Blue Siberian irises

Six Harsh Truths About Gardening

Another gardening year is drawing to an end. It’s time to evaluate and plan for Next Year (which is always the best year). But right now, the gardener is tired—of lugging watering cans, digging holes, and sawing roots while in a bent-over position. Some plants are overgrown, others are moribund. The gardener is oppressed by all the things that must be done—but not right now, because it’s not the right season.

In this rather glum mood, the gardener ponders some harsh truths.

Harsh Truth Number One. Gardening is not a hobby you can put aside when you get tired of it, or something more exciting comes along. Not in a place where constant attention must be paid to watering. Then there’s weeding, staking, tying, and deadheading. And let’s not forget pruning. Forget about those summer camping trips, unless you’re prepared to deal with a mess when you return.

Harsh Truth Number Two. Unless you confine yourself to growing vegetables, annuals, and herbaceous ornamentals, you will have to learn to prune “woody subjects,” such as shrubs and even trees. And then you’ll actually have to do it. Pruning often means cutting off healthy growth that looks like the best part of the plant, trusting that it will have a beneficial effect in the end. That’s hard to do. And after a pruning session, you have to dispose of all the lovely stuff you’ve cut off.

Harsh Truth Number Three. Plants are going to die, despite your best efforts. The new, exciting perennial that’s being touted by all the experts. The marginally hardy shrub you fuss over and cosset, telling yourself that maybe it’s actually grown a bit this year. And sometimes an old reliable blooms better than it ever has, and then suddenly wilts, never to rise again.

Harsh Truth Number Four. Your garden will never look anything like your vision of it at the planning stage, or like those swoon-worthy photos in horticultural magazines. (Remember, though, that those photos capture moments, not seasons.) And no matter how well a plant does in your garden, you will inevitably see it looking better in someone else’s.

Harsh Truth Number Five. You are responsible for your garden, but you’re not really in control of it. Weather—rain (or lack of it), sun, wind, frost—has the last word. Along with fungi, bugs, raccoons, the roots of nearby trees, and the inner workings of plants themselves. The gardener isn’t the supreme commander, but rather a combination of servant, coach, first aid attendant, cleanup crew, and undertaker.

Harsh Truth Number Six. No matter how much hope, love, and sweat you expend on your garden, there’s no guarantee that it will persist beyond your tenure. Once the gardener has shuffled off to the retirement home or downsized to a condo, the garden will change, or even disappear, along with the house, the trees, and the pavements, to be replaced by some architectural monstrosity and instant landscaping. I’ve seen this happen too often where I live. But then, the present house and garden replaced farmland, which in turn replaced wildlife habitat or land inhabited and harvested by indigenous people.

Harsh truths can be overwhelming. After reading the above, one may ask, “So why garden, if it’s so harsh?”

Every gardener will have their own answer. The satisfaction of growing food. A certain amount of exercise. Being outside and forming a relationship with the natural world. I can relate to all of these, but for me the reward comes when I go out into the garden and experience a moment when colours, textures, the relationship of light with the plants, the smells of flowers and earth and living things combine in a form of perfection. These episodes are brief and cannot be commanded, but they outweigh all the harsh truths. It’s as though my acceptance of them, and doing the necessary work, makes a kind of magic.

Benign light
Gilds the very air,
Makes dust motes into small blessings,
Deepens the hues of leaf and flower.
The gardener stands bemused
At the gateway between day and night,
Clutching secateurs and a handful of spent flowers.
Caught in stillness,
Gazing,
As white flowers become little stars,
And the light fades to blue.
Pond bench, hostas, with Athyrium niponicum var. pictum (Japanese painted fern) in foreground
Back garden perennial beds in June, with Verbascum chaixii, Delphinium, Asiatic lilies, and white campion (Lychnis coronaria "Alba") in bloom
Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum var. Pictum) and pond

72 comments

  1. It’s like writing a book, so much effort and little gain. But we love it and the final product is always worth the time and effort. I have difficulty with hard truth number 2, (which is probably why I’m not much of a gardener) I just can’t cut off the healthy-looking parts, especially if there are blooming flowers on them. But then sometimes I have to cut out my favourite parts of a story, even though it is hard to do. Nothing worth doing is ever easy!

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  2. Fruit trees seem especially precious and pruning them seems like sin. Then I remind myself trees have been around for a long while and have adapted to deal with hungry animals and storm damage; the careful cuts I make are nothing compared to the huge mouthfuls of damage the tree expects from some long-vanished prehistoric browser 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Your spell-binding poem says ‘why’.
    The harsh truths are incontestable; we took the easy way out. Said to the whole crew ‘OK, you guys know best. If you want any help let us know. We’ll just stick to putting bulbs and plants from the stores into tubs,’

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          1. Nature does love to work surprises.
            Four years back a small sprig of holly popped up through our ground.
            It is now a 3 foot high 2 foot wide bush, of a rangy sort, but a bush nonetheless.
            Of course, it had to start its career about three inches from our concrete path, and delights in snagging at clothing and the passing washing basket. However, it does supply us with seasonal sprigs for the house.
            I won’t have a word said against it.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. In answer to your question, I don’t know. Every year, at this time, I swear off a vegetable garden for next year. But every year, as Spring approaches, I once again start making plans for the veggies. This past year was probably one of my worst years with the veggies. Absolutely horrible. We’ll see what happens next March.

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  5. As a (former) lazy gardener, I found that only growing plants that look after themselves was the way to go — hostas, daylilies, native violets, ferns, plus a lot of big sandstone rocks to keep the weeds down between the plants worked for me. In our climate the garden would be bare for half the year, so interesting rocks and low berms made it (mildly) interesting year round.

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  6. I wish my garden looked half as good as yours, Audrey. As for those truths…the hardest one for me is the impermanence. I spend years creating a garden when the Offspring was little. Then we sold the house to people who seemed to love it. A year or so later we visited one of the neighbours and discovered that most of the garden had been concreted over.
    On this block, I’ve built a lot of field stone retaining walls and terraces in the vain hope they may last longer. We live in hope, right?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. It may be flat but that’s exactly what your plants love, and it shows. Without my terraces, all but the hardiest plants would curl up their toes and die. Something for something. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

          1. The soil on my block is very poor – clay and shale, mostly – and it’s steep, so water tends to wash straight down without stopping to soak in. Not conducive to most plants, as I discovered as azalea’s, camelia’s and a lilac quietly said ‘no’. Things are much better now, but plants still have to be pretty hardy to thrive at my place. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  7. Your answer to the question “So why garden?” was exquisite, Audrey. That’s why I garden. And your poem was one of the loveliest things I’ve read in a long time. You captured pure magic with your imagery. Beautiful.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Your garden looks absolutely amazing Audrey but I do know how challenging it can be to keep it looking that way. I have just finished the winterising of our domain and being a pot person I am waiting a few weeks to put in some Christmas bloomers. Other than that all I can do is look forward to spring when the results of the last few weeks will hopefully result in glorious colour… terrific post thank you.

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  9. What gorgeous words and photographs, Audrey! Was a keen gardener b ut now have an apartment and a small, semi-tiled ‘garden’ but with Bougainvillea bushes – which, I swear, visibly grow while you stand there…but need hardly any water and are such pretty shades of cerise and paler and deeper pink. Otherwise a few potted flowers and lots of hardy greenery. Cheers! x

    Liked by 1 person

  10. You are telling what always has been in my worst dreams, thinking on gardening. Lol You have to spend love to the flowers, before you will get love back. This costs a lot of time, and has to be done on a regular basis. Here i have a big lack, Audrey! 😉 But you need to be honored for your green thumb. The flowers really loving you! xx Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  11. A lovely garden and poem, Audrey …After reading harsh truth number 3..I am just looking at my long pepper plant that I have nurtured and that has given me lots of lovely long peppers plus its a rare plant and it is just dying for no known reason to me…sigh

    Liked by 1 person

        1. It shouldn’t be dying of old age after only two years. Did you buy the plant from a nursery? Perhaps it might have some advice? Or anyone local who also grows it? I had never heard of this plant before; thought you were referring to one of the chili pepper types that produce visible seeds. I certainly hope it survives!

          Liked by 1 person

  12. No, that’s correct, I have cut it right back this morning it grows vertically it’s a climbing vine…I got it from a specialist site and unfortunately, I can’t remember…it seems to be the leaves have just all dropped en mass…I think I will give some TLC and feed the soil as it’s in a pot and see if it sprouts there are some small green leaves now I have cut away all the dead wood so to speak …so fingers crossed it will regrow 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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