The Rewards of Gardening in Real Time

“Time is the wisest counselor of all.”


I was in my late twenties and living in Scotland when I made my first garden and by the time my wife and I decided to return to the states it had grown in size to a couple of acres. After we left, our cottage was rented to a man who professed to be a gardener, but that did not turn out to be the case and the garden, in large part, went back to the wild. Seeing the “garden” again, years later, was a shock. It was a hard but very valuable lesson to learn: that it’s the journey not the end result that’s important.

I have now been gardening for 24 years and I have a very different attitude towards gardening than when I started. In other areas of my life I am guilty of trying to save time, control time, steal time, or kill time; but I have gardened long enough now to make a truce with time. There is no point in saying, for example, “Oh, but you should have been here last week….” There is no permanence, perhaps especially in a garden.

Spring Green Tulips & foam flower

Since its inception 14 years ago, I have photographed my garden here in the western Catskills, and no two years are the same. Borders change dramatically from year to year. Many plants have disappeared, others have multiplied or escaped and planted themselves, and I have photographs to prove it; a sort of free-for-all!

The wonderful thing about gardening in the spring is that the plants are just beginning to grow and you have a clear vision of each individual plant. Early in the season I have a sense that I am in control of things, but by midsummer the majority of plants have grown into each other. By high summer, I discover well-camouflaged weeds standing 6 to 8 feet tall in the borders. I have no idea how I let this happen, and yet it occurs every year.

Spring borders weeded & mulched

The garden is one of the only things where you can be both in it, making it, and editing it at the same time. While planting a tree I might catch myself fantasizing about the tree as a mature specimen and, thus, place it accordingly. But I no longer feel dissatisfied with the young tree or wish it to be mature already. Gardening has taught me the folly of the idea of perfection and a love of the mysterious pleasure of being with things as they are in real time.

When the clocks leap forward in spring it feels like we have more time on our hands. While removing leaves and debris from the beds, we see life pushing out of the soil; spring bulbs, perennials, as well as buds on the shrubs and trees, show so much promise! But let’s face it: this does not last long. By late spring an intense succession of plants come into bloom one after another and don’t stop until late autumn. With so much change doesn’t it make sense to grab the moment and enjoy what is in front of you?

Donald Wyman crabapple in bloom

Perhaps one of the best aspects about being present in the garden is the way one’s intuitive abilities become sharper and louder. The environmentalist and writer John Hay said, “It would never occur to most of us that ‘plants’ say anything at all, except in terms of what we read into them, or try to use them for. Yet in their responses to this wonderfully rhythmic and varying earth they are the most expressive of all forms of life.” (A Beginner’s Faith in Things Unseen)
     I also believe my plants express what they need if I am ready to “listen” with my eyes. The black-bearded irises “told” me to get rid of the bishop’s weed that’s choking it to death! The lilacs are clearly begging for a little wood ash to be worked into the soil around their feet. Plants, like children’s needs, are quite straightforward. Gardening is perhaps a combination of intuition and action. After a while you just know when it’s time to prune and shape that overgrown shrub. When we slow down and allow the garden to speak that’s when our faith in the process allows magic to happen.

Spring bulb camissia in bloom

As Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, Episcopal priest, spiritual director and author, wrote, “…so much care and feeding. Such competitiveness among the plants — some of them literally choke each other to death if you don’t get out there and put a stop to it. The big gorgeous ones get lots of attention, but then one comes along that looks almost dead all season and suddenly, almost overnight, blooms splendidly forth. Never write anybody off completely. You just don’t know.”
     As I write, I suppose I am thinking about time because I have been cooped up all winter and that does funny things to my sense of time. With the additional daylight comes the ability to break ground and the garden is made again. Ravaged by winter there seem to be a million chores and it’s easy to be caught up in the mad rush of “doing.” I have to remind myself to take a deep breath and see what is ― and to forget about what it should be.

Otto & Ruby Supervising

Daphne “Carol Mackie” in bloom

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4 Responses to The Rewards of Gardening in Real Time

  1. Deborah Banks says:

    That is so true, about feeling so in control of the garden in the spring, and losing that quickly as the garden fills in. I am always in shock to find those stealth weeds that are 5 feet tall in the middle of the bed and unnoticed (until they try to bloom). It’s nice to hear that it happens to you too, but hard to believe – your garden is always so beautiful. I guess this year we’re being reminded rather forcibly even in early spring that we’re not in control even now. The forecast now for tomorrow night is a low of 9 degrees in Oneonta, which means about 4 degrees up here on the hill. Eek! I have delphiniums that are up 4 or 5 inches, a Dr. Merrill magnolia just starting to bloom and even the later ‘Ann’ magnolia is breaking buds. Time for some prayers (and lots of row cover and spruce branches).

    • Don Statham says:

      Hi Deborah
      I am getting the old sheets out & cloth pegs ready to cover my star Magnolias- The Cornus Mas is stunning just now.
      None of my daffodils have flowered which is one good thing. I Can’t cover everything.

  2. Deborah Banks says:

    I notice some blogs today where the commentors are saying their plants just have to tough it out, if they can’t take it, too bad for them. But none of those women are expecting such a severe drop in temps this week. I do have some early daffs now blooming, and leucojum, chinodoxia and scilla. I’m not worried about protecting them; they’ll ultimately be ok. I bundled my blooming primulas in leaves topped by spruce branches yesterday, and want to wrap the magnolias, roses (they’re leafed out!) and daylilies (8 to 10 inches tall already!) this evening. And then I just need to go inside and plant seed trays or something, to distract myself.

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