Kernels of Knowledge

by Allan Armitage

I love to talk with people who are just dipping their big toes into the gardening pond. People like my daughters, Laura and Heather, young mothers with small children, no money, and no time. People like my students who take the kernels of gardening knowledge that I pass along and cultivate them. People whose imaginations are only limited by time and money. These are the people who must be encouraged.

I bet if I asked 500 gardeners to describe why they garden, I would hear the same words gardeners used 20 years ago: creativity, excitement, and therapeutic value. Creativity occurs every time you place plants in the soil; and playing in that soil is therapeutic. And yes, gardening is exciting. Maybe it?s not NASCAR exciting, but we are a simple lot and prefer watching plants rather than cars going around in circles.

One of the things I learned after years of talking with gardeners is this: There are sore gardeners, keen gardeners, and broke gardeners, but there is no such thing as an old gardener. The Fountain of Youth resides in all gardeners. It is impossible to get old when you look to the future, and that?s what gardeners do. We garden as if the passing of the years means nothing. Why else do we plant saplings that eventually provide shade or fall bulbs if not to look forward to spring? Why do we believe catalog pictures, if not for our faith in future beauty? If there was but one banner that best describes what gardeners say, it would be: ?Wait until Next Year!?.

There are gardeners, however, I have found best to avoid. Heaven help you when you meet someone who wants to correct your pronunciation. Does it really matter if you say pan-ic-ew-LAY-ta or pan-ic-ew-LAH-ta? And who cares if you say CLEM-a-tis instead of cle-MAT-is? I say get the syllables in the right order and fire away. Such linguists have too much time on their hands and should garden more.

I also run for the hills when plant snobs show up ? people who won?t grow annuals, live for a certain genus, or believe only native plants should be in gardens. I dislike rose gardens, but I love roses and simply believe they are best combined with other plants. Let?s be gardeners, not associations.

Nor do I have patience with people who advise me that my garden is not well designed. I don?t have the discipline to stay with any design ? there are simply too many plants to try. My philosophy finds me with a plant in one hand and a trowel in the other, looking for a place to plant the sucker. Although I am not capable of practicing it, I love good design ? like the famous comment about pornography: ?I can?t define it, but I recognize it when I see it.? And my garden is just fine, thank you.

The most important thing about gardening is to never take it seriously. There is no such thing as the perfect garden or a finished garden. It will always be a work in progress, with beautiful gems and blemished rocks. But if you enjoy your garden, that?s what counts.You?ll never get rid of every weed, disease, or bug, and if a plant is always infected or eaten, throw it in the compost heap; there are many other beauties waiting. Gardening is frustrating enough when it snows in April or floods in August, so why put in plants that make it tougher?

This love of gardening is wonderful, but we have to put it in perspective. Gardening is not brain surgery. No matter how many plants we kill, look at the resulting bare spaces as opportunities to plant something new.

Don?t garden so hard that you never enjoy it. Believe it or not, benches are not only there for ornamental value. Sit down, savor your wine or julep, and take a deep breath. And last, remember that enjoyment is self-sustaining. Like good stem cells, enjoyment multiplies with use. There will be times when you are tired, frustrated, and sore, but overall, the pleasure should always be worth the pain. Get out, have fun, garden with a smile. Life is good when you can play in the dirt.

Allan Armitage is a professor of Horticulture at the University of Georgia, but he travels all over the country talking ? and listening ? to gardeners.

? 2007, The Taunton Press, Inc. Fine Gardening issue #113, January/February 2007.