and reproduction. I often tell people to take it easy on themselves in the beginning, even if it means buying annual starts or working only with perennial fruits and vegetables. What I often wish I saw more of, was people sharing their gardens through time, rather than at their peak. Whether it’s a lawn-to-raised bed conversion or a growing container garden on the patio deck. I think seeing people’s gardens grow bit by bit would give a better perspective on the patience it takes to get to where you want to be with food growing. The magazine layouts show gardens in the “now” and at their peak. Beginners should have access to gardens that are progressing, so that the common perception of the instant “before-and-after” garden becomes the “before-and-still-getting-there” garden. Gayla, would you be willing to post (if you haven’t already) some photos of your rooftop at the very beginning up to now? Or encourage your readers to do so? It would serve as great encouragement to those who are also just starting their relationship with the plant world.

  23. A.MEN! Awesome post Gayla.

    Especially considering recent discussions in the garden blogging world, you’ve beautifully expressed what (I think) needed to be said. Thank you.

  24. Wait! So I shouldn’t have named my basil? Bonnie will be so disappointed.

    Yep, I’m one of those peeps who gets overly attached to plants, especially seedlings because they’re so helpless and all. I can’t thin, just can’t. So I plant 1 seed per pot so I don’t have to kill any. AND…I talk to them. Isn’t that sick?

    Anyway, I just love this post, I think it’s your best yet. With very eloquent style, you’ve said and expanded on what I’ve been thinking these past 2 weeks. THIS is why you’re a great writer. Not only is this written well, it’s from the heart, honest, truthful and leaves the reader feeling like more of the community.

    Well done!

  25. Robin, I think maybe I met you at Canada Blooms. Were you wearing butterfly wings? That garden was the best I’ve seen at that show EVER and we go every year. Excellent work. I’m definitely going to make a point of bringing the family to High Park this summer to see the Children’s Garden.

  26. Very encouraging — I’m just starting to plan a container garden and will be planting herbs and vegetables. This post is just what I needed to hear. So looking forward to the peace and tranquility expressed here. Thank you all.

  27. two years ago I thought my hose was a snake and it took me almost a month to gather courage to back in up to my waist in weeds to get some nasturtiums (I never even knew I was afraid of snakes – I thought THAT was my mother)!

  28. Gayla, you and your book Grow Great Grub has been a true inspiration to me. Right now I’m worried that my carrots have failed but am aware that hey, I have tons of seeds! I can always try again in a week or two if they truly are gone. This is truly a great post and a great point to bring up. I think we beginners *want* to be able to have a perfect, beautiful garden the first time around. I read, research, and make notes on things I need to get, when we need to implement them, etc. But the fact is, the garden I have is across town, I can’t check on it every day and I just have to trust that some things are going to fail. And that is OKAY.

  29. for me the biggest challenge has been practicing nonattachment and acceptance (the usual type of change has been loss of beloved plants due to unexpected frosts, non-optimal overwintering conditions, etc) I’m not “roll with the punches” type of gal, but gardening is “learning” me humility

  30. for me the biggest challenge has been practicing nonattachment and acceptance (the usual type of change has been loss of beloved plants due to unexpected frosts, non-optimal overwintering conditions, etc) I’m not “roll with the punches” type of gal, but gardening is “learning” me humility

  31. A lot of wisdom in this post. You are right to remind new gardeners that we all kill plants. when I began gardening I was also writing about gardening and I hated admitting my mistakes. No more. Looking forward to meeting you in Buffalo.

  32. Thank you for this– exactly what I needed to read. As a perfectionist and procrastinator, I am too caught up in potential things that could go wrong to start this garden this year. I guess it’s time to go try some things out, see what works, and learn from what doesn’t. Thanks a million!

  33. Excellent post! It captures a lot of my feelings when I first started experimenting in my garden last year. Gardening IS intimidating, especially when you’re trying to grow stuff you want to eat! I had to let go of any expectations I might have, not get too attached to anything, and be very patient. I’m hoping I have more success in Year 2 of my backyard garden. :)

  34. Excellent post! It captures a lot of my feelings when I first started experimenting in my garden last year. Gardening IS intimidating, especially when you’re trying to grow stuff you want to eat! I had to let go of any expectations I might have, not get too attached to anything, and be very patient. I’m hoping I have more success in Year 2 of my backyard garden. :)

  35. I’ve been gardening all my life and if I started to list all the mistakes I’ve made, I’d be here till next year! I’ve taught many of my friends to garden but I’m still learning myself and some mistakes end up working for the best- just remember my rooftop tomatoes in their too small containers last summer! Because we got so much rain and not much warmth last year, it was a dismal year for tomatoes- but not for me!Up on the roof my tomatoes would have fried in one of our ‘normal’ hot summers but instead they got the water they needed to survive ( and I know I wouldn’t have had the time to do it manually) and the added warm of the black roof in an otherwise chilly summer. It was a total accident but I ended up with a bumper crop! This year is expected to be hot and dry so I’ll be taking a different approach but it’s still a crap shoot.

  36. This is great. I am always amazed by how many people do not try gardening. How can they resist? Even if my vegetable garden yields only one tomato I consider it a success, but it has taken a long time to come to that realization.

    We had a great book as children that was all about a little girl who couldn’t get anything to grow but weeds. After unintentionally killing every desirable plant in sight, she embraces and celebrates her weed patch and even gives tours to other kids. One day she discovers a watermelon buried deep in her “garden” and it is perfect. Does anyone know the title of this book? I would love to find it again.

  37. This was an absolutely great post!! My husband and I do not have a back yard but we are in the process of starting a potted plant garden. Love this site of yours!! XO

  38. This is a really beautiful post. I always point out the untidy things about my garden when people come to visit and I’m going to stop doing that now. Thanks you for your wisdom.

  39. I’d like some advice on how to get started in my backyard. I rent a house but can’t dig up the yard to put in a garden and I don’t have a deck. The backyard is on the east side of the house so I get alot of shade from the shadow of the building in mid to late afternoon. I’d love to grow some vegetables this summer. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks for your help.

  40. “It has provided a safe place for that long buried, hurt little kid inside me to play freely and to live the moments of wonder, discovery and self love she had to hide from angry adults.”

    Love It! Love the way you wrote! I’ve never found the right words for my gardening passion tiil now.

    Obrigado! Thanks! I got inspired every day with your posts and books!

  41. Thank you! This entry is obviously from the heart and is a good reminder and motivator for us beginners who are terrified as we verge on spring and dreams start to become realities.

  42. Thank you! This entry is obviously from the heart and is a good reminder and motivator for us beginners who are terrified as we verge on spring and dreams start to become realities.

  43. This is so nice to hear! I used to call myself a “black thumb” and over the past few years I have come to realize that yes, knowledge and experience will keep my garden alive! Last year I managed to keep flowers alive on my patio, and this year I’m going to try a few vegetables. Even if I don’t harvest a single tomato, I’m sure I’ll learn a lot for next year. Thanks!

  44. Holy smokes…I think I love you!I just found my way over here from Simple Mom and your attitude is absolutely one I can embrace. I’m adding you to my reader and can’t wait to learn from some of your failures! ;)

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