published in Flower and Garden
reprint rights available
What’s Your Gardening Style?
My daughter recently bought a new house with a weedy, rock-strewn back yard. Since I’m the only obsessive gardener she knows, she called me for advice. I gave her my three standard start-from-scratch tips: have the soil tested, make a diagram of the sun/shade pattern, and take “drainage” notes after the first major rainfall. Then I asked her what I consider to be a crucial, but often overlooked question, “What kind of gardener do you want to be?” She had no idea. Unfortunately, many seasoned gardeners don’t either.
Each of us has a gardening “style”. It’s a way of working that suits our personality and brings us joy, instead of frustration. It’s my belief that an understanding of your gardening style will benefit you in these ways:
· It will increase your enjoyment of gardening. How often have you seen a picture in a magazine and said “I wish my garden looked like that?” Are you sure? Does the picture really match the time and effort you want to put into gardening? You can enjoy your own garden more if you rid yourself of guilt, and try to meet your own needs. I would advise my daughter to design a garden very different from my own because the amount of time and effort required to maintain my garden doesn’t fit her lifestyle.
· It will make shopping and planning easier. Once you understand your gardening style, you’ll make better choices. If you realize you like a tidy garden you can avoid messy, sprawling plants. If you want efficiency and independence, you won’t buy a plant that requires frequent attention.
· It will enable you to give better advice. Trying to help a novice gardener get started can be frustrating for both of you if you have contrasting styles. You’ll have better luck if you ask the right questions first.
· It will help you select catalogs and gardening magazines to fit your needs. There are dozens of magazines and catalogs available. In this age of specialization, it makes sense to choose the publications that offer you the best advice for you particular style.
While you may not wholly agree with my descriptions of the various styles, I think they cover the basics:
Farmers. Many of these gardeners actually were farmers or grew up on farms and they use the same methods in their home gardens. My father is a typical farmer gardener. His garden is tidy and clean. Everything is planted in rows and weeds are judiciously eradicated. The only good bug is a dead one. Most farmers own a tiller, shredder, tractor, or other major power tool. Their primary concern is the production of the crop- whether it’s flowers, seeds, or vegetables. Farmers enjoy annuals, vegetables, and fruit trees.
Breeders. Breeders are usually “one plant” gardeners. While they enjoy planting a few other flowers, their primary joy is the growing, propagating, sharing, and showing of one particular plant. Breeders most often grow roses, daylilies, irises, orchids, cacti, bonsai, or dahlias. They form groups, societies, clubs, associations, and exchanges. They love to share information and help novice breeders get started. They strive to create the perfect growing conditions for their particular plant and to develop new varieties.
Landscapers. These gardeners are often professionals. Their task is to create a “setting” or backdrop for a home, and then leave it alone. They use words like balance, effect, mood, color harmony, and minimal maintenance. Their favorite plants are perennials and evergreens plus a few annual bedding plants. They also like patios, walkways, barks, mulches, edgings, and statues. Like farmers, they have little tolerance for anything, whether growing or crawling, that interferes with their plans.
Artists. Artists are gardeners of necessity. They are painters, illustrators, photographers, and designers who grow their own “still lifes” and landscapes. What they grow usually depends on their artistic style, but most eventually become “collectors” or “nature lovers”.
Collectors. This is the gardener who tries anything and everything. If it lives, it stays in the garden. “Cottage gardens” are usually the works of collectors. In a collector’s garden you’ll find annual, perennials, evergreens, bulbs, trees, shrubs, vines, and even a cactus or two. Collectors like to visit other gardens and borrow plants and ideas. They like to experiment and dabble. Collectors allow a few weeds to grow here and there, and they generally tolerate a select group of beneficial insects. They seldom own power tools because they enjoy the crowded, unkempt look of twin vines and drooping limbs.
Nature lovers. Most nature lovers become gardeners quite by accident. I became a gardener because I wanted to encourage birds, butterflies, and other creatures to wander across my yard. Besides, I hate to be indoors and I figured if I was going to stay outside four or five hours a day, I’d better be doing something or the neighbors would question my actions and my sanity. Once I stared digging, I was hooked.
Nature lovers grow whatever their local creatures enjoy, plus, like the collector, anything that doesn’t die. My yard is filled with wildflowers, berry-producing vines, annuals, perennials, roses, irises, lilies, cedars, clovers, herbs, vegetables, cacti, and weeds. It’s also home to a dozen different birds, droves of insects, tortoises, lizards, armadillos, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, frogs, and an occasional snake.
Nature lovers seldom own power tools because they make too much noise, and they accomplish too much, too quickly. Nature lovers like to dawdle and putter.
Further examination of these styles will glean two contrasting reasons for gardening:
1. Product. Farmers, breeders, and landscapers like the product they are producing, and seek to produce it quickly, efficiently, and correctly. They prefer clean gardens, devoid of weeds and insects. They like machines, herbicides, insecticides, mulches, and fertilizers. They like to share their abundant crops with friends and neighbors.
2. Process. Artists, collectors, and nature lovers like the process of gardening. They garden because they like the feel of the earth and the smell of the flowers and the sound of birds singing. They have varying degrees of tolerance, but in general their gardens are unkempt, cluttered, and inhabited by a host of creatures. They prefer to be outside, so they tolerate the extra time and effort required by hand tools. They pull weeds instead of spraying. They let the birds take care of insects. They welcome visitors, but love to be alone in their gardens to work and wander and enjoy.
I try not to make value judgments about other peoples’ gardens, although it’s evident that I’ve given considerable thought to my own preferences. There is room in the neighborhood for every gardening style. However, tolerance and understanding are based on knowledge. I know when my father visits my garden he will point out several weeds which I have “surely overlooked”, and when I visit his garden I will cringe at the sight of gladioli in rows. Each of us has to do what comes naturally. Appreciate your own style, and enjoy your garden!