Previous generations have portrayed the gardener as an earnest, earthy person, full of wisdom. When I was growing up in the seventies that person was personified on television by Mr. Green Jeans, Captain Kangaroo’s sidekick. He was the calm, reasonable one of the duo. Always clad in green overalls, he taught us about plants and animals. In my family the gardener was my great-grandmother, Jane Asher, who grew up in a sod house on the Kansas plains. A woman of few words, she was always nose to the ground, tending her vegetables. Before I started gardening I always thought of a gardener as someone who was old for their years and who seemed more comfortable with plants than people. I have come to learn that my childhood image of the gardener is a myth and that reality is something quite different. As it turns out, gardening is a competitive sport.
When I first began to garden I was overwhelmed with all the plant names I needed to learn, and also clueless about which plants were woody, perennial or annual. Once I got a firm footing with all the different varieties and started to grow them, I began to notice competitive feelings that snuck up on me during conversations with my gardening friends. I couldn’t admit that I was jealous of their rare plants or their knowledge in an area in which I still felt insecure. I found myself trying to top that person with examples of my favorite plants. I never felt good doing this, it felt like I had lost something because of their knowledge or experience. It was hideous.
Not all encounters were like this. Many more of the exchanges were about learning something and this required that I open myself up and that it was okay not knowing. At these moments I felt an intimacy that I never felt when I was showing off. During those early years I collected friends who I perceived were more knowledgeable than myself. There was an imbalance in the relationships and I was always the one who was being taught something. In a healthy relationship there is a mutual exchange of knowing and not knowing, although in my experience there is never a complete balance.
The irony of all this is that part of my attraction to gardening was that I perceived gardeners as being less competitive people than were those in the art world I had left. Even though I still want to believe this I don’t think it is true. People mask their aggression and feelings of competition. Certain professions encourage competition and it’s worn on the sleeve; other professions pretend it doesn’t exist.
Although gardeners’ displays of competition may not appear blatant — unlike that of pro tennis players, for example — I have witnessed one-upmanship behavior that is hardly subtle. When I complimented a gardening friend on her wild meadow of oxeye daisy she replied, “Yes, the Chrysantheum leucanthemum are quite wonderful.” And so I praised her Rhus cotinus, and she responded, “Yes, I love the smoketree too.” As if it isn’t hard enough trying to succeed in spite of all the obstacles put in our way then we have to get into these little power struggles. Don’t be fooled by false modesty, or when the gardener uses common names instead of Latin ones. Gardeners are very good at appearing humble. Their appearance can fool you because they often look more like tumbleweeds than like people.
Gardeners are complicated. Look at Martha Stewart: she may not appear like someone who has spread muck or weeded, but she has served time. Long gone is the reliable head gardener of the manor house who was the embodiment of goodness. He knew his position and kept it all under wraps. Today’s gardeners openly display envy, jealously and greed, just like everyone else. We gardeners also like to speculate. I want plants that my friends have never heard of or seen. I search rare plant catalogues every winter, desiring the latest plant introductions, and I’m willing to pay three times the price when I know that in another season every nursery will have the same plant at a fraction of the price.
A few years ago I attended a garden tour in upstate New York. One woman’s garden featured, in a sea of mowed lawn, several large, oval planting beds surrounded by an 8-foot deer-proof fence. She had us gather round to peer inside the fence at her flowering perennials while she made a little speech about her garden. She explained that her garden was inspired by Sissinghurst, but I thought it looked more like a state penitentiary for plants than a world-renowned English garden. Her moment of grandiosity was probably to cover up her loss of control; there were, after all, over 50 people in her garden. How frightening. I have observed similar moments of grandiosity in myself and I always hate myself later. If only I could admit its okay to feel overwhelmed, anxious and insecure, and that these feeling will pass. But, instead, I make pathetic attempts at elevating my damaged self.
I wonder what Freud would have said about how gardeners spend their time? We are a strange breed, flipping as we do between our sadistic and our masochistic tendencies. What other profession spends so much time on its knees, weeding, pinching back, tying up, tying down, deadheading, digging, splitting, pruning, raking, staking, and lopping off. We sound more like groupies of the Marquis de Sade. We know it is for the betterment of the plant that we cut, control and shape, but isn’t it also that we desire order and control over the living organisms that are so dependent on us? Doesn’t this same need to shape and control spill over into our relationships?
The other side of the coin of sadism is masochism. The downside is that the object of our love — our gardens — gives us so much pain. We are up against so many obstacles: woodchucks, moles, deer, pests, the family pet, storms, and drought, to name a few. The jackmanni clematis that overtook the shed and produced heavy blossom gave joy for three carefree summers and then suddenly succumbed to wilt. After the shock and disappointment subsides, a real gardener will find pruning shears and cut the plant down to the ground. The more the gardener confronts these disasters head on, the more decisive he/she becomes at the inevitable task of handling so much heartache.
Having taken the gardener off the pedestal and brushing away the false veneer of modesty, its time we see the gardener as the complicated neurotic that he is. The gardener is not satisfied by the world as it is. Like the artist, he desires to be a creator. The deep need to create paradise is paramount. With such high expectations it’s no wonder failure is close at hand. In the end it’s the mistakes that inform and make our gardens. Perhaps the unmasking of our competitive feelings can tell us more about who we really are and set us free from our ideas of perfection. And in the end we may find some joy from all of our labor.