No pain, no gain



The same people who hire garden coaches or designers and then hate them for not performing miracles probably also write letters like this (New York Times, 1/10/08) :

Q. I’ve gardened for many years on a Manhattan rooftop and have never bought a perennial. Can you recommend any that would survive winters in 16-inch pots, wouldn’t become pot-bound, have a long flowering season and need no care beyond watering and fertilizing (for example, deadheading)?

A. Why not go for broke and ask that they also play the “Ode to Joy” every morning?

Of course, after her initial snappy retort (and who could blame her) the Times columnist goes to answer the question very nicely, but whether this letter is for real or not, I know a lot of would-be garden owners who will never realize that the domestic landscape of their dreams isn’t going to happen without their participation. Even those wealthy enough to contract everything out often end up changing all of it on a regular basic. It’s never looks quite right. My garden doesn’t look right either, but I think I tend to be more satisfied because I am seeing a visible result of my efforts. That makes it easier to turn a blind eye to the unsatisfactory parts.

Imagine a letter like this:

Q. I’d like to lose 20 lbs. However, I’d much rather not diet, and don’t have time to exercise. Please advise.

A. Huh? Call me when the drugs wear off.

Most domestic endeavors—be they gourmet cooking, home renovation, or car repair—can’t be mastered without effort and some research. Why should having a nice garden—whatever your definition of that—be different? I go along with the sensible advice offered by Linda Brazill in Madison’s Capitol Times today:

Ultimately you learn best by doing something yourself. Mistakes and failures are part of that process and one of the ways you learn. Gardening, like many arts, is about the process, not the product. Sure, we all have a dream garden that we’re trying to create, but I’ve found that it’s the time spent working in the garden that is most satisfying. It’s the experience one remembers, not the expectations.

If you’re looking for a low-maintenance garden, consider a different avocation. It’s the maintenance—the weeding, watering and working with the plants—that gardening is all about. If someone else does the designing, planting and all the work to keep it looking good, it’s still a garden—just not your garden.

My thoughts exactly.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. This is the challenge of the modern independent garden center. We get people like the lady mentioned all the time. They come to us because they don’t get a sympathetic ear at the chain stores in most cases. After all its generally the chains that have built their business on the idea that you just put plants in and if they don’t make it return them. In many cases is falls to the honest nurseryperson to explain the difficulty of their request, all the while trying to come up with a solution to their quandary. This is no easy task on a busy spring day.

    This really gets to the core of the independent garden centers modern dilemma. You have many people who have come to expect instant results with no fuss. Whether thats realistic or not doesn’t matter. Its what it is. So imagine trying to educate this lady all the while trying to come as close to her request as possible, because if it starts to become to much of a hassle she is going to bolt for the door.

    Thats why blogs are such a good resource, because the writers don’t generally sugar coat the gardening experience so as to sell more. The magazines and some television shows tend to make everything appear easy, since that sells. Just like dieting, the easier it seems the more it sells. Gardening like dieting takes a bit of commitment to the long haul, and as we all know thats not very “trendy”, but oh so much more rewarding.

  2. That’s my take on gardening–if you want carefree color, you use paint and silk/plastic plants. If you want to Garden, you accept that there is dirt and effort involved. You might even like the dirt and the effort 🙂

  3. Love those answers, both yours, Elizabeth, and the columnist’s initial response. I’ll bet it felt oh so good for her to get that out.

    I had similar experiences, Trev, when I worked at an independent nursery a decade ago. While most of my customers were enjoyable – I had many repeat customers whom I was happy to see return time and again – I had the occasional customer who decidedly tested my patience. Most of the time I was able to attain a small measure of success, but there was one couple that was a complete bust. He wanted “no maintenance,” words that send shivers up any nursery person’s spine. I showed him plant after plant that required very little fuss or muss but none were satisfactory. The wife was as exasperated as I was. Finally, I lost it and gave some rather flippant response (I think it was the “even concrete and silk flowers need sweeping and dusting” retort). They left without purchasing anything but I doubt he arrived with the intention to purchase. The sale was lost before he walked in the gate.

    A new trend in our area is to present a completely planted container, ready to go for the hurried consumer. It’s like a pre-assembled, pre-cooked meal and it’s received a fair amount of success from what I hear. It suits the group of consumers who are in the “do it for me” camp or for those who are new to gardening and overwhelmed by choices.

    And please keep telling us the good and bad sides of plants. Too much praise makes me suspicious.

  4. As a gardening newbie/mentee, I admit I went through a phrase of dreaming of low maintenance plants, but once I actually got my hands/pants/shoes dirty, I realized that the “maintenance” was the whole point. My background is in the arts, so I’m totally down with process over finished product. Gardening shouldn’t be a chore; if I still saw it as one, I wouldn’t bother. My life was already full enough before I added plants into the mix.

    I was also intimidated at first by the prospect of making mistakes–so it was tremendously inspiring to learn (through conversation with gardeners, and through reading blogs like GW and GWI) that everyone makes them, and that almost any no-no can pretty easily be undone. (I love the way that, if a plant dies, you can simply compost it!) Went through the same learning curve with computers when they first entered my life, too: once I learned that nothing will blow up, I was able to relax, have fun, and really start learning.

    in fact, the best teachers I’ve ever had, in all fields, have been the ones who (after convincing me of their expertise) have spoken the most honestly about making mistakes of their own, admitted their shortcomings, etc.

  5. Astro-turf? Nah, even that needs regular sweeping and cleaning so it doesn’t get too nasty.
    Seriously, what happened to enjoying the DOING of things whatever the imperfect results? It is the experience that we will remember a decade from now, not the few days of picture-perfect blooming gardens.

  6. I guess my first question to the person who said that they had been gardening for many years on a Manhatten rooftop but had never grown a perennial would be what had they been growing in their rooftop garden. Cacti? Tropicals? Shrubs, trees, annuals from seed or transplants? And,secondly, why the need to change to perennials in the presumption that they are lower maintenance. It feels like we only got half the information in the quoted question. Yes, I know there are always people who want something for no effort, and people who have glossy expectations, and people who just ask dumb questions but for the two latter categories maybe it is just ignorance. Unlike us bookworm bloggers, the average number of books read each year by our citizenry leads me to believe that most of them would not think of turning to a gardening book for information.

  7. Gardens are truly places to see your dreams become a reality and your hopes dashed! i think i have become better at life since i’ve been a gardener.
    And everyone who gardens should read through the henry mitchell collections of his gardening columns from the washington post .
    i have learned to enjoy the bloom of whatever is bloomomg for however long it blooms ( thanks to reading henry)and have stopped trying to get everything to bloom in ‘magazine like perfection.

  8. I wonder what we do with all the time we save by not planting and weeding, in our garden, or even our pots. I am also the librarian at a tiny rural library and recently learned that book distributors now offer libraries preselected book orders. Librarians don’t have to waste their time choosing. Presumably only really big libraries would find this a convenience and would only use the selections as part of their buy, but still … I was happy to reply to a patron who asked who chose all the good books? I DO! I do all the weeding and picking in my garden too.

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