What’s wrong with this picture?
Yes, I see it too.
The white chrysanthemum draws too much attention to itself; it is the gardening equivalent of rusted pickup trucks on the front lawn. Okay, I exaggerate. But true, it does announce itself with excessive aplomb. It fails to relate to or converse with any part of the garden, or with the surrounding environs (unlike the white chrysanthemum in the front garden, engaged as it were in an intimate tête-à-tête with the Variegated Siberian Iris and harvest gold mum). My harsher critic will enthusiastically add that the others do not engage as well. While I grant the criticism of the placement of the white chrysanthemum, I defend my choices with regard to those others: there is a conversation between the burgundy and harvest gold chrysanthemums and the wider autumn landscape. Even if their hues are the vocal equivalent of a scream, they do speak the vernacular of this week’s peak foliage.
Some would no doubt call that white mum a mistake, and certainly my harsh inner critic (ask my students; that critic is alive and well) has already chastised me. But in gardening, there are few mistakes. Honestly. Really. And I do not write that as thinly veiled self-defense.
Take for instance an article in Real Simple which featured an article on avoiding its readers’ “top 10 gardening mistakes.” The list includes: (1) planting a garden in “the wrong spot” (the article failed to convey a proper meaning of this; it seems the problem addressed in the article was a drainage one, not a ‘gardening in a wrong spot’ issue); (2) accidentally pulling flowers instead of weeds (RS’s solution—GASP—use the nursery tags to identify plants...so cliche and utterly tacky); (3) not preparing the soil (RS’s solution: add organic compost); (4) over-watering (yes, a mistake, but an easily remedied one); (5) planting an invasive variety (my solution: rip it out if it bothers you); (6) not taking wildlife into account (RS’s solution: install a fence and keep wildlife out; no mention was made of planting bulbs—a delicacy for squirrels and other rodents—deeper, which actually has the effect of prolonging the life of the bulb); (7) not giving plants enough sun (the focus is completely improper on this one, as if the gardener has any control on how much sun a plant receives; the gardener’s job is to plant the appropriate plant in a given spot—and thus to do some research prior to embarking on a gardening venture); (8) spreading too many seeds (again, rip out the excess); (9) using too much pesticide (here, the article gives useful advice: use a mixture of hot water and vinegar instead of deploying chemical weapons); and, finally, (10) planting too close together which, on my view, is the root of #8 and perhaps even of #5, and is definitely a Mistake (with a capital M, and not a mistake of the pedestrian sort like all of these others).
To be fair, drainage and soil quality are critical to the gardening enterprise, and deserve attention—much more than the article gave them. But the other bits relate to common sense, which seems very much in short supply these days. We want answers, and we want them now. There is no problem necessarily in that. But, at the risk of offense, I do see a problem in not thinking. There is a reason why nurseries place those little plastic identity tags in pots: NOT so you can use them in the garden itself (you can, but you run the risk of being scoffed and laughed at behind your back by all those neighbors), but to discern plant needs with respect to sun, soil, moisture, and spacing, as well as bloom time. Taking 45 seconds to read the plastic tag will eliminate all of the problems with the possible exception of #6 (some of those little plastic diddies will actually note “deer resistant”).
See? There are few mistakes in gardening. Just as we can rely on those plastic tags, I can move my white chrysanthemum; mistakes, schmistakes.
But there are Mistakes, and mistake #10 gets at what I mean. I identify two. The first involves planting trees and shrubs too close together or to houses and other structures. I do not include most other plants in this brief list, because moving them is an easy affair. This Mistake only becomes apparent after the plants are too large to move, and after the only remedy involves use of a hacksaw or a bulldozer.
Curiously, the first Mistake is actually driven by the second: failing to realistically plan.
True, we are overcome with fantasy and lust, desire and urges. We actually do plan, but our plan is a figment of a conceptual imagination gone awry. We envision garden rooms differentiated by live-walls of boxwood or shrubs; we envision a lush, mature garden. And then we act on the image by planting the architectural core plants too close together, or too close to the house, because the space between young plants is unseemly, unbecoming, nay, amateurish. We seek to hasten our future images not with a dose of realism but with the immediacy of delusion. We fail, in short, to account for overcrowding, diminished sunshine as a result of overcrowding, foliage damage, damage caused by roots, and the like.
These are real Mistakes: real because they are almost irremediable.
The others: well…those are mistakes of the garden variety, so to speak.