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THE SELF-TAUGHT GARDENER: A gardener’s progress

The gardener at Hollister House Garden in Washington, Conn., approaches garden maintenance in a manner that is well worth considering.

There is nothing like a burst of warm weather to bring the garden forward at an incredible pace. Leaf buds break and color the sky with the chartreuse of new foliage, the stems of perennials push forth out of the soil, and weeds like garlic mustard race skyward at a pace that could qualify as a spectator sport. This morning, I headed out to do a few things and here it is nine and a half hours later and I am just heading in to write my column, wondering where the day went.

This moment in the garden can make us all feel like we have ADHD. Our to-do lists expand more quickly than the lengthening days. I struggle to keep my mind on the task at hand and go from pulling garlic mustard to removing the dead and damaged twigs of a spirea just breaking bud and wonder how I will get it all done. Knowing that I will go from task to task – weeding at a breakneck pace that is facilitated by the sharp edge of my Japanese hand hoe, pruning out a few branches of a false cypress to let a little light reach the plants that sit beneath it, and then edging the bed with a straight-edged shovel to give the area a finished appearance, I bring a cart over with me with all of the tools that I may need – in an effort to be as efficient as possible. Of course, I end up leaving tools behind as I switch tasks and spend more time searching for my new Okatsune bypass pruners than pulling weeds. (I converted from Felco secateurs to these Japanese pruners and will never look back – they are the best).

In stepping into a new area of the garden, one does not see a great difference in how that area is being cared for compared to the previous area.

I like finishing one area of the garden at a time, as it allows me to check that off my to-do list. Sometimes the real pleasure of gardening on certain days is not being outside and observing the world around me but, sadly, checking off an item on my to-do list. Recently, however, Krista Adams, head gardener at Hollister House Garden, shared a different approach to getting the garden in shape that I think makes more sense. Because she is working on a garden that is visited by the public, she wants the garden to look like it is being cared for at the same level throughout. She once told me that if one bed looked pristine, and the next border was untouched, the garden as a whole appears unkempt. With this in mind, she does a once-over of the garden with whatever task she is taking on. This may involve removing the largest and most noticeable weeds, or deadheading flowers that have passed – or edging the beds. By doing it in a sweeping manner, she meets my need because she can cross a task off her list, but she also leaves the garden feeling uniformly cared for. I think this approach makes a lot of sense. After all, if one bed is tightly edged with crisp lines delineating it from the lawn, doesn’t the unedged border across from it appear neglected. It is the equivalent of combing the hair on one half of your head – which it is never a good look.

A garden can feel orderly without every task at hand having been accomplished.

I have decided to embrace her approach in a general sense – pulling celandine and garlic mustard, then passing through for smaller weeds. I allow myself to go off task on occasion—removing the dead twigs from an oakleaf hydrangea feels like a break in the project at hand and gives the afternoon some variety. I was concerned that I would find this approach leaving me feeling like nothing was complete but, interestingly, it is allowing me to see progress across the board, to be less focused on crossing a task off my list, and more focused on looking at the landscape that surrounds me as it slowly comes into some semblance of order. And if I go on about this too much, blame it on the zeal of a convert.

Another view of the gardens at Hollister House shows the variety of plantings there.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

 

 

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