Thursday, April 5, 2012

Spring Fever: The Latter Phase

My spring mania is finally tempering, and fortunately, I did not hurt anyone in a plant-induced craze. Except my wallet, of course. My house still looks a band of maraudering garden pirates attacked it--seed packets are still strewn all over the house; my bedside table is a precarious stack of plant catalogues and garden books; and you can follow the trail of dirt-covered shovels, trowels, and soup spoons from the bedroom to the back door—which remains permanently open in the last few weeks.

Now that my frothing-at-the-mouth phase has passed, it has been replaced with a feeling of contempt and self-loathing for every plant combination I’ve ever thought of. I read somewhere that fits of mania are often followed by depression. My ten-month old garden is looking better than it has in its short life. But not to me. My poor wife has to deal with sweeping declarations like, “Everything must go,” or “It’s all wrong! I need a blank slate!” I keep sitting her down to have serious conversations. While she mentally prepares to talk about finances or some major life decision, I say, “Really, what should we do about that hole between the Pycnanthemum and the Symphotrichum?” She rolls her eyes and walks away from the table. “She’s just not taking this seriously enough," I mutter to myself. I head outside to transplant a group of Penstemons I’ve already moved four times this month.

Is dissatisfaction healthy for gardening? A critical eye may indeed be the impetus for constructive change; but constant editing prevents a garden from establishing. Each year, I design planting plans for anywhere from eight to thirty sites. I think about planting design when I shower in the morning and when I close my eyes at night. I write about it. I teach it. But the one constant is the realization that doing good planting design is hard. It’s damn hard. When I imagine a garden in my head, it rarely looks like that in reality. Most of the time, I find this to be disappointing. Sometimes this discrepancy is good. Some of my better designed garden moments are, in all honesty, serendipitous.

That is exactly why I’m so fascinated with design. The challenge never ends. Maybe it will take me another four decades before I get good at this. That’s ok. Maybe I never will be satisfied. In my better moments, my disappointments propel me to make the next garden better. But with garden-making, at least I feel like I’ve found a worthy opponent. One that I will wrestle with to the very end.


  1. Thomas, the reality is that you are an artist! Your preoccupation with design is your heart trying to compose that "perfect" painting. Of course, in your case, the artwork is a living canvas that changes daily. Like all great artists there is a lot of angst going on inside you. Try to enjoy the process, the little triumphs, the occasional wrong choice of materials or color. It's all a part of that composition. And I know it will be beautiful.

  2. Let’s get ready for spring, guys! I bet many gardeners out there are looking forward to seeing lovely blooms… I sure am because the theme I thought up for my upcoming birthday is a garden party. Good thing I was born in spring. Thanks for these pro ideas, Thomas. These can add up to my plan as well. ;)

  3. I am heartened to see that even great planting designers like you have disappointments and moments of self-doubt. This makes me feel less stupid for trying to plant a Piet Oudolf style meadow in a smallish, part-shade bed a few years ago. It was the first time I'd sketched out a planting plan and actually planted it. I put all this thought and planning into it and it totally bombed, mostly because I'd not paid enough attention to the site. Duh! Of course, Oudolf himself could probably have pulled it off, damn him.

    Anyway, don't cut off your ear or anything. Your loyal followers need you to maintain your sanity!

  4. I second Anonymous's suggestion: Try to enjoy the process! I can think of far worse obsessions. Even if wives, husbands and partners don't understand, there are plenty of us out here who do. And be glad you've still got holes left to fill. I've run out of room and have started eyeing the neighbor's neglected garden.

  5. This hit home so well that I had a really good laugh. Why is it that we can design for others, but when it comes to our own we go all insecure? Or as you say, opt for constant change and questioning as to whether something could be better.

    When designing an area of my own backyard recently, I must have re-designed it many times...and even with that, I find myself adding things.

    Maybe it is because we are constantly looking at it, examining with a designer's eye and so on?

    I also agree with the difficulty of designs actually becoming the visions. That is why it is so important to be there, to tweak, to adjust and also, as you insightfully mentioned, having a little serendipity!

  6. I read somewhere that the most significant parts of Mozart's music are the silences. Perhaps an exaggeration but important nonetheless. I think we all suffer spring crazies!

  7. Thomas, I always enjoy your posts, I am a huge fan, and I believe in your abialities supremely; you can design your home garden!! But I had to LOL! when I read this,I can sooo relate! As an Architectural Color Specialist, you'd think I could choose paint color for my 850 s/f bungalow, wouldn't ya? WEll, it's been months of pondering now, color swatches galore!

    Sharing this dilemma with a client recently in a sort of "I know what you're feeling" kind'a way, she responded thusly:
    "That is why lumberjacks don't sleep in th woods."
    Which has now been added into my list of 'Suitable Sayings in a Pinch'
    So, dear man, I KNOW what you're feelin'! ;)

  8. Firstly, just a really funny post; a gardener’s sit-com episode played out in my head.
    I agree with Mary Gray, it's reassuring to read that your process is sometimes manic and all-consuming. I get the same way with most of my creative projects; so many possibilities to wrestle through to get it “right”- a vision in my head that continually changes seeking drama and balance. these periods are invigorating (manic)…and inherently creates seclusion.

  9. What a delightful and funny "Spring Fever" series. Thank you! The end of this latest post resonates with me in this Easter season...especially with the open-ended nature of Mark's version of the story. Disappointment, alarm, dissatistaction, fear, silence propelling us into a future that is sure to be surprising and beautiful! The "serendipity" (grace?) of the proudest moments of creation have always been the most humbling and powerful in my experience.

    And, I totally agree with Cyndi K.--really funny--I like the idea of "a gardener's sit-com episode." hee hee...

  10. Your post reminds me of a photography class I'm taking. The teacher -- a world-class pro -- constantly tries things and changes his mind about details, during shooting and editing every picture. Why? Each shot is new; it hasn't been done before. There's no roadmap, no way to know answers ahead of time. So, back to gardening: your "editing" makes total sense to me, with your being a designer. I'll bet your garden will be GREAT!

  11. Complacency breeds mediocrity! Keep on designing, rearranging, and editing until your heart's content. Rock on dude.

  12. That is normal, for anyone who cares! Maybe step back away from it, and look at some gardens you really like, then return with a fresh mind. (at least it sounds good...maybe I need to pull some weeds, too)

    "It's all wrong"...ha ha!

  13. There is little more I appreciate than a person's hardcore enthusiasm about any subject.

  14. Oh, I completely hear what you're saying. So often I visualize the perfect color combination, and then the plants have the nerve to bloom at different times - maybe just a little off. But it's all part of the fun!

  15. Thomas, I'm a bit late catching up with this; but you can count me among the amateur garden designers who found it reassuring that professionals also have these doubts. Interestingly, though, I usually wait until year 2 or 3 to start moving things around; I assume that any new garden is going to have an awkward adolescent look in the first year. It's probably easier for me to wait through the gawky, adolescent stage, though, both because my professional self-esteem isn't on the line and because I often benefit from amateur's serendipity -- combinations I didn't see in my mind's eye that actually look much better than I imagined. Good luck with your garden. -Jean


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