Down To Earth

Capturing the garden's perfect imperfection

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Spending snow days paging through garden magazines or scrolling pinterest never fails to make me feel inadequate and envious. That can’t be intentional. Photos chosen for publication, and shared ad infinitum on the internet are surely meant to inspire, not demoralize. And yet.


The pictures I linger over longest, the ones I dog ear and “pin”, depict perfection. A moment in time (almost always dawn) when everything is in bloom (almost always June), growing together but not on top of each other. The colors complement and textural contrasts are sharply defined. No leaf is yellowing, spotted, or out of place. There are no pests or fungal diseases. Nothing needs watering. The wind never blows a gale and no dog has chased a squirrel through the border or dug a crater in the middle of it. Nothing is dying an untimely death or being overtaken by weeds. There are no weeds at all. Nor are there snaking hoses or leaning stacks of nursery pots piled up on the porch steps.


They’re nothing like the pictures I have taken of my own garden even at its best. My lens finds every power line and parked car I don’t notice without it. I capture a lawn that needs mowing and at least one gigantic weed whenever I aim at otherwise passable plant combinations. I see drought in the harsh light of my midday pictures and a destructive (but adorable) dog. Mold on the vinyl siding and every container plant that fails to thrive have been inadvertently recorded and subsequently deleted. I have ended up deleting most of my photos—almost all but the tightest close ups—and hardly took any last year. A disappointment now that I want to look back and plan for next season.


Clearly the biggest change I need to make is to my own outlook. I don’t expect my living room to be worthy of a magazine spread. Why should my garden be any different? I’m not talking about lowering my expectations exactly. My neighbors might be skeptical but I’m not inclined to let my garden “go”. My goal is to accept its limitations, enjoy it as it is, and to use more reasonable benchmarks for comparison and critique. Is it welcoming? Can I be at peace in it?


The Japanese tradition of wabi-sabi is right up my alley. Wabi-sabi is as difficult to translate as the Danish concept of hygge but may be loosely defined as the art and celebration of imperfection and impermanence. It takes the pressure off and opens the gate even wider to nature. Thanks to Doug Tallamy and his book "Bringing Nature Home", I had already started to measure success by how many holes appear in leaves. After all, everybody’s gotta eat and that’s what plants are for. Rather than being offended by critters that taste test the vegetable patch like it’s a Whitman’s Sampler, we might see every abandoned snack as evidence of a hawk hovering overhead, a predator ready to pounce, or Mr. McGregor’s screen door banging shut. Take a mental snapshot of nature at work and harvest the leftovers. Some years too little rain falls. Sometimes plants die. Rough or smooth, chipped or whole, there’s beauty in it.


Whatever isn’t wabi-sabi and prevents me from feeling peaceful, or whatever doesn’t spark Joy as Marie Kondo, author of "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up", has it, like those leaning towers of nursery pots, should be moved out of the picture’s frame. An attainable goal even for me. I can’t do much about parked cars and power lines except practice acceptance. And to remember that as long as nature and I feel at home in my garden, as long as my friends are welcome, photographs will never do it justice.

Kristin Green is the horticulturist at Mount Hope Farm and author of 'Plantiful: Start Small, Grow Big with 150 Plants that Spread, Self-Sow, and Overwinter'. Follow her blog at trenchmanicure.com.

Kristin Green

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