How Does Your Garden Grow?
I blame Mary Poppins for the fact that it took me a year to plant the deutzia my neighbor Barb gave me last summer. During that time, it lived, miserably, in a plastic pot on the back patio. Every time I passed by it—which was several times a day—I thought, “You really need to get that in the ground.”
But every day, I didn’t. Then summer turned to fall, and fall became winter. The deutzia withered and turned to sticks. I thought I had killed it. Then, this spring, it leafed out. And finally, a month ago, I put it in the ground by the front porch. It happily grew new leaves, then flowered, and I wondered why I had waited so long to give it a home.
Actually, I know why. I wanted to find the perfect place for it. I wanted a spot where it would fit in well with the other plants, and get just the right amount of sunlight, and look fantastic when it was fully grown. None of the spots I considered ever seemed quite right, or I hadn’t decided on what other plants to put there with the deutzia, and so I kept putting it off. By doing so, I nearly destroyed it.
This is not a new experience for me. Since childhood I have been a little obsessed with doing things the “right” way. And I blame Mary Poppins for this. I loved P. L. Travers’ books about the mysterious nanny who was “practically perfect in every way.” I found her approach to life eminently sensible. Order and perfection, clearly, made things easier all the way around.
Except they didn’t. All trying to be perfect did was result in disappointment. When only perfection will do, even the slightest deviation translates into failure. And after enough perceived failures, I would inevitably give up on whatever it was I was trying to do, as I assumed I just wasn’t good at the thing. Whether it was a subject in school (math) or an attempt to play an instrument (French horn, trumpet, drums), if I wasn’t good at it right away, I assumed I never would be.
Ironically, at the same time I somehow came to believe that if I was good at something, it must not be something that was all that difficult to do well. But that’s a whole other thing. Right now, we’re talking about gardens.
We have several gardens on our property. Some were already here when we moved in. Most were not. And each one that we’ve put in was an exercise in fighting this lifelong belief that things have to be perfect. I researched plants. I drew diagrams. I occasionally even bought actual plants. The one thing I did not do was put any of them in the ground.
Finally, a neighbor who has been a landscape gardener for more than half a century said, “Take one of the plants and walk around your property with it. Find a place you think it will look good and plant it.”
“But what if it doesn’t look good there?” I countered. “What if I do it all wrong?”
“Then you change it,” he said. “That’s the whole point of a garden. It changes from season to season and year to year. But you need to start with putting one plant in.”
I eventually took his advice, and gradually gardens formed around those first plants. Now, the bad news is that not a single garden has turned out to be perfect. At least not in any strict sense. But each one is perfect for what it is—a habitat for pollinators, a refuge for snakes, a riot of color that reminds me how wonderful summer can be even though I wilt in its heat.
Given the deutzia incident I mentioned earlier, I clearly haven’t quite gotten over the desire for perfection. Just this morning I agonized over where to put a collection of rue, dill, parsley, and bronze fennel plants I picked up to make a garden for the swallowtail butterflies and their caterpillars. And right now, I’m looking out the window at the bed of milkweed and salvias that runs along the street in front of the house and resisting being annoyed that there are too many purple things and not enough white flowers.
But more and more, I’m learning to just enjoy the act of gardening, the process of planting things and watching them grow. Instead of Mary Poppins, I’m trying to be more like another favorite childhood character, Paddington the bear. Unlike Travers’ nanny, Paddington never had a plan. He floundered through life with marmalade in his fur and joy in his heart, getting into one misadventure after another. He was about as imperfect as it is possible to be, and yet he was always happy.
I don’t know who needs to hear this right now, but I need to hear it pretty much every day: Stop waiting for things to be perfect. Stop worrying about doing everything the right way. Just try it. And if the result isn’t what you hoped for, or what you saw in your head, or what other people have told you it should be, well, maybe if you look more closely at what it is instead of worrying about what it should be, you’ll find out that it’s even better. ▼
Michael Thomas Ford is a much-published Lambda Literary award-winning author. Visit Michael at michaelthomasford.com.